Fire up the bullpen car! The state of relief in the AL East


Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday I recalled the pride of Westbrook, ME – John Cumberland – using his right field vegetable garden as an allegory for bullpen volatility. While Boston’s relief cupboard is stocked with talented strike-throwers and might even feature multiple lefties this season; one can never be too comfortable. Looking around the AL East, some teams are probably a little more comfortable than others.

Loungin’ in Toronto

The Blue Jays have two All-Stars (Brett Cecil and Steve Delabar) out there with a guy who saved 34 games for a last place team: Casey Janssen. He’s been nasty since his switch to the bullpen, posting a sub-3.00 ERA each of the last three seasons with a 4.5:1 strikeout to walk ratio. The man he supplanted in the closer role, Sergio Santos, looks to build on a healthy second half of 2013 in which he yielded just four hits and an earned run over his last 19 appearances. Toronto’s ‘pen appears best equipped to handle the grind; it’s long on talent and features multiple arms capable of closing games. If only they had some starting pitching…

Stone Cold Crazy in St. Pete

On paper, the Rays bullpen looks pretty tough. They have three guys with extensive closing experience in freshly inked Grant Balfour (an All-Star last year), Heath Bell (a former All-Star) and the Artist Formerly Known as Leo Nunez (92 career saves). The lefty-righty pairing of Jake McGee and Joel Peralta has also experienced moderate success the last three seasons.

But the Artist Formerly Known as Leo Nunez still hasn’t arrived at Spring Training due to visa issues. He also hasn’t thrown a pitch in the Majors since 2011. And Bell might as well have been playing under an assumed name the last two seasons: first, the Miami implosion and then an uninspiring summer spent wriggling out of jams at Petco Park.

Sure, Balfour and his false bravado want you to think the Tampa ‘pen is a big, nasty bear to complement an exemplary starting staff. Let’s see what happens when the bear gets poked a couple of times.

Changes on the Inner Harbor

The Orioles are a case study in bullpen volatility: the team was 29-9 in one-run games in 2012 but sank to 20-31 last year. GM Dan Duquette turned heads by dumping closer Jim Johnson (and his 101 saves the past two seasons) in Oakland, likely because Peter Angelos didn’t want to pay for Johnson’s services going forward.

But Tommy Hunter appears to be a much better in a relief role; the protracted stints allow him to top out at 100 MPH. He will be the closer. Brian Matusz has also been effective in relief since the O’s gave up the ghost on making him a starter. And keep an eye on Kevin Gausman. The Ubaldo Jimenez signing means the former first round pick could be headed to Norfolk for more seasoning or to the bullpen for a spell, as he did last year. He was knocked around a bit in his rookie campaign, but his FIP indicates he was also subject to some bad luck. The talent’s certainly there.

Who’s Gonna Take the Weight in the Bronx?

The Greater New York area is collectively questioning David Roberston’s ability to transition from a setup role to “the man.” And let’s face it: some have it; some don’t. The last time the Yankees had to ask that question was 1997, when John Wetteland saddled up for Texas and a spindly Panamanian dynamo named Mariano Rivera rocketed to 43 saves and a 1.88 ERA. But the man known as “Houdini” isn’t exactly inspiring confidence with his comments.

Even if the Alabama product is money, who will form the link from the starters to the ninth inning? Boone Logan and Joba Chamberlain are gone. Shawn Kelley? 80’s movie villain Preston Claiborne? The Invisible Man Matt Thornton? The Avengers they ain’t. Good luck, Joe Girardi.