Any manager will tell you, a bullpen is a key component to any team's success. Without reliable relievers at a skipper's disposal, much can go awry during the course of a full season.
Starting pitchers can be suspect to injury for pitching too long because a bullpen can't be depended on (just ask Kerry Wood and Mark Prior about that). Or, at the very least, a starting pitcher who is on the mound too long can start to lose effectiveness, potentially shifting momentum over the course of a game.
In 2012, the Cincinnati Reds (2.65) and Atlanta Braves (2.76) had the best bullpen ERA in the MLB. The Reds' bullpen also served up the fewest amount of home runs last season, surrendering just 33 long balls.
So, with Opening Day less than a week away, who's bullpen looks to be the strongest?
A strong bullpen is not solely dependent on the quality of the closer. The depth of the bullpen is also a key factor in determining the top relief cores in the game.
Here are the Top 10 Bullpens, heading into the 2013 regular season.
There's really only one word to describe the Atlanta Braves' bullpen—scary.
Opposing teams are going to be playing six-inning games against the Braves in 2013, because their 'pen is so deep and full of talented arms, most notably of which is their stud closer Craig Kimbrel.
Kimbrel, the 2011 NL Rookie of the Year, had an even better sophomore season than his debut.
In 2012, he once again lead the league in saves with 42. He finished with an astonishing 1.01 ERA and 16.7 K/9 in 62.2 innings pitched. He finished fifth in the NL Cy Young award voting, and eighth in MVP voting.
Wait, there's more. Behind Kimbrel are a pair of tough left-handers in Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty. The southpaw duo are equally dominant against both left-handed and right-handed batters. Venters finished 2012 with a 3.22 ERA, and O'Flaherty with a superb 1.73 ERA.
Also in the mix is the newly acquired right-hander Jordan Walden.
Walden came over from the Angels for Tommy Hanson, and has fortified an already strong relief core for the Braves. Over three seasons with the Halos, Walden has a career 10.8 K/9 and a 3.06 ERA. He took a step down in 2012, but in Atlanta, he won't have the same pressure on him as he will be a part of a dominant group of arms.
In 2012, the Braves had the second lowest bullpen ERA.
Yet, I expect the 2013 Braves to have the best bullpen in the game.
In 2012, the Cincinnati Reds were the cream of the NL Central crop. The Reds made the playoffs for the second time in the last three seasons. And despite the fact that the team didn't make it out of the first round in either season, their 90-plus win seasons were very impressive.
Last year, the Reds' bullpen was a key component to their success, as they had the lowest bullpen ERA in the majors. There's no reason to think they won't be near or at the top again in 2013.
With the recent announcement that Aroldis Chapman will return to his closing role rather than join the rotation in 2013, the Reds' 'pen looks awfully similar to how it looked when 2012 came to a close.
Chapman had 38 saves last year, with a pristine 1.51 ERA, 5.3 K/9 and the hard-throwing left-hander was an All-Star for the first time, and even garnered some Cy Young and MVP award votes.
This means Jonathan Broxton, who was brought over midseason, will resume his setup role.
Broxton appeared in 35 games for the Reds, and had a 2.82 ERA, with 20 Ks in 22.1 innings pitched. Sean Marshall will be the left-handed set-up reliever for the club.
Jose Arrendondo, Sam LeCure and Logan Andrusek are some complimentary pieces that should once again give the Reds one of the top bullpens in 2013.
A lot has been said about the Tampa Bay Rays' offense—or lack thereof—heading into 2013. Aside from Evan Longoria, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of punch packed into this lineup.
Their pitching, however, is as strong as ever, and their bullpen is a big reason why, just as it was in 2012.
Last year, the Rays had the lowest bullpen ERA in the American League and several of the key cogs are still in place for 2013, starting with closer Fernando Rodney.
With 48 saves (good for second in the Major Leagues), Rodney had a breakout campaign in 2013. His 0.60 ERA is the lowest for any pitcher ever with at least 50 innings pitched in a single season.
Alongside Rodney is fellow right-hander Joel Peralta. Peralta saw an uptick in his ERA from 2011 to 2012, but his strikeout rate rose from 8.1 to 11.3 K/9, in virtually the same amount of innings pitched.
