Mariano and Co. pace Majors' top bullpens
Yanks, Braves, Giants head into season with best relief corps
Valentine's Day doesn't classify as a particularly appropriate day to discuss bullpens.Let's face it. If you're a fan of a Major League ballclub, your relationship with individual relievers is rarely long-lasting (though the Mariano Rivera exception obviously applies), and you are quite often quick to curse them out when they blow a lead. It can be a toxic relationship. Not very lovey-dovey. And as hard as it is to fall in love with bullpens, it's even more difficult to rank them. They're too unpredictable. Just when you think you've found a bullpen you can settle down with, it starts fooling around with blown saves behind your back. Anyway, regardless of the disconnect between romantic hearts and random relievers, this week's rankings must go on. And after ranking the top 10 rotations on Monday, we continue now with the top 10 bullpens in baseball. As with all things relief, this list is very much subject to change: 10. Tigers: One of these days, Jose Valverde is going to blow a save. But he was 49-for-49 last year, and there's no reason to believe he won't again be one of the game's best closers. Detroit has also added Octavio Dotel for right-on-right matchups, and he'll assist Joaquin Benoit in setup situations. Benoit had a rough start last year but had a 1.36 ERA and .168 average against from May 20 onward. This unit would have ranked higher, but losing Al Alburquerque for the first half because of elbow surgery was a blow. The Tigers pondered other relief options on the market until the Victor Martinez injury and subsequent Prince Fielder signing altered their spending in a big way. 9. Blue Jays: The Jays have acted aggressively this winter to turn a weakness into a strength. Last year, they tied for the second-fewest holds (50) and the third-highest number of blown saves (25) in the big leagues. Thanks to the acquisition of former White Sox closer Sergio Santos (a one-time infielder in the Toronto system), the ninth inning is no longer a black hole. And because Francisco Cordero has come to grips with relinquishing his longtime role as a closer and the seemingly ageless Darren Oliver is suiting up for another season, the Jays have added two reliable options for the setup situation to get to Santos. The overhaul allows Casey Janssen and Jason Frasor to slide into less-pressurized roles and should give manager John Farrell a much more reliable unit for 2012. 8. Marlins: The improvement wasn't quite as dramatic as it was with the D-backs, but the Marlins shaved more than half a run off their relief ERA from 2010 to '11. That was due largely to a setup situation in which Ed Mujica (2.96 ERA, 4.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio), Steve Cishek (2.63 ERA, 9.1 strikeouts per nine innings) thrived and Randy Choate limited lefties. The closer formerly known as Leo Nunez, Juan Carlos Oviedo, did not have a dominant season, but once he clears up his trouble with customs, he can serve as a setup man to the newly acquired Heath Bell, who had 40-plus saves in each of the past three seasons with the Padres. 7. Reds: When a crowded closers' market crumbled this winter, the Reds swooped in and landed Ryan Madson on a one-year, $8.5 million contract that could prove to be one of the best bargains of the year. Madson had 32 saves and a 2.37 ERA in his first season as a closer for the Phillies. The Reds also imported lefty setup man Sean Marshall, who ranked third in the league in holds (34) last season for the Cubs, to pair with Nick Masset in the setup role. The X-factor in this unit is whether Aroldis Chapman completes a transition to starting duties. Should he return to the bullpen, the Reds' setup situation looks all the more promising, though Chapman obviously holds more long-term value as a starter. 6. Nationals: The Nats had the fifth-best relief ERA in baseball last year, and in Drew Storen (43 saves, 2.75 ERA) and Tyler Clippard (1.83 ERA and a Major League-leading 38 holds), they had one of the best -- and youngest -- closing/setup tandems in the game. Recognizing the possibility of some regression by Clippard (who had a .187 opponent batting average on balls in play) and Henry Rodriguez (who averaged 6.2 walks per nine innings), the Nats have bolstered their 'pen with the addition of veteran Brad Lidge. No, he's not the Lidge of old, but he did strike out 10.7 batters per nine innings after his return to the Phillies from elbow surgery last summer, and he still has a devastating slider. 