The past five years
Will the team’s LOOGY find better success in 2014?
As the sole Major League player acquired in the Ian Kennedy trade last season, the expectations of Joe Thatcher were somewhat high. Arizona wasted no time trying out their shiny new LOOGY either, as he joined the team while they were visiting Fenway Park, and thus were forced to deal with the formidable David Ortiz. Thatcher made quick work of Ortiz in all three games of the series, lifting hopes that the team might have acquired a rather special piece for the bullpen.
Unfortunately for Thatcher and the Diamondbacks, the remainder of the season did not go nearly as smoothly. From August 7 through September 29, Thatcher made 19 appearances, pitching 7.1 innings with a batting average against of .414 and an OPS of 1.022. Facing only 35 batters, Thatcher allowed seven earned runs on 12 hits and four walks for an ERA of 8.59. While the opposition did experience some luck with a BABIP of .458, it is very debatable just how much of that number was luck as Thatcher allowed line drives on 42% of the batters he faced. Control was an issue for Thatcher. He only managed to throw 63% of his pitches for strikes. When he did manage to throw strikes, they generally found wood as he only was able to record looking strikes or swinging strikes on 24% of the pitches (12% on each). Quite simply, Thatcher's sub 90s fastball and very average slider simply were not enough to miss bats when brought in to face the tough hitters that specialists are supposed to face.
In the offseason, Thatcher appeared destined to be a clear non-tender candidate as he was arbitration bound and in line for a raise despite his poor August and September. Yet, given the nature of left-handed relief and the short supply of it available in the Diamondbacks' system, Thatcher was offered arbitration and eventually agreed to a one-year deal with what amounted to a team opt-out clause.
While Spring Training numbers should usually be taken with a grain of salt (after all, one season Ichiro went an entire spring without recording a hit) in the case of Thatcher, the results may be a bit more indicative of what the team can expect as he saw roughly the same level of usage in spring as he is likely to see during the season. Over the course of Spring Training, Thatcher has only allowed one run in 6.2 innings of work spread out over 7 appearances. Given that Thatcher's primary use is a one-batter appearance, these "extended" appearances, though not the norm for Thatcher, only help his case.
Despite Thatcher's spring performance, the team was apparently not entirely satisfied with their bullpen options so, on March 10 the Diamondbacks signed LHRP Oliver Perez to a two-year contract. With the previous signing of Bronson Arroyo forcing Delgado to the bullpen as well, it appeared that Thatcher was quite likely to be the odd man out, as there appeared to simply be no slots left in which to slot him. Then, less than a week before Opening Day, Corbin went down, opening the door for Randall Delgado to rejoin the rotation. Archie Bradley's struggles in Australia all but kicked the door the rest of the way open, once again freeing up a spot in the bullpen.
The most likely candidates for the final bullpen slot would seem to be Joe Thatcher and Will Harris. While Thatcher has had the better spring, Harris had the far better season in 2013. Harris however, is a RHRP, while Thatcher is a LOOGY. Having a second southpaw in the bullpen is rarely a bad thing. Will Harris also has options remaining, meaning the team can simply slot him for Reno and retain the services of both players. Given that it is unlikely that the Diamondbacks make it through the entire season without suffering any further injuries to the pitching staff or experience bouts of ineffectiveness from a bullpen arm, it would seem to make the most sense to try and keep both arms around in response.
Thatcher walks a fine line. If he perform in 2014 the way he did in 2013 after be acquired by the Diamondbacks, then his time in the desert is likely to be quite short as the team can ill-afford to have such a weak piece in their bullpen while trying to keep pace with the likes of the Dodgers and Giants. Will Harris could be called up and Thatcher could be traded or simply released. If however, Thatcher returns to being the LOOGY the Diamondbacks traded for and the pitcher that has thus far shown up for Spring Training, then he is likely an important piece of the Diamondback bullpen moving forward.