In January 2013, everything was looking golden for J.J. Putz. Not only had his option year been exercised by the Diamondbacks the previous October, they had now agreed to extend him for the following season, at $7 million. While there were some health issues, and Putz was getting up there in age - he'd have his 36th birthday the following month - it didn't seem a bad deal. After all, in 2011-12, Putz had saved 77 games for the Diamondbacks, more than anyone in the majors except Craig Kimbrel, Jose Valverde and John Axford, with a 2.48 ERA that was significantly better than Valverde or Axford.
But let this be a lesson in reliever volatility. Less than 18 months later, only Kimbrel is anything like a top closer. Valverde has been released both by the Tigers and the Mets; Axford has a total of nine saves to his name since the start of 2013; and, of course, Putz was designated for assignment by the Diamondbacks, having managed to save a mere six games over that time. What seemed like a near-certainty when Putz was extended, Putz overtaking Valverde as the franchise leader for career saves, will now no longer happen.
It's clear that a lot of his team-mates will miss him. Witness the outpouring of emotion on Twitter:
Already feels weird without JJ. Hands down one of the best people I’ve come across in this game. Learned a lot from him even as a starter— Daniel Hudson (@DHuddy41) June 20, 2014
#Dbacks Brad Ziegler said the bullpen lost it's leader in JJ Putz.— Steve Gilbert (@SteveGilbertMLB) June 20, 2014
Helping me get through last year. I've met a lot of guys through the years and he has to be in the top 3 of best teammates and person.— David Hernandez (@DHern_30) June 20, 2014
It is easy to forget how good Putz was, when he was at his best in 2011-12. The Diamondbacks hadn't had a 30-save guy since 2007, and Putz provided that in both seasons. He was a huge, huge part of why the team was able to go 84-0 - let me repeat that, 84-0!! - when leading after eight innings in 2011, on its way to winning the National League West for the last time to date. In save situations that season, J.J. held batters to a line of .184/.236/.288, struck out 49 in 46 innings and had a 1.57 ERA. That's a very safe, comforting level of performance to have in the ninth inning.
But Father Time is an incessant predator, and over the past couple of seasons, Putz's body started to fail him. He managed only 40 appearances for the Diamondbacks last year, the second-lowest figure since his rookie season of 2003, missing almost all of May and June with an elbow strain. While he pitched well enough when healthy, his absence was certainly part of the cause for our bullpen struggles, and J.J. had lost the closer's role to Brad Ziegler by the time he came back. The trade for Addison Reed this winter, left Putz as one of the most expensive set-up men in the league, and again, he missed most of May, with more or less the same issue.
As his teammates mention, his presence off the field was as much a positive as any performance on it. He was te captain of the bullpen, and while the term "veteran presence" is much-derided, this is one case where it seems to have been a genuine plus, mentoring younger pitchers, etc. His reputation as a prankster was well-deserved, and while jokes involving bubble-gum and hats may seem childish, they certainly lightened the mood and, as any employer will tell you, happy workers perform better. Who can forget the infamous Kirk Gibson necktie Putz created, and here he is, pranking D-backs media guru, Josh Rawitch, with the aid of a large number of balloons...
Just to put Putz's overall performance in context, this table shows the top 10 relievers, by ERA+, in Diamondbacks' history (min. 75 IP).
And, for old time's sake, one last rendition...