Bullpen Report: February 8, 2017

Spring training is just days away, and that’s our queue to take stock of bullpens around the majors. This is the first of six installments that will take a look at how bullpens are lining up, one division at a time. We begin with the National League Central.

• The Brewers appeared to have filled their closer vacancy when they signed Neftali Feliz to a one-year, $5.35 million deal last month. However, general manager David Stearns told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that Feliz won’t necessarily be used in the ninth-inning role. Given that Feliz has 99 career saves and is coming off a bounceback season with the Pirates, he would certainly have to be considered the frontrunner. The 28-year-old — now more than four years removed from Tommy John surgery — got his swing-and-miss stuff back in 2016. Feliz ratcheted up his average fastball velocity from 94.6 mph in 2015 to 96.1 mph in 2016, and his swinging strike rate increased from 9.7 to 14.2 percent.

He had some issues with the long ball, though (1.68 HR/9, 19.2 percent HR/FB), so even if Feliz is handed the closer’s job out of spring training, he could be vulnerable to losing it. Corey Knebel has a knack for missing bats, though by inducing called strikes rather than whiffs, so he could certainly thrive as a closer. Joba Chamberlain has been brought on board with a minor league deal, and though he is a long shot to close, he could be effective if he can build on the rebounding whiff and ground ball rates he compiled in 20.0 innings with the Indians last season.

Brewers updated grid: Neftali Feliz // Corey Knebel // Carlos Torres // Joba Chamberlain

• Much to the annoyance of fantasy owners, the Reds intend on using a committee to close out games this season. Instead of leaning on Raisel Iglesias — who notched the team’s last four saves in 2016 — to finish out games, manager Bryan Price plans to also use Michael Lorenzen, who didn’t record a save in 2016 but posted a 2.88 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in 50.0 relief innings, and newly-acquired Drew Storen. All three are intriguing candidates. Iglesias has demonstrated that he can strike out more than a batter per inning, even as a starter. Meanwhile, Lorenzen threw his two-seamer and slider more often last season, and he exceeded a 65 percent ground ball rate on both pitches. After coming over to the Mariners last July, Storen started throwing his sinker with more movement, and he did not allow an extra base off it subsequent to his trade from the Blue Jays (per BrooksBaseball).

Any one of these relievers is good enough to run away with the closer’s job if given the chance. Price, however, likes the idea of allowing Iglesias and Lorenzen to pitch multiple innings in save situations. If he follows through with the approach, it may be difficult for any reliever to get frequent enough work to settle into the role full-time.

Reds updated grid: Raisel Iglesias // Michael Lorenzen // Drew Storen // Tony Cingrani

• The Pirates’ signing of Daniel Hudson may look like a signal that incumbent closer Tony Watson has a tenuous grasp on the role, especially since the six-year veteran blew three saves and put up a 3.80 ERA after he inherited the job upon Mark Melancon’s late July departure. However, Watson’s struggles were largely limited to a 19-day stretch in which he allowed seven earned runs and five home runs over 6.2 innings. Otherwise, he reliably limited hard contact (especially during his first four weeks on the job), as he has done over the course of his career.

There isn’t any particular reason to think Watson will lose the role, but if he does, either Hudson or Felipe Rivero would be the top candidates to succeed him. It’s worth noting that Hudson has had some minor control issues as a reliever, and neither he nor Rivero have done a good job of stranding runners. Over the last two seasons, Hudson and Rivero have compiled LOB rates of 65.5 percent and 70.3 percent, respectively.

Pirates updated grid: Tony Watson // Daniel Hudson // Felipe Rivero // Juan Nicasio

• Because Seung Hwan Oh was so steady when he became the Cardinals’ closer last July, the bullpen should be a largely intrigue-free zone. Once again, The Final Boss will be getting the final outs in save situations. The biggest question may be whether Brett Cecil will overtake fellow lefty Kevin Siegrist as the team’s primary set-up reliever and holds leader. We will also be watching the battle between Michael Wacha and Alex Reyes for the fifth starter’s spot closely, and the loser would likely wind up as part of the bullpen mix. Reyes will be a top stash candidate if he starts the year in relief, but he could earn some consideration for an active roster spot right away in holds leagues.

Cardinals updated grid: Seung Hwan Oh // Kevin Siegrist // Brett Cecil // Jonathan Broxton

• Not much has changed since Benjamin Pasinkoff covered the Cubs’ situation in the last Bullpen report, which he wrote just after they acquired new closer Wade Davis from the Royals. While the ninth-inning situation is clear, the Cubs could go all season without having a clear pecking order for setup roles. This is a Joe Maddon team, after all. And Maddon’s use of Hector Rondon, Koji Uehara, Carl Edwards, Jr. and Pedro Strop is likely to vary based on matchups.

There shouldn’t be much change in the personnel entrusted with pitching the late innings, though a pair of recent transactions could impact the back end of the bullpen. The signing of Brett Anderson could mean that Mike Montgomery would return to a relief role. The bullpen could also be the landing spot for Eddie Butler, who will try to resurrect his career after getting traded out of Colorado.

Cubs updated grid: Wade Davis // Hector Rondon // Koji Uehara // Carl Edwards, Jr.

Al Melchior has been writing about Fantasy baseball and sim games since 2000, and his work has appeared at CBSSports.com, BaseballHQ, Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster and FanRagSports. He has also participated in Tout Wars' mixed auction league since 2013. You can follow Al on Twitter @almelchiorbb and find more of his work at almelchior.com.

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