Speculating on Kevin Towers’ 2011 Bullpen

Recently, these pages have reported well on the hiring the Kevin Towers as the D-back GM and some possible ramifications here.  Also, I would like to point our readers to a very thorough article at The Hardball Times by Steven Booth which gives us some further history on Towers' strengths and weaknesses (although I would ignore the mention made about Brandon Webb returning... anything can happen but that's very doubtful).

The irony is that when Jeff Moorad left his post as CEO of the D-backs last offseason to finalize ownership of the Padres, he would begin his tenure by firing longtime General Manager Kevin Towers.  The reasons for Towers departure in SD came from Moorad's decision to move the team away from Towers' conservative approach.  Since the links I have above perfectly describe Towers' Padre reign, I will avoid rehashing this for the reader's sake.

The hiring of Kevin Towers is a clear indicator that Derrick Hall and co. plan to move the D-backs on a small budget.  After Josh Brynes was fired, medium priced pitchers like Dan Haren and Edwin Jackson were moved and it should be interesting to see what Towers looks to focus on this offseason.

Most commentators credit Towers for being able build an effective bullpen and with the D-backs historically struggling in this department I would expect Towers to go bargain bin diving this offseason. Below a few quick pro's and con's facing the D-backs bullpen in 2011:

Bullpen Pro's:

1.  Juan Gutierrez sort-of looking like an All-Star during the month of September (posting an 8.03 K/9, 2.92 BB/9 along with a 1.46 ERA/3.00 FIP in 17 IP).  This should earn him another look next season since he is under team control through 2014 and isn't eligible for arb. until after the 2011 season.

2. The emergence of Sam Demel.  I've always been a fan of the trade for Demel and with his advanced numbers of 8.03 K/9 and 2.92 BB/9 (even better in Sep. 9.82/2.45) and high GB rate (52.5%).  He was bit by the HR bug  by tossing 5 in 37 IP but these numbers are obviously fluky given his consistent run of GB's and low line drive rate (16% overall).  Again, he comes cheap and is under team control for good number of years.

3. Mike Hampton, reinvented as a LOOGY? This isn’t much since it was only 4 IP but it did D-backs something positive to talk about at season’s end. Hampton’s impending free agency makes him available but given his long injury history he shouldn’t demand more than a one-year minor league deal.  He did turn 38 at the end of last season and a new role in the bullpen may be his only shot to extend whatever miles are left in his arm. 

Bullpen Con's:

1. The high frequency of HR's allowed.  Of course, this can be attributed to park factors (Chase Field ranked 9th in runs and 12th in HRs according to latest numbers) since the numbers do look a bit wonky for GB pitchers like Demel and Blaine Boyer; but one mustn't forget early season struggles from Gutierrez and Aaron Heilman along with bouts of gopher-itis from Esmerling Vasquez and Bob Howry (6 HR's in 14 miserable innings). 

2. The "command" of young lefties Jordan Norberto and Leyson Septimo. If one of them could learn to harness their command this spring, this bullpen could quietly be on their way for big surprises (among these two, Septimo has the higher upside).

3. The lack of any high upside MLB-ready bullpen prospects.  I was careful to include "MLB-ready" to this list since I do recognize Yoneta Ortega as someone to watch in 2011 since his success in A ball in 2010 should be recognized (esp. his the 13 innings he threw in the hitter friendly Cal League).  I'm expecting RHP Jason Urquidez to make a contribution in 2011 and I do love Septimo's K rate (57 K's in two levels of 47 IPs) but his BB rate (53 BBs in that same span) tells us he still has a lot of work to do.  RHP Josh Ellis was able to keep the ball on the ground in the PCL but 10 BBs/25 hits in 19 IP wouldn't translate too well.


Notable names from the 2010 D-back bullpen:

RHP Juan Gutierrez

RHP Aaron Heilman (becomes a free agent this offseason)

RHP Sam Demel

LHP Mike Hampton (if a one year minor league deal can be signed)

RHP D.J. Carrasco (arb. eligible)

RHP Esmerling Vasquez

RHP Leo Rosales (did show capable command in '09 but is prone to high HR numbers)

RHP Carlos Rosa.

RHP Blaine Boyer and LHP Norberto are candidates to return but it's a good bet Boyer will be non-tendered since he is arb. eligible ($725K in '10) while Norberto starts 2011 at AAA.

Late season additions, Rosa and Carrasco were capable of keeping the ball in the park (combined for 2 HR's in 42 IP) but both have their struggles with command.  Carrasco is eligible for arbitration and may be looking for a raise from last season's salary of $950K but with Heilman set to depart, it's possible the D-backs find some room in their budget. 

Aaron Heilman and Mike Hampton both qualify for free agency and will probably find work elsewhere.  I'm guessing Heilman will try to find takers for a one-year deal but I'm sure the D-backs won't inquire on his availability.


Since I'm expecting Towers to find an affordable veteran LHP to install in the pen.  Here is a list of possibilities:

In the free agency market, I'm expecting them to shy away from Matt Thornton, Arthur Rhodes and Scott Downs due to their Type A status.  LHP Hisanori Takahashi would be intriguing but not worth the price (esp. with his low GB numbers translating from Citi Field to Chase).  LHP Will Ohman signed a one-year deal worth $1.35M last season and may look for a bit more after slightly rebounding from his disastrous 2009 season. 

Brian Fuentes and Pedro Feliciano are both classified as Type B free agents.  Fuentes saw a spike in his FB rate despite keeping his HR numbers down, after pitching seven seasons in Colorado and still posting a reasonable HR/FB rate (consistently below 10%) I wouldn't be too worried about his ability to pitch at Chase.  Feliciano's former gopher-itis was incredibly suppressed in 2010.  After posting high HR/FB rates around 15% in '08 and '09, Pedro only allowed 1 HR in 62 IP.  Feliciano also saw a spike in his BB rate going from 2.73 to 4.31 last season.  He signed a one year deal worth $2.9M last offseason and will ask for something similar.  Fuentes will be 35 years old and Feliciano will be 34 at the start of the season.