Southpaw Jake McGee quietly had a breakout performance of his own in 2012, compiling a 1.95 ERA in 55.1 innings pitched, to go along with his 11.9 K/9.
The Rays should also get a full season from setup man Kyle Farnsworth.
Farnsworth was the team's closer in 2011 and performed very well. Injuries caused his 2012 season to begin in June and with the emergence of Rodney, Farnsworth was relegated to setup duties.
This offseason, Phillies General Manager Ruben Amaro addressed his bullpen needs with one swift move—the signing of right-hander Mike Adams.
Adams, who pitched with the Texas Rangers in 2012, signed to a two-year, $12 million contract in December. Last year, he regressed a bit from his brilliant 2011 campaign, but still had a respectable 3.27 ERA with a decent 7.7 K/9.
He joins an already good bullpen, which features All-Star closer Jonathan Papelbon.
Papelbon saved 38 games for the Phils in 2012, his first in Philadelphia, and he remains one of the top closers in the game. Antonio Bastardo will act as Adams' left-handed counterpart.
Bastardo had a superb 2011 season but fell back to earth in 2012 (though he did maintain a 14.0 K/9).
With the three-headed relief monster in place, opposing teams will need to have a lead before the seventh inning if they hope to stand a chance against the Phillies in 2013.
The ownership of the Los Angeles Dodgers have committed a lot of money into the 2013 team and a lot of good things are expected.
While the bullpen may have a few question marks surrounding it, overall it's a strong, deep relief core.
Brandon League will be given the first shot at being the everyday closer. League came over from Seattle during the 2012 campaign, and completely turned his season around. In 15 games with the Dodgers, he recorded six saves and a strikeout rate of 8.9 K/9 (compared to a 5.4 K/9 prior to the trade).
He's been hindered by injuries over his career but appears healthy for the time being and is poised to lead his fellow relievers into battle.
Although, League does have competition.
The talented Kenley Jansen, saved 25 games for the Dodgers in 2012 and had a whopping 13.7 K/9. He too has had some health problems recently, but he is ready to go for Opening Day, and will be first in line if League falters in any way.
The line of relievers keeps going. The Dodgers signed left-hander J.P. Howell during the offseason, giving them a quality southpaw out of the 'pen. Ronald Belisario had a fantastic 2012, compiling a 2.54 ERA with 68 appearances and an 8.7 K/9 rate.
The Dodgers also feature a surplus of starting pitching, which could mean some combination of Aaron Harang, Ted Lilly and/or Chris Capuano could see some relief action in 2013.
This bullpen is deep and talented. If all can remain healthy for the duration of the season, there should be little worry in Tinseltown.
It's no secret that the Boston Red Sox had a 2012 campaign that they would love to forget about.
They finished with their worst record since 1965, and had their first losing season since 1997.
So, in response, the team underwent a pretty decent-sized facelift, including a new manager in John Farrell. They also added some pieces to a bullpen that was near the bottom of the American League in 2012.
In a surprise move, the Red Sox acquired closer Joel Hanrahan from the Pittsburgh Pirates back in December.
The arrival of Hanrahan, who saved 76 games over the past two seasons for the Pirates, means that Andrew Bailey will be moved to a setup role. Bailey has been rather injury-prone over his career, but when healthy, he can be very tough to hit.
The Sox also added veteran reliever Koji Uehara. The Japanese right-hander has quietly put together quite a resume, pitching out of the bullpen for the Orioles, and most recently, the Rangers. In 2012, Uehara finished with a 1.75 ERA in 36 innings pitched.
The Red Sox have an extraordinarily deep bullpen.
Andrew Miller, Franklin Morales, Alfredo Aceves and Daniel Bard all have significant late-inning experience, but also have the ability to come in early and pitch for two or three innings.
Last year, the Texas Rangers bullpen had a decent season.
Their 3.42 bullpen ERA was good for fifth in the American League, and closer Joe Nathan had his ups and downs in 2012. Still, Nathan finished the year with a 2.80 ERA, 37 saves and a 10.9 K/9 strikeout rate.
The Rangers lost Mike Adams to the free-agent market this winter but gained Joakim Soria, who had been the closer for the Kansas City Royals over the past few seasons.
