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Community Projections 2008, Part IV: Bullpen

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If Sunday is supposed to be a day of rest, this one is shaping up to be quite productive. Four film reviews written already (including a more detailed critique of Night of the Lepus, which appears to have been the chosen viewing of a significant number of readers!), I've got to get the last part of our community projections done, write up today's game - hooray, a victory at long last! - and then got to knock our a Diamondbacks season preview for Deadspin. So I'd better hone my sarcasm finely for that; it's a tough crowd of readers over there.

First though, posted the summary of the projections for our starting rotation. An interesting breadth of opinion there; I think we all agreed that Webb is going to kick ass this year, but that was just about the only point of consensus. All of the other pitchers saw ERA predictions that varied from a spread of 0.69 runs [for Davis] all the way up to 0.97 [for the Big Unit]. There was a good debate on how 'lucky' our pitchers were last season, and how much impact our defense - generally though of as above-average, though the question of how much remains open - will have on the results produced by our pitchers. Of course, Webb ran away with the poll question, picking up no less than 81% of the vote for 'Most Wins'. I'd like to thank Mrs. Davis for stopping by and voting for her son, however. :-)

Might be a rather tighter decision in this week's question, as the Arizona bullpen will attempt to reproduce the considerable success they had in 2007. Closer Jose Valverde is gone, of course, replaced in the bullpen by Chad Qualls - statistically, that would seem to hurt Arizona, with Jose's career ERA+ 141 and Chad's 129. However, there's no doubt that Valverde over-achieved last season, and this was a classic "sell high" move by Josh Byrnes. [At the time of writing, however, Chris Burke is looking like the jewel in that trade, with a crunchy .395/.489/.763 line this spring, leading the D-backs in hits and total bases]. Our relief corps was an absolute rock last year, the Four Relievers of the Apocalypse proving near-impeccable at preserving the one-run leads handed to them by Melvin. It'd be nice if they were given a bit more leeway by the offense, yet we still want their performances to be reliable. What do we anticipate?

Closer: Brandon Lyon
2007: 2.68 ERA, 1.24 WHIP

Bill James: 4.13, 1.38
CHONE: 4.09, 1.36
Marcel: 3.91, 1.35
MINER: 4.08, 1.41
ZIPS: 3.82, 1.33

Lyon steps in to Valverde's shoes, with some filling to do, Papa Grande having led the majors in saves. However, we don't really need Lyon to post a Valverde-esque line [2.66 ERA] to be acceptable in the role. As discussed back in December 2006, "The gap between a stud with a 3.00 ERA, and a bust whose ERA is double that, is surprisingly small: the stud converts eight of nine save chances, but a bust will still make seven of nine." Lyon's ERA will not be below three, because he will not continue his insane level of home-run suppression from last year, where he allowed only two bombs in 74 innings - predictions this year in the 5-7 range. He does have a surprising range of pitches for a closer - four solid ones, rather than one or two - and certainly has the phlegmatic character to deal with the outrageous fortune of the position.

The scope of the drop expected is surprising; the average ERA of the five systems is above four. Some of that is due to the HR/9 going up, but they also expect his hits allowed to go up - his BABIP last season was below average, at .287, and some regression there might be expected too. However, even in the second-half, after his 46-inning homerless streak ended, his ERA was a very solid 3.09, so I feel that a few more hits here and there should not prove too much more trouble.
AZ SnakePit: 3.47, 1.28, 36 saves

Setup Man: Tony Peña
2007: 3.27 ERA, 1.10 WHIP

Bill James: 3.53, 1.20
CHONE: 4.14, 1.33
Marcel: 3.93, 1.25
MINER: 4.30, 1.29
ZIPS: 3.69, 1.27

If Lyon did falter, Peña would be the next in line, and is certainly more of a traditional closer, a fireballer who had the same number of K's as hits in 2007 [63 in 85.1 IP]. He led the pen in games and innings, and this is just his third season in the majors - Peña is still only 26, so would still seem to be capable of improvement. He was phenomenally brutal on right-handed batters, who hit just .176 with an OPS of only .521, but left-handers batted .241, so that wasn't terrible. I'd like to see a few less walks from Peña, but overall, he should do well again in 2008, and that would put him in line to replace free-agent Lyon in the closer's spot next season.
AZ SnakePit: 3.41 ERA, 1.16 WHIP

