- The Nationals and Yankees are potential contenders in the pennant race, but their creaky bullpens may fall them if they don't seek reinforcements.
Until the bottom of the eighth inning against the White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field on Tuesday night, the Yankees had every reason to feel good. Luis Severino had pitched brilliantly, holding the White Sox to one run on six hits while whiffing a career-high 12 hitters without walking a batter. The Yankees offense, held scoreless with just two hits through seven innings by Sox ace Jose Quintana and reliever Anthony Swarzak, had broken through for three runs in the top of the eighth against Tommy Kahnle, one of the league's most dominant relievers. Alas, their bullpen couldn't close the deal—something many other contenders can relate to these days.
For the Yankees, the trouble began when rookie reliever Domingo German, pitching just his fourth major league game, walked the first two hitters of the bottom of the eighth. Veteran Tyler Clippard—who has struggled mightily of late—followed with a wild pitch and a walk of Melky Cabrera to load the bases. While Clippard struck out Jose Abreu and induced Avisail Garcia to a short fly out, he walked Todd Frazier to force in a run and cut the score to 3–2. Dellin Betances, closing because Aroldis Chapman had pitched in the previous two games, retired leadoff hitter Tim Anderson but walked the next two batters and hit Yomer Sanchez with a pitch. He got Cabrera to foul out, but Abreu singled home the tying and winning runs with two out for a walkoff victory.
For the Yankees, injuries have contributed to a 3–11 skid since June 12 and 4.56 bullpen ERA for the month. Their overall mark of 3.56 ranks third in the league, and they've lost just two games in which they led after seven innings, but Tuesday's loss was their first when leading after eight. Still, they're one of several putative contenders who could use some relief. With the July 31 trade deadline still more than a month away, some of that will have to come from within, because so many teams haven’t figured out whether they’re in the hunt for a playoff spot or not. Thus the focus here is short on solutions and long on problems, with the teams listed in order of overall winning percentage.
Washington Nationals (46–31, .597)
They have the league's second-best record and an 8 1/2 game lead in the NL East, but the Nationals' bullpen issues have already taxed their rotation and divided their clubhouse. Over the winter, they lost midseason acquisition Mark Melancon to free agency, whiffed in pursuit of the even higher-priced Chapman and Kenley Jansen, and lost out on both the White Sox's David Robertson and free agent Greg Holland (who's been brilliant for Colorado) when ownership balked at deals engineered by GM Mike Rizzo. Shawn Kelley and Blake Treinen both failed to hold down the closer's job, and rookie Koda Glover saw his ERA balloon to 5.12 while pitching through a back problem (he just hit the DL with severe rotator cuff inflammation). The bullpen's 4.91 ERA is in a virtual tie for the league's worst mark, their six losses when leading after seven innings is the league's worst, and five when leading after eight is the worst in the majors. Aside from righty Matt Albers and lefties Enny Romero and Oliver Perez, almost no Nats reliever has much sustained success. The return of rehabbing Sammy Solis could help, but Glover and Kelley are a long ways off; this is a team that needs a major makeover at the back end. Their signing of Francisco Rodriguez—whom the Tigers released last week— won’t solve any problems; he's currently carrying an ERA of 7.82 and a ghastly home run rate of 3.2 per nine.
New York Yankees (41–34, .547)
The one-two punch of Chapman's five-week absence (from May 13 to June 18) due to a rotator cuff strain and the loss of setup man Adam Warren (2.23 ERA, 2.61 FIP) to a trapezius strain before he could return have destabilized the bullpen. Clippard pitched very well through the season's first two months (1.64 ERA, 3.05 FIP, two out of 13 inherited runners scored) but has fallen apart in June (12.46 ERA, 9.72 FIP) while being lit at a .316/.422/.816 clip by opposing hitters; in seven of his last eight appearances he's either allowed an inherited runner to score or surrendered at least one of his own.
Betances, who converted his first six save chances in Chapman's absence, has become a victim of rust—three gaps of at least four days without an appearance—while sitting out so many Yankees losses. Nine of his 18 walks and four of his six runs allowed this year have come over his last eight innings. His overall numbers (1.78 ERA and 16.7 K/9) are still brilliant, and maybe the rest will help in the long run, but he needs to be sharper. So does lefty Chasen Shreve, who's struggled this month. While the Yankees have gotten mileage out of cycling youngsters such as German, Jonathan Holder and Tyler Webb through the 25-man roster, expect GM Brian Cashman to fortify the unit via trade by the end of July.
Minnesota Twins (39–36, .520)
Anything is better than last year's 59–103 disasterpiece, but even so, the Twins have been outscored by 48 runs. Their bullpen's 4.93 ERA is better than only the perpetual tire fire in Detroit, their five losses when leading after six innings is the league's fifth-highest total, and Paul Molitor is at the point where he's given catcher Chris Gimenez six mop-up appearances (albeit with a 7.20 ERA). Closer Brandon Kinzler has done a respectable job (2.70 EA, 20 of 23 save chances converted), but he doesn't miss many bats (5.9 per nine). Setup man Matt Belisle has been awful (6.53 ERA, 5.0 BB/9) as has lefty Craig Breslow (5.28 ERA, 4.93 FIP). Help!
