In rounding out our series of winter top 10 rankings, here are the top 10 bullpens in Major League Baseball (and I'm hedging a little in this category because of the uncertainty about what role one big-time pitcher will have).
To have a shutdown bullpen, you have to have a dominant closer, and the Braves' Craig Kimbrel is coming off one of the greatest seasons ever for a reliever: Opposing hitters had 231 plate appearances against him, and he struck out 116 -- almost exactly half -- in 62 2/3 innings, with just 14 walks and 27 hits. When he threw strike one on the first pitch of the at-bat (147 of those 231 plate appearances), hitters went 16-for-143, with 97 strikeouts and one extra-base hit. Here's one more: After hitters got ahead in the count, they went 5-for-32, with 10 strikeouts. Just one more: With two outs and runners in scoring position, opposing hitters were 1-for-18 with 10 strikeouts.
In other words, Kimbrel is the best closer in the game, and, at the outset of his career, he has established an unprecedented trajectory: Nobody has been this good so soon.
The Braves have outstanding relievers stacked all around Kimbrel, from underrated Eric O'Flaherty (1.73 ERA in 64 appearances last season) to Jonny Venters (who seemed to bounce back in a big way after a rough first half) to Cristhian Martinez (65 strikeouts in 73 2/3 innings) to Luis Avilan. And, oh by the way, the Braves swapped for hard-throwing Jordan Walden (average fastball velocity last year: 96.3 mph) in the offseason, with some confidence they can help his command, and, if that happens, Atlanta could essentially end games after the fifth and sixth innings.
This is an extraordinary bullpen, and the Braves' staff and front office deserve credit for changing the way the Atlanta relievers were rested in 2012 after the relievers were worn out in 2011. Some teams don't change; the Braves did.
The names change almost every year, but the performance remains the same. Tampa Bay led the American League in bullpen ERA, after Fernando Rodney became the Rays' latest reclamation project (watching the Tampa Bay bullpen every year is like watching an episode of "American Restoration," on which junk is turned into gleaming excellence), and he merely became a Cy Young candidate, with just 43 hits and two homers allowed in 74 2/3 innings. He is surrounded by Jake McGee and Joel Peralta and perhaps Roberto Hernandez -- the pitcher formerly known as Fausto Carmona -- who has always had great stuff but an inconsistent delivery. It would surprise no one in the sport if we checked back in August and found that Hernandez had become a dominant setup man. Such is the reputation of the Rays for identifying bullpen talent, and the reputation of pitching coach Jim Hickey for refining that talent.