Setup Man: Chad Qualls
2007: 3.05 ERA, 1.32 WHIP
[with Houston]
Bill James: 4.16, 1.33
CHONE: 3.73, 1.29
Marcel: 3.96, 1.32
MINER: 4.00, 1.27
ZIPS: 3.86, 1.29

As with Haren, I'm unsure whether these predictions take into account the move from Houston to Phoenix. Certainly, it takes Qualls from a fairly-neutral park to a hitter-friendly one, but he has always been a ground-ball pitcher [his career ratio is 2.31] and that should help ease the transition. His BABIP was also high, at .332, and just as for Lyon, that should regress towards the mean. Interestingly, Qualls has routinely been better than his FIP [Fielding Independent ERA], by 0.65-0.85 runs the past three years. Pitching in front of a good defence for the D-backs should help him some more in 2008.
AZ SnakePit: 3.37 ERA, 1.24 WHIP

Famine: Juan Cruz
2007: 3.10 ERA, 1.26 WHIP

Bill James: 3.75, 1.33
CHONE: 3.72, 1.33
Marcel: 4.17, 1.38
MINER: 4.12, 1.42
ZIPS: 3.67, 1.35

Maybe that should be Juan 'Feast or Famine' Cruz, since it seemed last year he was often insanely good yet then imploded utterly. Witness one month (July 4-August 4) of 11.1 innings with only four hits and 19 strikeouts - bookended by two performances where he gave up five hits, two walks and nine runs in an inning of work. He struck out batters an an obscene 12.84/9 IP, and right-handers managed only sixteen hits all year off Cruz, a .143 clip. He may be the nearest thing we have to a ROOGY, as left-handers were a lot more comfortable [a .269/.412/.454 line, with a K:BB ratio of 34:24], but if properly used, should remain virtually as effective.
AZ SnakePit: 3.52 ERA, 1.29 WHIP

LOOGY: Doug Slaten
2007: 2.72 ERA, 1.51 WHIP

Bill James: 3.48, 1.35
CHONE: 4.11, 1.39
Marcel: 4.09, 1.39
MINER: 3.61, 1.27
ZIPS: 3.63, 1.39

Slaten's status for Opening Day remains in doubt: he hasn't pitched in a game yet, but Melvin said today he was "really encouraged" that Slaten could be ready. If so, he'll be the left-handed specialist again; last season, he saw action in 61 games, but only threw 36.1 innings. Still, almost 45% of the hitters he faced last year were right-handed and, to be honest, an overall opponents' average of .275 is a good bit higher than I'd like. He saw almost no action late on - 8.1 innings in August and September combined, though that's partly because of five "0 IP" appearances where he failed to retire a batter. Be nice if he could be like July - 7.2 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 8 K - but he's likely the reliever I'm least optimistic about.
AZ SnakePit: 4.05 ERA, 1.44 WHIP

Long relief: Edgar Gonzalez
2007: 5.03 ERA, 1.35 WHIP

Bill James: 4.76, 1.38
CHONE: 4.34, 1.33
Marcel: 4.60, 1.33
MINER: 4.31, 1.30
ZIPS: 4.81, 1.30

Bob McManaman recently said, "Edgar Gonzalez might be as valuable as any pitcher the Diamondbacks have." That is perhaps a bit of hyperbole, especially for a man with a career ERA+ of 79, but I can see where he's coming from; EdGon's key is his flexibility. As a reliever last year, he pitched in every inning from the first to the eleventh, started twelve games and finished five more, career highs in both categories. Gonzalez covered for Johnson during his absence, and will likely be asked to do so again this year. He's the only one of our significant relievers expected by the systems to improve, and it's almost impossible to predict his workload. Hopefully it'll be low, as that'll mean our starters are healthy and pitching deep enough into games not to need long relief.
AZ SnakePit: 4.49 ERA, 1.35 WHIP