Milwaukee Brewers (41–38, .519)
Corey Knebel, who took over closer duties in mid-May after Neftali Feliz faltered, has dominated (0.96 ERA, 15.5 K/9), but he needs more support if the upstart Brewers are going to continue leading the NL Central. The bullpen has been lit for a 5.06 ERA this month, with setup men Jacob Barnes and Carlos Torres carrying marks that could be confused for Boeing models (7.30 and 7.45, respectively); both have season ERAs well above 4.00 now. What's more, the team lacks a reliable lefty, though rookie Josh Hader, who has allowed just one hit (but five unintentional walks) in 6 1/3 innings since being called up, could help.
Tampa Bay Rays (41–38, .519)
Even in the rough-and-tumble AL East, the Rays' turnaround from last year's 94 losses to this year's 41–38 mark (three games out of first) has been more convincing than that of the Twins (with whom they're tied for the second Wild Card spot) because they've outscored opponents by 23 runs. That said, their seven losses when leading after six is tied for the league's second-worst mark, while their 15 blown saves are tied for tops, and their league-worst 5.65 bullpen ERA this month has pushed their full-season mark to 4.41 (10th). They're not missing many bats (7.9 K/9), and their higher-leverage pitchers—Jumbo Diaz, Danny Farquhar, Jose Alvarado (who was demoted on Tuesday) and closer Alex Colome—have been lit up like Christmas trees in June. Colome, brilliant through the first two months, has yielded 12 hits and eight runs in his last 6 2/3 innings while blowing two saves and taking a loss in a game that was tied in the ninth when he entered. Injuries to Xavier Cedeno, Brad Boxberger and others haven't helped, but this is another team that needs to scare up some quality arms.
Kansas City Royals (37–38, .493)
As of June 9, the Royals were 26–34, 6 1/2 games back in the AL Central and looking as though the would be best served by selling at the deadline given their considerable stock of pending free agents (Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas). An 11–2 run pushed them above .500 and within two games of the division-leading Indians, and while they've since lost two straight, they're not dead enough to wave the white flag yet. That said, their bullpen's 4.43 ERA ranks an un-Royal-like ninth in the league, with the circuit's second-highest walk rate (3.9 per nine). Closer Kelvin Herrera is carrying a 4.35 ERA and has allowed 2.0 homers per nine, though he's converted 18 of 20 save chances. Ned Yost could turn to former closer Joakim Soria, who has a 3.77 ERA but has yet to allow a homer, and the team recently signed Neftali Feliz as a reclamation project, but if the Royals decide to see things through, they're going to have to at least beef up the supporting cast.
Toronto Blue Jays (36–40, .474)
While they've gone 34–29 since starting the year 2–11, the Blue Jays remain firmly in a hole of their own making because they lead the majors in losses after leading through six innings (10) and are tied for second in losses when leading after eight (four). Granted, the unit has been much stronger in May and June than in April, when they were tattooed for a 4.70 ERA, but both Joe Smith and J.P. Howell are on the DL with shoulder problems, Jason Grilli was just designated for assignment after routinely getting lit up, and closer Roberto Osuna recently revealed that he's battling an anxiety issue, though it hasn't shown up in his stellar performance (18 straight save chances converted, one run allowed this month). Injuries in the rotation—particularly those of Aaron Sanchez, who's been limited to five starts by blisters and cracked fingernails—have been an issue because Joe Biagini has been far less helpful there than out of the bullpen. At full strength, the Jays might be okay, but no one can say if they’ll get their key pitchers healthy at once in time to save the season.
St. Louis Cardinals (35–41, .461)
Are the Cardinals really contenders? At six games under .500, it's stretch to think so, yet their Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds of 11.7% are roughly double those of the Marlins (35–40). It's difficult to envision their management waiving the white flag and tearing the roster apart, particularly given a rotation whose ERA ranks fourth in the league (3.91) thanks to bouncebacks by Mike Leake, Michael Wacha and Lance Lynn. The relief unit’s 4.44 ERA ranks 10th, and its 11 blown saves are just two off the league lead.
While the unit has a 3.80 ERA this month, closer Seung Hwan Oh has been cuffed lately (5.73 in 11 June innings) and has a 3.75 ERA and 4.53 FIP overall. Setup men Trevor Rosenthal (6.97 ERA in 10 1/3 appearances this month) and Mathew Bowman (4.71 ERA in 21 innings in May and June) have faltered lately, and lefty Brett Cecil has allowed 11 inherited runners to score and blown four saves to date. Manager Mike Matheny is going to need more than the relatively untested Sam Tuivailala and John Brebbia to turn this around.