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The Hot Stove Corner, Part 10: Relief Pitching

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Minimum 20 relief appearances
Player    ERA W L SV   IP  H  R ER HR BB  K WHIP BAVG 
Medders  1.78 4 1  0 30.1 21  6  6  2 11 31 1.05 .194 
Worrell  2.27 1 1  0 31.2 30 13  8  4  9 22 1.23 .250 
Valverde 2.44 3 4 15 66.1 51 19 18  5 20 75 1.07 .211 
Groom    4.70 0 1  1 15.1 19  8  8  2  5  7 1.57 .302 
Koplove  5.07 2 1  0 49.2 48 31 28  6 20 28 1.37 .257 
Cormier  5.11 7 3  0 79.1 86 50 45  7 43 63 1.63 .285 
Lyon     6.44 0 2 14 29.1 44 25 21  6 10 17 1.84 .341 
Bruney   7.43 1 3 12 46.0 56 39 38  6 35 51 1.98 .299 
Aquino   7.76 0 1  1 31.1 42 29 27  7 17 34 1.88 .318
Lopez    9.42 1 1  2 14.1 19 15 15  2 11 11 2.09 .311 
Totals*  5.40         463                   1.57 .280
NL Rank    16          10                     16   15
* = Includes others

2005 review
As with our rotation, it was clear that it was going to be a long season, right from Opening Day, when our bullpen was forced into 7.1 innings of work, and allowed nine runs on 13 hits and two walks. That pretty much set the tone for the season, with our relievers best described as a bunch of arsonists, rather than "firemen". At times, it seemed there was no lead they could not surrender, no margin which they could not fritter away, with a mix of walks, hits and long bombs.

Perhaps the nadir (look it up, if you must) was the June 10th game against Kansas City, where our relievers, after a rare quality start by Ortiz, failed to hold an 11-3 eighth-innings lead. Edgar Gonzalez (in his only 2005 appearance, making him a rare member of the 'Three Figure ERA' club, at 108.00 for the season), Matt Herges, Javier Lopez and Lance Cormier allowed eight hits and seven walks in two innings, and it took an extra-inning homer by Glaus to pull the bullpen's collective arse out of the fire.

That was the most glaring example of a problem that plagued Arizona the entire season. The LOOGY role was a particular weakness: Choate (traded for John Patterson; oh, the humanity...), Lopez and Groom all tried their hand over the season, and none made much of the job. The closer's spot was another revolving door, albeit partly because of injury. Brandon Lyon started off brilliantly: he saved ten of our first 13 wins, and was on pace for 68 saves after April. Unsurprisingly, less than two weeks later, he blew his arm out, and was effectively toast.

Brian Bruney replaced him, and the results were less than stellar; for whatever reason, Bruney seemed adrift in the ninth inning. His worst outing was perhaps the July 29th game against the Cubs. He came in with a one-run lead, but allowed two walks, both of which came round to score, and the only out Bruney managed was a Chicago sacrifice. Finally, even Melvin had had enough: Valverde took the role over in August, and Papa Grande was solid the rest of the way. At first he might seem overworked - in our last fourteen games, he saved eight and got the win in a ninth - but over the final three weeks, he averaged less than 12.1 pitches/inning.

Towards the end of the season, Brandon Medders also emerged, and was an unexpected bright spot in the pen, keeping opposing hitters to a .194 average, while striking out more than one per inning. He formed an effective combination with Valverde, but outside of those two, mid-season acquisition Tim Worrell was the only other reliever to throw 20 innings and post an ERA below five. Koplove ended up alongside Choate in Tucson; the wheels fell off Cormier mid-season; Aquino varied from unhittable to dreadful. Overall, we had the worst ERA in the NL, by more than half a run - 5.40 was the highest non-Coors figure since the 2000 Phillies (5.66). It's a miracle Bob Melvin had a single hair left on his head by the end of the year.

2006 Possibilities

Free Agents
Going into the off-season, Jose Valverde had locked down the closer's position, so there was not much interest by the Diamondbacks in paying big bucks for any of the established names out there. BR Ryan: 5 years, $47m? Billy Wagner: 4 for $43m? Thanks, but no thanks. Even beyond those, it was surprising how many relief pitchers picked up nice, 2-3 year, eight-figure contracts: Scott Eyre, Tom Gordon, Kyle Farnsworth, Todd Jones, Bob Howry and Braden Looper all got betwen $11-18m.