Moving away from the lefties, the recent entrance into free agency of RHP Ross Wolf could make those in the D-back front office notice (from a bargain bin diving standpoint).  Wolf is a 28 year old minor league journeyman (he had two brief stints with the A’s and Marlins).  He has shown excellent GB rates in various AAA leagues (averages around 54%) which have kept his HR’s numbers down in his career.  Wolf comes with average pitches, his fastball and slider does show promise at times and in 2010 he was flashing a change a bit more.  He’ll find work as a cheap pickup somewhere and it wouldn’t hurt the D-backs to take a flyer on him.

Among possible non-tenders, LHP Aaron Laffey could be available.  His numbers aren't overwhelming, 28 K's and 28 BBs in 55 IP, but he is capable of keeping the ball in the park and could be useful in some LOOGY situations.  LHP Bill Bray is another intriguing lefty open to non-tender speculation, he has flashed a plus slider and is capable of getting a strikeout when needed (9.82 K/9).  He also comes at a reasonably young age (27).  LHP Craig Breslow is interesting.  He is scheduled for his first year of arb. from the A's and has flashed an excellent cutter this season but increases in his FB percentage could be problematic (55% last season).   

The Twins have a decision to make concerning a few possible non-tenders.  LHP Glen Perkins, the Twins have a decision to make involving the 27 year old Perkins as he is arb. eligible after making $430K last season.  Perkins comes with a fastball/slider combination.  His fastball isn’t overwhelming (as it averages around 92 mph) but he does have enough command to average 2.34 BB/9 in his career.  Perkins also induces a lot of groundballs as his rates have improved from 47% in 96 IP in ’09 to 50% last season.  The main problem has been Perkins’ high HR rate… something I’m sure Towers and co. would like to avoid.  Like most relievers, Perkins’ HR/FB numbers do fluctuate from 5.7% in 28 IP as a reliever in ’07 to 11% and 9.6% as a starter in 246 IP between 2008-09 to 14% last season in 21 relief innings. 

Another Twin who could possibly be non-tendered (but I wouldn’t hold my breath) is RHP Pat Neshak.  He enters his second year of arb after netting $650K in 2010.  After sitting out the entire ’09 season following TJ surgery, Neshak was derailed last season with various finger and palm injuries.  His fastball did lose some velocity during his brief time with the Twins and his command was nothing near his 2006 breakout performance (which is typical of TJ recovers).  Neshak, when healthy, can display excellent peripherals (10.48 K/9; 3.12 BB/9 career average)  but his high fly ball ratio does leave him susceptible to the long ball.  Due to his injuries last season, I would expect Neshak to come to an agreement with the Twins this offseason but if the Twins decide to non-tender him he comes with a lot of pro’s and con’s and wouldn’t be too expensive.

In the trade market, Jonathan Papelbon and Francisco Rodriguez figure to be some of the bigger names available this offseason but both will be expensive (Papelbon: $9.3M in 2010, arb. eligible in 2011; K-Rod: $12M plus injury and baggage issues).  Not your typical Towers-on-a-budget pick-up.

For the past few days there has been plenty of talk of the Royals shopping Zach Grienke due to many of their top prospects having an ETA past 2011.  I’m sure if Grienke is on the block, Joakim Soria would be as well.  We can speculate all we want on how awesome it would be to have someone like Soria sit at top of any bullpen but it makes no feasible sense for some time like the D-backs to trade for him. someone who would demand at least one top prospect in return.  Right now, the D-backs need to focus on acquiring prospects and young, serviceable MLB ready players that are cheap and at least a few years before arb. kicks in. 

Trading for Soria would demand a few very good prospects and an argument can be made that since the D-backs only converted 35 out of 59 for saves that having a solid closer could have pushed us towards the 80 win mark… but that still would have placed us just past the Dodgers (maybe) with us being between 8 to 10 games out of first place.  Bottom line: this is a move a desperate GM fearing for his job would make not one who is trying to put together a plan for the future.


Except for Sam Demel and, maybe, Juan Gutierrez no one in last season’s bullpen has the front office excited for their return.  Like I said, if Hampton could be had on a minor league deal he could be interesting but this team will still need another left-hander.  I’m not expecting Leyson Septimo or Jordan Norberto to be ready but if someone like Bill Bray, Craig Breslow or Glen Perkins is non-tendered I think the D-backs should show a fair amount of interest.

As far as D.J. Carrasco is concerned, he induced a lot of groundballs during his two months as a D-back with Heilman’s $2.1M and Boyer’s $750K set to come off the books, coming to terms with Carrasco for $1.2M and avoiding arbitration could make sense. 

Leo Rosales, Carlos Rosa and Esmerling Vasquez could easily fill in as back-end bottom feeders; however, it’s curious that Rosales abandoned his slider last season.  Like I said above, Rosales did show some promise in terms of command in ’09 but he can be very hittable.  His decision to abandon his slider could have been a decision by last season’s pitching coach Mel Stottlemeyer Jr. (I can’t prove or disprove this). If I had my choice I would rate Vasquez above either Rosa and Rosales (I’m sure I’m not alone here) since Vasquez comes with better strikeout numbers and is capable to face opposing lefties due to his quality change-up.

Overall, it will be interesting to see what Towers does in the upcoming months.  Of course this bullpen was historically bad in 2010 I still think there are players worth salvaging and with a little creativity should be decent without having to spend a lot of money.

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