The past five years
Will the real J.J. Putz please stand up?
When J.J. Putz was acquired before the 2011 season, the reactions were something of a mixed bag. Could he still be an effective closer? Would he be able to stay healthy? Would his age make his signing instantly regrettable? It didn’t take long for Putz to silence critics and doubters. Though he did manage to lose some time to the DL in both seasons, the annual trips were brief ones, aptly covered by David Hernandez. Meanwhile, despite the DL time, Putz still managed to put up 45 saves in 2011, only one save behind league co-leaders Kimbrel and Axford, and 32 saves in 2012, good for seventh, tied with Tyler Clippard. Over those two seasons combined, only Craig Kimbrel of the Atlanta Braves had more saves than J.J. Putz.
Given those credentials, running Putz out for 2013 seemed like a no-brainer. Unfortunately for both Putz and the Diamondbacks, J.J.’s April was atrocious, including four blown saves to go along with a 4.26 ERA with opponents batting a somewhat healthy .246, driven by a .310 BABIP. One week and one appearance into May saw Putz shut down. He was experiencing a bit of dead-arm, and many began to wonder if the combination of age and almost non-existent Spring Training weren’t the real culprits.
When Putz came off the DL, the Diamondbacks were still experiencing a mixed-bag of results from the back end of their bullpen. David Hernandez, who had so aptly stepped in during Putz’s previous DL-stints was in the middle of a months-long meltdown of nearly epic proportions. Heath Bell was the Heath Bell of Miami, and not of San Diego. Additionally, although Putz was deemed healthy enough to pitch, there was a great deal of hand-wringing involved, as Putz average fastball velocity was down significantly from previous season norms. Two appearances later, Putz blew another save. The result was that Putz would only be put into one save situation the remainder of the season, a 16th inning appearance against the Pirates on August 18th.
Yet the poor April and rough return from the DL do not tell the full story for Putz in 2013. From June 29th through the end of the season (which includes the first two games back from the DL) J.J. Putz appeared in 26 games, pitching 21.2 innings. Despite a fastball a solid 3-4 mph slower than previous season, Putz still managed a solid 8.86 K/9, holding batters to a .189 batting average against, while putting up a miniscule 1.25 ERA and earning 6 holds, making him one of the better bullpen arms (in terms of results) in the game.
Putting that into context in comparison to the Gold-Standard for Old Fogies Who Have No Business Closing, over the same period, Mariano Rivera compiled 35 innings, pitching to a 2.57 ERA, with a K/9 of 6.94 and a batting average against of .212 while also accruing a full six blown saves.
In an effort to stem the late-inning bleeding that mostly defined the Diamondbacks’ 2013 season, Kevin Towers traded third base prospect Matt Davidson for Chicago White Sox young stud closer Addison Reed. There was plenty of speculation surrounding Reed (mostly to be covered in a few days), but one things was made abundantly clear, although Reed was a solid closer, the job was not automatically his.
While Didi Gregorius and Chris Owings have been battling it out for the honour of being the Diamondbacks’ starting short stop, Putz and Reed have been trying to make their cases to be the team’s closer. To date, Reed has had a much, much stronger spring, which would seem to end all discussion right there. However, with things seemingly go with all things J.J. Putz, there are several caveats. This is the first time in many years that Putz has thrown so much, so early, electing usually to throw only a few innings at the end of a full spring, not a full spring’s worth of innings in a shortened one. BABIP has also been a thorn for Putz while being a boon for Reed. Perhaps most worrisome for Putz is that his velocity is down from last season. It has however, shown a slight up-tick since the beginning of spring, leading some to suspect he is simply getting a slow start and could still end up with a fastball in the upper 80s to low 90s, which would put him pretty close to where he was during his dominant second half last season.
Further muddying the closer waters are contracts. Putz is earning closer money, $7.5 million dollars in 2014. Meanwhile Reed is entering his last season before arbitration kicks in. With this being the final season for Putz in the desert, it seems rather clear that barring a trade, Reed will be the Diamondbacks’ closer moving forward in 2015. The more saves Reed accumulates before then, the more expensive he is going to get. Reed’s closest comp is probably Craig Kimbrel. The Diamondbacks would quite understandably prefer to avoid a potential $7 million first trip through arbitration. One way to suppress this salary would be to leave Reed in the role of set-up man for the 2014 season as much as possible.
Never one to give a straight answer, Gibson has yet to announce who his Opening Day closer will be. Going by the raw statistics, it would seem that Reed is the logical choice, making Putz an incredibly expensive set-up man. However, given Putz’s long history of exceeding expectations by putting up numbers well above what his detractors and doubters expect from him, combined with Kirk Gibson’s love of gritty veterans, it is not terribly hard to see the honour going to Putz.
The cost/risk of allowing Putz to begin the season as the closer, albeit on a short leash, would seem to favour J.J. Putz starting the season as the team’s closer. If Putz struggles and has an April like he did in 2013 (or even a few weeks), then Reed can quite easily be moved into the role, and Putz can slide to the 8th or 9th inning. On the other hand, if Putz performs as he did throughout the entire second half of 2013, then there are likely few arms better suited to the role of Arizona closer.