Mop-up man: Dustin Nippert
2007: 5.56 ERA, 1.41 WHIP

Bill James: 4.30, 1.48
CHONE: 4.77, 1.50
Marcel: 4.94, 1.43
MINER: 4.15, 1.43
ZIPS: 5.14, 1.54

Nippert or Medders? Could be either at time of writing, but I think Nippert is more likely to get it, based on age and potential - I can't see Medders getting any better. Nippert should, albeit in part because 2007 was pretty bad: like Cruz, he could be fine, but while Cruz was consistently inconsistent, Nippert failed to pitch adequately after the break. A first-half ERA of 3.05 ballooned to 7.66 in the second half, with hitters teeing off at a .308 rate. The real Nippert is likely somewhere in the middle; the question is, will he be somewhere in the middle for Arizona, or somewhere in the middle, somewhere else?
AZ SnakePit: 4.59, 1.39 WHIP


Diamondbacks 6, White Sox 5
Hey, look! A victory! Never mind that it again comes against the White Sox, who have now provided the majority of our wins this spring [four of seven], or that it came on the back of another somewhat shaky outing by a starter. Dan Haren gave up five runs, four earned, on six hits over five innings, but was still fairly happy: "I probably made some pitches I wouldn't necessarily make during the season. But command was there, I was able to go in and out with the fastball. My offspeed stuff is coming around. I feel good. My arm feels great. Hopefully the next time I can get better results." Maybe the cold, drizzly weather - which delayed the first-pitch by 22 minutes - affected him a bit.

It didn't seem to hurt the offense, who got off to a roaring start, scoring in each of the first three innings to take a 5-1 lead by the end of the third, with Augie Ojeda singling in two in the second, then scoring thanks to a muffed fly-ball from Young in center that let him get all the way round to third. But the Sox came back, helped by two errors from the Diamondbacks (Upton and Ojeda the culprits there) to tie things up by the middle of the fifth. Haren departed and Medders gave Arizona two scoreless, but hardly perfect innings, with three hits and two walks. Fruto and Rosales proved themselves equally adept at dodging bullets, and the bullpen line today was 4 IP, 6 H, 4 BB - but zero runs.

Conor Jackson was the offensive star, going 3-for-4 and doubling home what proved to be the winning run in the seventh. That boosted his spring average to .326. He was batting clean-up today, though that was likely in part because Byrnes sat, being replaced in left by Jeff Salazar. Mark Reynolds reached safely twice, with a walk and a hit, as did Salazar. However, the game was also the last hurrah for a number of players, with 2B Bonifacio, catcher Castillo, pitcher Fruto and OF Raines Jr. all being cut from the active roster - the first three were optioned to the minors, but Raines was a non-roster invitee so his future is less certain.

Looks like we can look forward to Chris Young and Mark Reynolds going head-to-head for the strikeout crown this year after all. For the Mark Reynolds experiment of trying to avoid K's has come to an end. Here's what he has to say:

I realized that's not me. I'm swinging at the first strike I see. Hanging curveball, hanging slider, fastball, whatever. That's what got me here, so I don't think I need to change it. I just realized, 'Why am I trying to change something that got me to the major leagues?' Strikeouts are going to be there. I've accepted it. I don't care what anybody writes about it or anybody says. It's just me.

Fair enough, in some ways, though 'got me to the major leagues' might be a bit of an exaggeration. If I recall correctly, the reason he's here is because of the time last seasons where we had no third-basemen above Double-A, whose count of functioning limbs didn't stop at three. For the record, after today's game, Young leads the team with 12 strikeouts this spring, and Reynolds is third on 9 [Salazar slots in the middle on 11]. But if he bats .279 with 25 homers and 90 RBI - his 2007 stats, pro-rated to a full 162-game season - who cares how many times Special K fans?

Today's comments starter As well as the community projections for our relief corps, what members of the bullpen are you most and least concerned about this season, and why?