At first glance, the Cleveland Guardians bullpen has had another serviceable year. They sport the 10th-best bullpen ERA in the game at 3.76 and eight relievers - Emmanuel Clase, Trevor Stephan, Enyel De Los Santos, Nick Sandlin, Eli Morgan, Xzavion Curry, Sam Hentges, and James Karinchak - all have an ERA+ over 100.
Oh, and nobody listed above is more than 27 years old as of this writing.
So what's the problem here?
It all comes down to blown saves, of which the Guardians have plenty this season. Right now, Cleveland has 31 blown saves, the third-most in all of baseball after falling victim to yet another one Thursday night against the Orioles (though the Guardians did come back to win). What's really interesting is that six other teams in the top ten - the Rangers, Rays, Orioles, Giants, Marlins, and Twins - are all bona fide postseason contenders.
So obviously some teams are able to overcome an abundance of blown saves, though it's currently coming back to haunt the Rangers as they've fallen from first place in the AL West to barely clinging to a playoff spot.
But for a team like the Guardians, their anemic offense has left very little room for error this season. And Cleveland is constantly playing in close games, putting pressure on the bullpen night after night to essentially be perfect.
While that might be the case, though, the fact is that the Guardians have to at least be a little concerned with the back-end of their bullpen. Clase does have 42 saves and a 2.97 ERA (with a 2.70 FIP), but his velocity is down across the board and he's not striking batters out at his usual rate. Pitchers evolve over their careers and it might have been wrong to think Clase would touch 100 miles per hour forever, but it does leave him with less room for error. That's partly how you end up leading the majors in blown saves (Clase is currently at 11).
Speaking of blown saves, Stephan isn't far behind with eight. More concerning for Stephan is his September in general, in which he sports a 13.50 ERA and 4.76 FIP after giving up 11 runs and seven walks in 7 1/3 innings. Maybe it's just fatigue at this point, but that's a tough way to end a season.
And with the team clearly not comfortable with James Karinchak at this point, it does leave a little uncertainty in the bullpen heading into 2024. The Guardians' offense should rightly garner much of the team's focus this offseason, but there's no doubt they will be keeping an eye on the bullpen - and at least hope the lineup can make it a little easier on the relievers next season.