Among the top contenders, who has the best bullpen? On some level, the argument of who’s best is academic -- as long as your team is getting the job done with a lead, how you did it or who you did it with doesn’t matter; you’re more than good enough. And as this table reflects, almost every team in contention has a brag-worthy bullpen. With that in mind and apologies to the Giants and Twins for the sake of brevity, here’s a brief overview of the bullpens of the 10 teams currently leading in the big leagues' postseason picture:
Strengths: Assembling a five-fisted legion of doom was pretty stealthy considering the names involved, starting with Chad Qualls and Tony Sipp, then adding journeyman Luke Gregerson to close, righty situational specialist Pat Neshek plus Will Harris for mid-game chores. They’ve combined to give the Astros a deep unit that keeps them in games without having to get too worried about matchups.
Soft spot: Finding that sixth fist has been hard because they could still use a lefty specialist; Joe Thatcher flopped and Oliver Perez hasn’t done well since coming on board. And while they’re a stronger asset over a full season and have stranded an American League-best 23 percent of inherited runners, the Astros’ 17 blown saves this season rank third-most in this group, reflecting that this is simultaneously a much-improved but still beatable unit.
Strengths: Last year’s breakthrough development of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland as the reigning ne plus ultra of late-game trios has held relatively steady until recently. This season, they’ve reinforced that trio with former Phillies closer Ryan Madson and power lefty Franklin Morales.
Soft spot: Is Holland healthy? He has been rested most of the last month, but has nevertheless allowed 14 of his past 37 batters faced to reach base for a 1.90 WHIP while allowing seven runs in 7⅓ IP. While sorting out Holland's readiness to contribute in October, Davis has been strong handling closing duties, while Madson and Luke Hochevar provide replacements for Davis.
Strengths: The double D’s of depth and Dellin. While they might seem short-handed from the right-hand side, closer Andrew Miller and fellow lefties Chasen Shreve and Justin Wilson just flat-out get people out, and the Yankees have the additional benefit of knowing Adam Warren will be in their postseason mix. And there may be no more dominating arm in the pen than Dellin Betances. Any question about the Yankees’ rotation should instead start with the question of how many innings Betances might pitch in October.
Soft spot: Miller’s durability? The Yankees have been careful about not using him on zero days’ rest, just eight times this season, but he nailed down saves in seven of them.
Strengths: As I wrote earlier, the Rangers seem to have found a solid five-pack in the pen, with the surprise being that Shawn Tolleson has turned into a quality closer while Jake Diekman and Keone Kela give Jeff Banister weapons to play matchup games to his advantage.
Soft spot: Will it stick down the stretch, or will the Rangers’ combo get overexposed in September? Kela gets into some trouble facing lefties (234-point OPS differential).
Strengths: John Gibbons finally found his late-game tandem in the second half, with Aaron Sanchez setting up Roberto Osuna. Osuna has notched 10 saves in August while Sanchez has allowed just eight baserunners in 15 2/3 IP since moving to the pen. Liam Hendriks and Bo Schultz give them a pair of righties with mid-90s heat, while southpaw Brett Cecil can close in a pinch. Combined, the Jays have an MLB-best 1.89 bullpen ERA since the All-Star break.
Soft spot: They lack a great situational lefty; Cecil has had bass-ackward splits the past couple of seasons.
Strengths: Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop have blossomed into an effective late-game tandem, and Justin Grimm has been an effective mid-game fireman. But as you might expect from an aggressive front office and tinkerer supreme Joe Maddon, the Cubs still are tinkering to find their best possible combinations, with former closers Jason Motte, Rafael Soriano and Fernando Rodney all getting chances to contribute.
Soft spot: The Cubs are tinkering for a reason because depth is an issue. Overall they’re just 20th in MLB in bullpen ERA since the All-Star break (4.28). Finding a reliable lefty also has been an issue, as specialist James Russell has been terrible, creating opportunities for former starters Travis Wood and Clayton Richard to get obligatory “you’re lefty” looks with leads.
Strengths: Kenley Jansen has been effective in a straightforward ninth inning-only role, but to be fair he also nailed down the lone save he was asked to make pitching more than one inning.
Soft spot: Dodgers relievers have allowed 31 percent of inherited runners to score and they’ve blown 35 percent of their save opportunities. One issue might be the overdependence on guys with big platoon splits -- righties Pedro Baez and Juan Nicasio and lefty J.P. Howell all are useful, but all of them need to be hidden away from opposite-handed hitters. And given how many inherited runners have scored, the Dodgers are losing those matchup games with alarming regularity. A 5.24 ERA since the break ranks 27th in the majors, which is the stuff of Tom Niedenfuer-grade nightmares.
Strengths: Closer Jeurys Familia has become even tougher still, adding an overpowering splitter to a fastball that pushes triple digits, and the addition of veteran set-up man Tyler Clippard gives them depth they lacked.
Soft spot: For a unit that overall boasts the third-best bullpen ERA in the league, the Mets seem pretty vincible, notching a save-plus-hold percentage of just 88 percent compared to the MLB average of 87 percent. In part, that reflects a pen that outside of Familia hasn’t been put on the spot all that often; thanks to a strong rotation and Terry Collins not getting overly cute with his crew in pursuit of situational advantages, the Mets are next-to-last in the NL in relievers used and relief innings thrown.
Strengths: If anybody has a case for “best closer in baseball” beyond Trevor Rosenthal, it might be Mark Melancon, but he’s just the glory-stat accumulator in what might be the deepest pen in the game after the Pirates added Tigers closer Joakim Soria as insurance. Antonio Bastardo and Tony Watson give them two top-shelf southpaws for situational work, Jared Hughes is an outstanding ground ball-inducing middle man to kill rallies, and Arquimedes Carminero has primo stuff. It’s no surprise they boast an MLB-best 83 percent strand rate for inherited baserunners.
Soft spot: That they don’t pitch all nine innings. Top to bottom, there probably isn’t a stronger group on any team anywhere.
Strengths: In terms of execution, they’re tops with an MLB-best 2.33 bullpen ERA, and it comes down to 2.11 since the break. Trevor Rosenthal would be most people’s pick for baseball’s best closer, and power lefty Kevin Siegrist might be the perfect southpaw set-up man.
Soft spot: The second rank of Cards relievers was enough of a cause for concern that it triggered trades for former closers Steve Cishek and Jonathan Broxton. That’s for the best because situational lefty Randy Choate finally has started to lose his fight with Father Time before his 40th birthday (allowing a .709 OPS), while Seth Maness has been knocked around for an .847 OPS while allowing 6.3 runs per nine in July and August.
From those two groups, who would you pick? I probably betrayed that I’m partial to the Pirates's depth in the NL while favoring the Blue Jays as they coalesce down the stretch in the AL. But another thing to keep in mind is that a bullpen’s final-season data doesn't determines its quality, but rather it's who’s in it and delivering results heading into October. World Series-winning teams like the 2002 Angels with Francisco Rodriguez introducing America to K-Rod or the 2003 Marlins picking up Ugueth Urbina and Chad Fox are great examples.
Finally, a manager’s situational awareness of what he has and what he can do with it can be every bit as important as having an all-world closer. Tony La Russa with the 2011 Cardinals or Bruce Bochy with any of his World Series-winning Giants teams showed remarkably quick hooks, but that’s because they were aware of who they had to get them through the last four or five innings every given day. This October, will it be John Gibbons or Jeff Banister? Half the fun will be finding out.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.