Entering 2021, the AL East is loaded with relief pitching talent. After the hapless Red Sox ’pen, the Orioles and Rays each come into the season with a star arm, and the Rays are still stacked top to bottom. Even so, Tampa Bay’s seemingly bottomless depth paid dividends in last year’s condensed playoff schedule (at least through the ALDS), but in the end, their best wings weren’t strong enough to stave off the Dodgers’ onslaught. This season, the Yankees’ best are buoyed by a much stronger supporting cast, giving them the edge at the position in the division.
5. Boston Red Sox (2.8 WAR projected WAR per FanGraphs)
While the Red Sox have a couple more halfway-decent relief pitchers than the landfill to their South, they were much, much worse in 2020. Last season, they had the fifth-worst ’pen in the majors per FanGraphs WAR. Of their staff, 11 pitchers finished 2020 with a negative WAR value, and only two Ryans — Weber and Brasier — recorded more than a fifth of a win in value.
The Sox should hope Matt Barnes is better than last year, when he allowed, by far, the hardest contact of his career. With only a minor dip in velocity, Occam’s razor suggests a return to viability, even if excellence is out of the question.
Also, Boston’s one relatively large offseason acquisition came from a trade with the Yankees for Adam Ottavino. After a down year cost him his place in Aaron Boone’s circle of trust, a fresh start was probably best for both parties—especially with the Yankees shedding his $8.15 million salary for luxury tax purposes.
4. Orioles (2.0 WAR)
Surprisingly the Orioles avoided last place in an AL East positional ranking, as despite their widespread ineptitude in 2020, relief pitching was one of their few relative strengths. The Orioles finished last season with the sixth-best relief pitching WAR in the majors. However, they traded their best arm, Mychal Givens, to the Rockies this past August, sent another decent reliever in Miguel Castro to the Mets, and relied more on cumulative overperformance turning into decency as opposed to a handful of true standouts.
Still, the O’s retained much of their bullpen depth, including 26-year-old Tanner Scott. While he’s not yet a household name, he might soon be. As a lefty with near-triple-digit velocity and 98th-percentile fastball spin, Scott was actually one of the very best in the majors at striking batters out and creating poor contact in 2020. While his 21st-percentile walk rate is less than perfect, many big-name relievers have overcome subpar control with the kind of superstar stuff Scott has.
3. Toronto Blue Jays (3.4 WAR)
The Blue Jays bolstered their average bullpen from last year by adding one of the game’s best relief arms, Kirby Yates. While the former Yankee Yates got shelled in his 4.1 innings in 2020, it was almost entirely due to ill fortune across a microscopic sample size, and should dominate batters with the best splitter in the majors. If he can stay healthy upon a full recovery from the removal of bone chips in his elbow that cut short his 2020 season, his $5.5 million signing will look like one of the best bargains in baseball.
2. Tampa Bay Rays (4.2 WAR)
While contextually, the sentiment of Kevin Cash’s “stable” remarks was unconscionable, openly threatening opposing athletes with physical violence, they were in a sense, factually accurate. In 2020, Rays relief pitchers generated 3.7 WAR, the most in the majors. Among those horsemen was sinker-slider hoss Diego Castillo, triple-digit speeder Peter Fairbanks, and the best of the bunch, Nick Anderson. Though he was probably baseball’s best reliever through the 60-game regular season, Anderson slowly imploded across the latter-half of the Rays’ playoff run following the allowance of an Aaron Judge homer in the ALDS. While his deterioration was likely more due to overuse than anything else, it would be nice to imagine that Aaron Judge’s immense power stretches into the psychic realm.
In addition to the aforementioned triumvirate, Chaz Roe’s all-time slide-piece is an incredible luxury, and Brendan McKay’s two-way upside still intrigues.
1. New York Yankees (5.2 WAR)
The Yankees’ bullpen in 2020 was a bit of a mess. The club started behind the eight-ball with Tommy Kahnle out for the year and Aroldis Chapman’s COVID contraction. Adam Ottavino’s collapse only made matters worse, regardless of whether it represented some tangible loss of skill or just some seriously bad luck.
With <crosses fingers> Chapman, Zach Britton, and Chad Green all healthy, the Yankees arguably have the best trio of arms in the entire major leagues (again). In the past couple seasons, even when the team’s top tier has been rolling, they’ve lacked the depth to put away game after game without leaning too hard on those three.
This season, they’ve added Justin Wilson and Darren O’Day as tried-and-true, solid-to-stellar, fourth and fifth arms out of the pen. While they’re each in the latter part of their career, particularly the 38-year-old O’Day, both pitchers have maintained well above average peripherals over the past several seasons. O’Day’s ERA+ since 2012 is 180, including a preposterous 440 mark last season, and Wilson’s kept his ERA+ over 100 in all nine of his major league seasons save for two. Even Luis Cessa and Jonathan Loáisaga’s surprisingly solid ability to induce poor contact without great control or swing and miss stuff give them the upside of overqualified innings-eaters.
The Yankees’ steadily dominant top-end arms are bolstered by a group that should inspire more confidence than anxiety through the middle-to-late-innings. With an excess of competence, the Yankees are in position to allow their relievers to star in their roles, rather than struggle to fill shoes two sizes too big.