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Season Preview: Will the Arizona Diamondbacks bullpen offer relief?

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Last year, the D-backs bullpen had its moments. Unfortunately, it also had its moments. Will this year be any different?

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Given a past year where there has been wholesale change to both the starting rotation and Arizona's position players, the bullpen is a relative oasis of calm. Indeed, it's quite possible that the bullpen will consist entirely of players who have previously appeared for the Diamondbacks, with no major off-season arrivals or departures. However, that doesn't mean there won't be some differences. At least half the bullpen from Opening Day 2014 won't be there on April 6th, when this season gets under way against the San Francisco Giants.

No shortage of (ulnar) collateral

The Tommy John Trio were a folk-rock ensemble, who had a few minor hits in the late seventies. Alternatively, they were the members of the Diamondbacks bullpen, who missed close to the entire 2014 season due to surgery: David Hernandez, Matt Reynolds and former starter, Daniel Hudson. The last named did make it back after his second TJ procedure, to make a few appearances in September, but it's not clear how the team will use him in 2015. The aim appears to be to get Hudson back to being a starting pitcher again, but given his lack of innings since the middle of 2012, that will be an interesting journey, especially given our rotational depth.

Hernandez's loss, late in spring training last year, was particularly brutal, coming on the heels of a roller-coaster 2013 campaign, which saw him optioned to the minors, before roaring back with a 0.64 ERA in September. With a 116 ERA+ over his three seasons pitching for the Diamondbacks, a healthy Hernandez can be a solid weapon in the seventh and eighth innings. However, with his surgery only a little more than 11 months in the past, and Hernandez still apparently some way off Cactus League action,.it would seem far from a given that he will be ready in time to claim an Opening Day roster spot.

Reynolds, who had his surgery in September 2013, should be more fully recovered from his procedure. But he has also yet to see significant action this spring either, having been slowed by a rib injury instead. Matt was scheduled to face live hitters today, however, and the results might give us a better idea of his progress, and whether he can be penciled in for a potential Opening Day slot.

Other injury issues

You can almost complete an entire bullpen, between the above and the additional Diamondbacks relievers also carrying an ailment of one kind or another at this point in spring training. Perhaps most concerning is closer Addison Reed, who reported to Salt River Fields, having apparently experienced shoulder soreness, before spring training even started. While the pain has gone away and tests showed no apparent structural damage, Reed still needs to work his way up through bullpen sessions before he can think about getting into games. Putz said, "I'd say by the 20th, I'm for sure off the mound," which would appear to leave little room for any further setbacks.

More of a hangover from last season is Brad Ziegler, who struggled in the second half,. He put up a 5.95 ERA before his season ended after his September 4 appearance, and microfracture surgery on his left knee. As recently as a month ago, he was still playing catch overhand - his submarine delivery does put more stress on that plant leg - but he threw off the mound on Tuesday and declared himself "ahead of schedule." Presuming that is the case, in the event Reed is not ready for Opening Day, it appears likely new manager Chip Hale will follow Kirk Gibson's lead and use Ziegler as a fill-in closer

FInally, among the (more or less) walking wounded, is sophomore Matt Stites. At one point, talked about as the closer of the future, a somewhat wobbly rookie campaign (5.73 ERA in 33 innings) cooled that hype a little, but he's still likely to be in the mix this season. Like Reed, he also reported some soreness throwing a side session before reporting to camp, and is running behind the other catchers, though he played catch on Tuesday. While the expressed hope is he'll be ready for Opening Day, we won't know for sure until we see him performing in Cactus League action.

Returning relievers

What of those who do not appear to have any health issues? There are three others who pitched more than 10 innings out of the Arizona bullpen in 2014, who are still with the organization, and it wouldn't surprise me if all three were part of the Opening Day roster. Randall Delgado was second only to Ziegler in relief innings thrown, and would still appear most likely to work in long relief this season, although might be considered an outside shot for the rotation. That didn't go too well last year [6.61 ERA as a starter, 4.40 as a reliever], and with the number of possible options, I think he'll be better served in the bullpen again.

Evan Marshall came out of nowhere, allowing one run in 14 appearances for AAA Reno before getting called up, and performing well enough that he finished the season in the role of set-up man to Reed. As Ryan Morrison noted last month, one of the things which set Marshall apart was his solid strikeout rate combined with an above-average percentage of ground-balls. If he can maintain both those in 2015, it seems likely he will become the heir apparent to Reed's role permanently, when the closer's escalating costs cause the team to seek a cheaper replacement. When that may be will depend on the performances of Reed, Marshall and the Diamondbacks overall.

Finally, there's Oliver Perez. Say what you like about Kevin Towers, this was a good signing. Perez became the first left-handed Diamondback reliever since Greg Swindell in 1999 to throw 50+ innings with a sub-three ERA. Actually, he became the first LHRP to throw 50+ innings of any kind for Arizona since Clay Zavada in 2009, which gives you some idea of how much a problem the position has been of late. With no Joe Thatcher as competition, he'll be the front-line lefty in the bullpen on Opening Day, at least until Matt Reynolds has proven the return both of his health and his effectiveness.

New year, new faces

Last year, the Diamondbacks had almost three full bullpens worth of pitchers: they used 19 different relievers, two off the franchise record, set in 2007. They've only once used less than 16 over the course of a season (13 in 2000), so there will certainly still be plenty of other arms needed. Which rookies might fill the Marshall role this season, coming up from the minors to provide a boost to our bullpen in 2015? Let's take a look at some potential names, first those currently found on the 40-man roster.

Big man on campus is Enrique Burgos - literally, as his listed weight of 250 pounds makes him the largest pitcher on the team, and works out at 1.35 Corbins. The 24-year-old posted insane strikeout numbers with Visalia, 83 of his 164 outs came by the K. However, he will probably need to show he can perform at levels above High-A. The same likely goes for Will Locante, who hasn't pitched past A-ball, though has been getting good reviews this spring. Chip Hale said, "He throws really hard, his arm angle, his slider, the sink on his fastball — all those things make him really hard to hit. Those are those impact, lefty arms that are hard to find."

Perhaps more likely are some among the non-roster invitees, led by Jake Barrett - like Tuffy Gosewisch, an ASU alumni and former closer. He put up a 3.09 ERA between Mobile and Reno, despite only turning 23 in July, and lost weight this off-season, dropping 20 pounds to become the trimmest he has been since high-school. There are also a few with major-league experience, including Blake Beavan, who played for the Mariners the last four seasons, and Dan Runzler, who was part of the San Francisco Giants from 2009-2012. There are also top prospects like Jimmy Sherfy (ranked #9 on John's off-season list), who didn't get an invite to spring training.

Conclusion

The team may not have made any big moves this winter, but if Hernandez and Reynolds can return from their Tommy John surgeries to the form they once showed, and couldn't in 2014, that will likely be as big a boost as any free-agent signing. Still, even by the nature of bullpens, this year promises to be highly volatile. I'd be unsurprised if our depth is tested early, with one or more pitchers unable to achieve 100% readiness by Opening Day, so having to start the season on the DL. Good health and good production from those working high-leverage innings - Reed, Ziegler and Marshall - is almost an essential if the D-backs are to make any kind of run in 2015.