5. Indians: Led by closer Chris Perez (36 saves), Cleveland had the fifth-best relief ERA (3.71) in the American League last season. Setup men Tony Sipp (24), Vinnie Pestano (23), Joe Smith (16) and Rafael Perez (12) ranked sixth, eighth, 16th and 21st, respectively, among AL relievers in holds. The strength of that group is the deception in each of their deliveries and the varied looks provided by the left-handed Sipp and Raffy Perez. Another lefty, Nick Hagadone, could take on a prominent bullpen role three years after the Indians acquired him in the Martinez trade with Boston. This isn't an overpowering unit, by any stretch, but depth goes a long way. 4. Rangers: Texas had one of the highest relief ERAs (4.11) in the Majors last season, but the Rangers make this list because of the depth of options accrued over the past seven months. They added setup man Mike Adams, who had a combined 1.47 ERA and 0.79 WHIP for the Rangers and Padres last season, at the July 31 Trade Deadline. This winter, Joe Nathan, now two years removed from the elbow surgery that cost him the 2010 season, has come aboard to take over Neftali Feliz's closer role, and the Yu Darvish signing could push Alexi Ogando back to the bullpen, where he thrived in 2010. Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA predictions for 2012 give Nathan, Ogando and Adams a 52.5 mark in their Value Over Replacement Player statistic, which would make them one of the most effective setup/closing units in the game. 3. Giants: Even with colorful closer Brian Wilson limited to 55 innings because of oblique and elbow injuries, the Giants posted the second-best relief ERA (3.04) and the fourth-best save percentage (78.8) in the Majors. It helps to have an elite setup man like Sergio Romo, whose 1.50 ERA and 0.71 WHIP were among the best in the game. Romo was murder on right-handers, holding them to a .402 OPS. Meanwhile, opposing lefties hit just .154 off southpaws Jeremy Affeldt and Javier Lopez. Such balance is important to having an effective bullpen, and the Giants should have it once again, especially if Wilson is back to full strength. 2. Braves: The Braves led the Majors in relief ERA (3.03), average against (.221), holds (99), fielding independent pitching (3.02) and baserunners allowed per nine innings (11.22). So, why aren't they No. 1 on this list? Well, we're just being realistic. Closer Craig Kimbrel (77 innings), setup man Jonny Venters (88) and long man Christhian Martinez (77 2/3) were all in the top 10 among relievers in innings pitched last year, and Eric O'Flaherty (73 2/3) ranked 18th. All that use can wear down a relief corps, and, sure enough, the Braves' bullpen was ragged down the stretch last season. The good news is that Kris Medlen is back from Tommy John surgery to take some of the workload, and hot prospect Arodys Vizcaino might also be an option. This should still be a strong unit, though perhaps not baseball's best again. We shall see. 1. Yankees: The consistency the Yankees get from Rivera is unmatched. It can't go on forever, of course, and there are rumblings that No. 42, who recently turned 42, might retire at season's end. But that hasn't happened yet, and Rivera remains reliable, as evidenced by his 1.91 ERA, 0.90 WHIP and .534 OPS against last season. And in David Robertson (1.08 ERA, 410 ERA+), the Yankees have possibly the best right-handed setup man in the game. Last year, opponents had just a .443 OPS against him in situations defined by baseball-reference.com as late and close. Beyond Robertson, Rafael Soriano could be in line for a bounceback year after a weak first half gave way to a strong second half. Additionally, the Yanks should get Joba Chamberlain back from Tommy John surgery sometime this summer, Cory Wade came up from Triple-A to pitch well in meaningful innings last season and Phil Hughes could be in this mix if he doesn't land a rotation job. Honorable mention: If you don't think the Rays are going to piece together an effective bullpen, you haven't been paying attention. ... The evolution of the Cardinals' bullpen, from first-half rags to late-season riches, was a big part of their run to a World Series crown. With Jason Motte now entrenched as the closer, we'll see if that unit remains a strength for a full season. ... D-backs GM Kevin Towers, a master at building bullpens, has imported Craig Breslow and Takashi Saito to deepen an already effective staff. The big question, of course, is how well closer J.J. Putz's elbow will hold up, given his history of ailments in that area. ... The Brewers have an elite closer in John Axford and, thanks to an arbitration offer gone wrong, Francisco Rodriguez is back in the setup role. We'll see if K-Rod can remain content in that role. ... Don't look now, but the Royals might have one of the best bullpens in the AL if Joakim Soria, who was the most reliable closer this side of Rivera before hitting a road block in 2011, bounces back and if newly acquired Jonathan Broxton stays healthy. ... The Red Sox have completely rebuilt their 'pen in the wake of Jonathan Papelbon's departure. Andrew Bailey is a nice pickup for the ninth, but his arm history comes with some red flags. ... The Phillies' bullpen benefits from the gargantuan innings totals of the club's starters, and Papelbon is a prized pickup for the closer role. There are, however, question marks beyond Papelbon and setup man Antonio Bastardo.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.