Our interest was more at the bottom end of the spectrum, and we did have some slots to fill, thanks to departures of one form or another. While re-signing Todd Worrell might have been an option, he opted to head to the Giants, on a two-year, $4m contract. Buddy Groom also became a free agent, but no-one was interested in picking him up - least of all us. And Villarreal and Cormier were traded to Atlanta for Johnny Estrada, opening up two more vscancies in the bullpen.

The only player we actually signed to a guaranteed contract was Jason Grimsley, the veteran (age 38) pitcher who was paid $825K for a one-year contract. Invited to spring training on minor-league deals were steroid cheat Felix Heredia, Kevin Jarvis, and uber-veteran (43!) Terry Mulholland. The last-named looks set to make the bullpen as long-relief man; Jarvis had a decent spring, but has accepted a Tucson roster post; and Heredia sucked, was released, and signed another minor-league deal, with Cleveland.

Trades
Similarly, there were no blockbuster trades for relievers, though we did pick up several, either as components, or in minor deals of their own. Luis Vizcaino arrived as part of the Vazquez trade, while Jeff Bajenaru was also swapped with the Sox, for Alex Cintron, and Juan Cruz (I have some difficulty in not typing Jose Cruz...) was dealt for Brad Halsey. Bajenaru has been optioned to the Sidewinders but the other two look set to make the Opening Day Roster. So you can expect lots of "Cruz missile" headlines this year. :-)

Prospects
Looking around spring training this March, there was definitely a sense of deja-vu. After winnowing out those whose invitations to camp were more out of politeness than actual interest, most of the fringe players were familiar: nobody without major-league experience pitched more than five innings. Perhaps the most interesting candidate was Casey Daigle, back from Double-A oblivion as a reliever. The addition of a sinkerball and the move from starter to bullpen has resurrected his career and the final roster spot apparently comes down to him or Aquino. Surprisingly, he's still only 24.

No-one at Tucson really stood out in the bullpen: Bulger posted the lowest ERA (3.54), but was sent to Anaheim for Callaspo, and has been sent to their minors. Next best - or, at least, next best that's still around - was Kevin Tolar's 3.86. Moving down a level to Tennessee, Daigle was clearly the best, but Phil Stockman's ERA of 3.25 in 36 innings was not too bad, and Mike Schultz (3.58) was also credible.

The impact of Lancaster on pitching can be seen in an overall team ERA of 5.23: only one reliever threw more than 20 innings with an ERA under 4.50. That man was Micah Owings, and his figure of 2.45 partly indicates why he's a top 10 prospect, whose fastball can reach 97 mph. However, it's anticipated that he will move into the Jethawks rotation this year: if he can live up to his potential there, he might start for the D'backs come 2008.

Down in the lower levels, here are the main standouts:

  • South Bend
    Matt Elliott: 32 saves, 2.14 ERA, 71 K's in 54.2 IP
    Hipolito Guerrero: 2.67 ERA, 51 hits in 64 IP
    Josh Perrault: 2.07 ERA, 78.1 IP, .218 OBA
  • Yakima
    Emmanuel Duran: 2.72 ERA, 36.1 IP
    Kyler Newby: 2.18 ERA, 41.1 IP, 66 K's, .172 OBA
  • Missoula
    Eduardo Baeza: 2.25 ERA, 40 IP, 50 K's, .212 OBA
    Daniel Pohlman: 3.63 ERA, 13 saves, 44.2 IP, .243 OBA

Summary + Prediction
At the time of writing, the bullpen for Opening Day looks set as: Valverde, Mulholland, Vizcaino, Cruz, Grimsley, Lyon, and Aquino/Daigle. Though with Medders due to return just a few days into the season, and at least one early off day, one wonders whether they might try and juggle something on the rosters, going with just six relievers? However, we are starting the season in Colorado, and you can almost never have enough arms there...

I don't think the relief corps will be as bad this season as it was last year - if only because it reached unprecedented levels of awfulness. Health will, once again, be a big issue, especially because I'm not over-impressed with the chances of our rotation pitching deep into games. If all goes well, veterans like Mulholland and Grimsley will vacuum up innings, and save the younger arms from being brutally overworked.

The good news is, we do seem to have a fair amount of depth, with the likes of Koplove, Choate, Bajenaru and whoever loses out of Aquino and Daigle, all lurking down in Tucson. So that should give us a certain degree of flexibility in the event of injury. On the other hand, as discussed previously, swapping them in and out could end up being like re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, simply providing slightly different arm angles and velocity of suckitude. I suspect sales of ulcer medication in the Greater Phoenix area will begin to rise steeply in about four days time...