The cliche goes that sports are filled with copycats; when something works and brings success to a team, general managers quickly follow along and try to replicate that success. The key for teams who sustain success for extended periods of time often lies in staying ahead of this curve. Case in point, the Kansas City Royals put together a monster bullpen through their farm system and having Wade Davis drop in their laps in the Wil Myers trade with the Tampa Bay Rays. With the Royals' runner-up finish in 2014 and championship run in 2015, more teams than ever before are looking to make sure that their starters don't necessarily need to pitch beyond six innings.
This trend, more so than in any other division in baseball, appears up and down the American League East. Last year, the Orioles and Yankees both finished within the top three bullpens in the American League with the Blue Jays sitting just outside the top five in sixth place. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Rays, who've historically had an extremely strong bullpen, sat in 11th place in the American League, with Boston dead last. Now the Red Sox have made big changes in the back end of the bullpen, moving on from the Alexi "Oh, that's gone, gone, gone, doe" Ogando while reducing the burden on Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara through the acquisitions of Craig Kimbrel and Carson Smith.
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman certainly took notice of this and made a move to compete, bringing in Aroldis Chapman to a bullpen that already featured Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller. While Cashman nearly traded Miller to the Astros before Houston made a move for Ken Giles, the decision to keep the tall, lanky lefty around puts together what might become the most dominant bullpen trio in baseball history (not considering the potentially lengthy suspension Chapman could face in the wake of domestic violence allegations).
Last year, a strong bullpen certainly correlated with success in the playoffs. Of the teams with the ten best bullpens (according to fWAR) in baseball in 2015, only the Indians and the Brewers failed to make the playoffs. In the ALCS, the Blue Jays certainly saw what a trio of pitchers like Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera and Ryan Madson can do to even the best offense in baseball.
But with the concerted effort President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski made this offseason to shore up the back end of the bullpen, the American League East is a division with five teams with the ability to turn to elite relievers at the back end of games, and that's certainly not an accident. After depending so heavily on Ogando and Tazawa while bringing in Jean Machi to close games at the end of the season (THAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED!), the additions of Smith and Kimbrel put the Red Sox's group in competition, on paper, for one of the best units in the game, let alone the division.
It goes without saying that Yankees bullpen is going to be absolute dynamite, but let's try to put the unit's potential dominance in context. Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances finished in first, second and third place with 15.74, 14.59 and 14.04 K/9 respectively last season. Among qualified relievers, Chapman (2.5 fWAR) and Betances (2.4 fWAR) finished second and third in fWAR while Miller (2.0 fWAR) finished in sixth. If nothing else, the Yankees bullpen will certainly strike out an absurd amount of hitters next year.
You can't forget the Orioles either, who boasted the best bullpen in baseball last season. That group is anchored by Zach Britton, who posted the fourth-best fWAR (2.1) among relievers last season, and Darren "Mr. $31 Million" O'Day, who posted the 12th highest fWAR and the fourth-highest left-on-base percentage in baseball among relievers last season. Brad Brach, holder of a 1.197 WHIP, and Mychal Givens, who produced 38 strikeouts in 30 innings last season, are no slouches either. Baltimore lost nothing from their bullpen and with the potential addition of Dylan Bundy, who's still coming back from Tommy John surgery, the Orioles could have another strong year of relief pitching ahead of them.
After the Red Sox, Yankees and Orioles, the division falls off ever so slightly in terms of relief pitcher quality. The Rays bring back up-and-down closer Brad Boxberger, who struck out 74 hitters in 63 innings last season while saving 41 games in 46 opportunities, hard-throwing lefty Jake McGee, who struck out 48 in 37.1 innings, and Alex Colome, who struck out 44 and walked just seven batters in 40.2. According to multiple reports, teams are calling the Rays about McGee as a potential trade target, but the team has had a knack for resuscitating arms others have given up on (Danny Farquhar could be a low-key strong addition for the Rays should he find his 2014 form again) and finding diamonds in the rough.
The Blue Jays certainly had their ups and downs with the bullpen in 2015 but finished with a group that finished 11th in baseball in fWAR. After starting the year with rookie Miguel Castro closing out games, the Jays turned the keys over to Roberto Osuna, who closed 20 games while striking out 75 batters in 69.2 innings and posting a 0.92 WHIP. Lefty Brett Cecil also had a strong year, posting a 0.957 WHIP with 70 strikeouts and 13 walks allowed in 54.1 innings pitched. The group lost Liam Hendriks, Mark Lowe and LaTroy Hopkins while also facing a big dilemma with Aaron Sanchez, who has shuffled between the rotation and the bullpen. Sanchez possesses great stuff, just like Joe Kelly Who Has Great Stuff™, and an absolute rocket arm that could play well in the back end of the bullpen should he be unable to harness his arm as a starter.
Owens remains a mystery after his Red Sox debut
Henry Owens showed flashes of a successful big league pitcher in 2015, but just how good he becomes for the Red Sox remains to be seen.
The inherently fickle nature of relievers poses problems for teams on an annual basis. Arms that are dynamite one year can suddenly fall off without warning. Craig Breslow played a major role for the Red Sox in 2013 before becoming the human white flag for Boston in 2014 and 2015. Unknowns can become incredibly valuable quantities while previous studs can suddenly become major duds in the blink of an eye. With that said, nine of the Top-30 relievers in K/9 last season will pitch in the American League East next season.
Another question worth asking with so many teams loading up in the bullpen is when, not if, teams will be saturated with good relievers to the point that having a lockdown bullpen is par for the course for contenders rather than a separating factor that delineates the teams who make the playoffs and the teams who can win the World Series. The Royals stockpiled strong relievers in a time where there was a market inefficiency and most teams did not have lockdown pitchers for the last three innings. Now that more and more teams are following the same approach, there will come a time in the near future where possessing three flamethrowers to close out baseball games will no longer hold the same advantage for teams as they had in 2014 and 2015 and a point of diminishing returns for paying top dollar for top relievers. At that point, there will be a new market inefficiency that baseball operations offices across the country will be trying to find and exploit.