Since 2006, he has amassed 160 saves for the Royals, though he missed the entire 2012 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Soria will likely begin the season on the disabled list, but he is already throwing off of a mound, less than a year removed from his surgery.
When healthy, he will provide the Rangers with a true force behind Nathan in the bullpen.
However, the left side of the bullpen can be a bit suspect. The only left-hander currently entrenched in the bullpen is 23-year-old Robbie Ross.
Ross has had a strong spring so far—coming off a solid rookie campaign.
Offseason acquisition Nate Robertson is another possible lefty for the bullpen, but he hasn't pitched in a big league game since 2010.
The Rangers will definitely be in contention this season, so we can expect them to be fairly active towards the trade deadline, where they could potentially add a southpaw to solidify the bullpen even more.
The St. Louis Cardinals have been perennial winners for the last several seasons, having won at least 86 games each of the last five years. And there's plenty of reason to expect 2013 to be no different.
And the strength and depth of the bullpen is one of those many reasons.
Even with the recent announcement that stud closer Jason Motte will likely begin the season on the disabled list due to an elbow strain, there's no sense of panic in St. Louis.
Fellow right-hander Mitchell Boggs—coming off of a career-year in 2012—will take over as the team's closer for the interim.
But, there's even more depth beyond Boggs.
Edward Mujica, who came over from the Miami Marlins in a 2012 midseason trade, is a quality setup man with a good, live fastball.
Fernando Salas also saved 24 games for the Cardinals in 2011.
Plus, the Cardinals have two quality southpaws at their disposal. Marc Rzepczynski has been a durable and effective left-hander out of the Cards' bullpen for the last year and a half. Veteran Randy Choate has revitalized his career and is looking better than ever at age 36.
Once Motte is able to return to action, the Cardinals' bullpen will shoot up the power rankings, and should become one of the real strong points of an overall quality Cardinals ball club.
Anchored by All-Star closer J.J. Putz, the Arizona Diamondbacks have a solid group of relievers stacked in their bullpen.
Putz saved 32 games for the D-Backs last year, with a 2.82 ERA, 10.8 K/9 in 54.1 innings of work.
Setting him up will be David Hernandez, who had a career-year in 2012. Last year, he sported a strikeout rate of 12.9 K/9 to go along with a 2.50 ERA. He will be next in line for save opportunities should the oft-injured Putz be sidelined.
And as if these two weren't tough enough, the Diamondbacks pulled off a three-team trade this past offseason to acquire Heath Bell from the Miami Marlins.
Bell had a forgettable season, his first and last in South Florida. His career resume speaks for itself—153 saves and 553 strikeouts over nine major league seasons.
The Diamondbacks have just one left-handed reliever on their current 25-man roster, Tony Sipp.
Sipp was acquired from the Cleveland Indians in another three-team trade involving Arizona. The southpaw was effective in 2012, but took a step back from his impressive 2011 campaign.
All in all, the D-Backs will be in the thick of the NL West race, and their bullpen should be a strong force for them in 2013.
The 2012 Washington Nationals were good enough to win the NL East, earning the franchise's first playoff appearance—since 1981, when known as the Montreal Expos.
And with a collective 3.23 ERA, they were tied for third in the NL for lowest bullpen ERA.
But this offseason, their bullpen may have gotten stronger.
The offseason signing of Rafael Soriano (two-year, $28 million contract) gives the defending NL East champs three formidable closers in their arsenal.
Soriano saved 42 games in 46 chances for the New York Yankees in 2012, almost flawlessly taking over for the injured Mariano Rivera.
Next, there's the youngster Drew Storen. The 25-year-old right-hander saved 43 games for the Nationals in 2011, but missed much of the 2012 season after undergoing elbow surgery in April. He finished the season strong, however, compiling a 2.37 ERA in 30.1 innings pitched.
Finally, the Nationals have Tyler Clippard, who became the closer last year following Storen's injury. Clippard wound up with 32 saves in 2012, though his 3.72 ERA was not exactly noteworthy.
The one knack against the 2013 Nationals is their lack of left-handed relievers. Currently, Zach Duke represents the lone southpaw in the bullpen (they recently signed left-hander J.C. Romero to a minors deal).
Still, the Nationals sport one of the deepest bullpens in the league and stand to have a good shot at repeating as division champs in 2013.