We’re little more than a year in, so this might be a little premature. But if there has been a defining trait of the Mike Hazen years for the Diamondbacks, it could be the high rate of bullpen churn. Last off-season, Hazen brought on board Fernando Rodney, Jorge De La Rosa, J.J. Hoover, T.J. McFarland and Tom Wilhelmsen, who combined to make 248 appearances and throw 228 relief innings. But only McFarland will be part of the roster in 2018. Which may be why so far, all three acquisitions for the Diamondbacks have been relief arms: Brad Boxberger, traded from the Rays; Rule 5 draft pick Albert Suarez; and most recently, Japanese free-agent Yoshihisa Hirano.
If last year is any guide, our general manager may not be done yet. But as we close out 2017, let’s take a look at the current candidates for the bullpen spots next season.
- Archie Bradley
- Brad Boxberger
- Yoshihisa Hirano
While Hazen is certainly forward-thinking, it’s worth noting that we have not seen any attempts at a radical shake-up of the closer role. In Rodney, the 2017 Diamondbacks had one, well-defined closer, following standard baseball practice of the last half-century. There’s no reason to expect 2018 will be different. But there are currently three possible candidates, all of whom have their strengths and weaknesses. Bradley is probably the best all-round pitcher of the trio. But that, and his ability to pitch multiple innings, perhaps makes him better suited for the role he filled so effectively last season, operating as a non-closer “fireman”, as and when needed.
Hirano has the most experience of closing, having saved 156 games for the Orix Buffaloes in Japan. However, there’s always a question of how Japanese players and their skill-sets will translate to the major-leagues. ZIPS currently projects Hirano to post a 4.26 ERA. Now, a 4.26 ERA can certainly play for a closer - it’s basically what Rodney gave Arizona last year (4.23), and with the benefit of a few months’ hindsight, I don’t think too many would complain. But it’s a figure which Dan Szymborski describes as “essentially a bog-standard average reliever.” Not sure that’s exactly what you want stepping up to preserve narrow leads in the ninth inning.
That’s why I think it’ll probably be Boxberger who gets the job. There are a number of elements he has in common with Rodney [though Brad has mastered the whole “hat angle” thing... :)]. In particular, he’s someone with recent closer experience, having saved 41 games for Tampa in 2015, who lost the job. In Boxberger’s case, he had surgery the following March to repair a torn abdominal adductor muscle. The injury basically kept him out until the end of July, and by the time he came back, Alex Colome had taken over the closer’s position for the Rays. Health is likely the key, Boxberger having been limited to a total of 53.2 innings in 2016-17.
- Jake Barrett
- Andrew Chafin
- Randall Delgado
- Jared Miller
- Jimmie Sherfy
The first group represent those who are certain (bar health and trades elsewhere) to be in our bullpen on Opening Day in 2018. This batch represent the current next tier of candidates, from whom will likely be drawn the rest of the bullpen. There are five listed. Those with graduate-level math skills will realize there are likely only four spots open, presuming the D-backs go with the standard 7-man bullpen. Therefore, it’s quite likely one of these could end up in Reno, at least for the start of the season. Obviously, we will not get through the year using seven relievers, so it’s more a case of when, not if, we see the eighth man.
As in the closer’s category, these represent a range of weapons, with their own benefits and drawbacks. For instance, Delgado has seven years of major-league experience; Miller none at all. But Jared is a left-hander, something also true only of Chafin among these first eight pitchers. That’s one factor in why Andrew is probably the man in this group, closest to being guaranteed a bullpen spot. Following a great 2015, and a hellacious 2016, Chafin bounced back nicely for the D-backs this year. Over the past three seasons, Chafin’s FIP of 3.26 is above only Rodney among Arizona relievers with 50+ innings in that time.
Sherfy was lights out in the regular season, but couldn’t get anyone out in the post-season; hopefully that proves no more than a blip on his radar. Barrett wasn’t able to build on his successful 2016 campaign, seeing both his ERA and FIP balloon. His position in the Opening Day bullpen could be in doubt, especially given the new arrivals signed by the team. If the campaign started tomorrow, for my money, he’d be the one ticketed for Reno.
(More or less) Fringe candidates
- Silvino Bracho
- Matt Koch
- T.J. McFarland
- Braden Shipley
- Albert Suarez
These are the other potential relief arms on the 40-man roster: the cases where I’d put the player’s chance of making the 2018 Opening Day roster at less than 50/50. For example, there’s a reason McFarland was non-tendered, and then re-signed by the team. Being a Rule 5 pick, Suarez will need to be kept on the roster, or be offered back to the Giants, but I’m not sure I’m seeing a spot for him, if everyone ahead remains healthy. Koch and Bracho were unimpressive at the major-league level in 2017, though the team still thinks enough of them to keep both on the 40-man. Shipley’s future may now be in the bullpen. After two seasons, it doesn’t appear to be as a starter.