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Arizona Diamondbacks Spring Training Questions, #1: Figuring out the bullpen

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Definitely the biggest area of concern, on the eve of Cactus League play, was a big weakness last year.

Milwaukee Brewers v Arizona Diamondbacks

Needing relief. SnakePit concern level 4.05 out of five.

It’s not much of a surprise, given how bad the D-backs bullpen was in 2016. It was so bad... [All together now: How bad was it?] Actually, let’s just leave it at that. It was so bad. Among the worst in baseball. Among the worst in franchise history. I’d be more specific but Baseball-Reference.com’s new design appears to have broken a few things in the Play Index.

It was thus something of a surprise to many fans, that there didn’t appear to be more energetic activity on this front out of the new front-office. Brad Ziegler and Daniel Hudson, lynch-pins of the bullpen for the past couple of years, and free agents this winter, were allowed to sign elsewhere. The only experienced new reliever added to the 40-man roster was Fernando Rodney, who’ll enter his fifth decade before Opening Day. Otherwise, while a host of new faces will be there in Spring Training, they are mostly non-roster invitees, with minor-league deals and incentive-laden options, for whom the term “seeking a bounceback season” could generally be applied.

All told, there are no fewer than twenty-six relief pitchers in camp, on the 40-man roster or as NRI’s, all competing to win a spot on the 2017 Opening Day roster. For obvious reasons, I’m not going to profile each in depth. Instead, I’ve blocked them together into various groups, based on age, experience, familiarity or whatever else comes to mind.

Near-certs

  • Jake Barrett
  • Randall Delgado
  • Fernando Rodney

These are about the only three people who appear likely to have their tickets pre-punched onto the Opening Day roster. They include a slimmer Barrett, whose 3.49 ERA in 2016 was the best of any regular reliever bar Brad Ziegler, though he was a rare D-back whose FIP was higher than his ERA. Delgado is now our longest-serving reliever, and could end the year #2 on the franchise all-time appearances list - he needs 44 games to pass Jose Valverde there. Rodney will start as the closer... But will we get the pitcher who had a 0.31 ERA over 28 appearances last year for the Padres, or the one who then had a 5.89 ERA in his 39 games, after being traded to the Marlins?

Familiar faces

  • Silvino Bracho
  • Enrique Burgos
  • Andrew Chafin
  • Steve Hathaway
  • Evan Marshall

These are all players who appeared in the 2016 Diamondbacks bullpen, though their workload varied widely: Burgos threw 41.1 innings, Hathaway only 14.2. None of them were particularly successful: Hathaway was the only one with an ERA below five, and that marginally (4.91). Chafin is perhaps the best positioned, being a left-hander who had much better numbers in 2015, and was also extraordinarily unlucky - his 2016 FIP was 2.84, almost four runs better than his actual ERA. He’ll need to prove his health, having been limited to 6.2 (minor-league) innings in the second half due to a shoulder problem. The rest will likely need to show better results.

Converted starters

  • Patrick Corbin
  • Jorge De La Rosa
  • Rubby De La Rosa
  • Zack Godley
  • Keyvius Sampson

It’s an interesting bunch of one-time starters who may end up in the D-backs’ bullpen. We’ve already discussed Corbin, who is almost like Schrodinger’s Pitcher - I’m waiting to open the box and see if his waveform collapses into a starter or reliever. [Quantum mechanics baseball jokes: only on your AZ SnakePit...] RDLR’s elbow will likely mean he’s not ready for Opening Day, though he says it feels “super, super good”. JDLR has a lot to gain, since he could earn $2.25m if he makes the roster, and his contract includes $600K in relief incentives. Godley and Sampson are longer shots, though the latter has an intriguing arm, if he can control it better than previously shown.

Veteran presences

  • Erik Davis
  • J.J. Hoover
  • Kevin Jepsen
  • Brian Matusz
  • Erik Davis
  • Tom Wilhelmsen

All non-roster invitees, in their thirties or who will get there this season, and mostly looking to rebound after underwhelming 2016 campaigns. The routes by which they got to SRF vary widely: Davis hasn’t pitched at all in the majors since 2013, following Tommy John surgery, while Hoover started last season as the Reds’ closer. Jepsen’s 5.98 is the best 2016 major-league ERA here, ahead of Wilhelmsen (6.80), Hoover (13.50) and Matusz (14.00), so these will have to prove themselves worthy of a spot on the roster. But outside of Davis, they have more major-league appearances than all other candidates bar Rodney and JDLR - so there’s no shortage of experience here.

The n00bs

  • Miller Diaz
  • Daniel Gibson
  • Tyler Jones
  • Joey Krehbiel
  • Jared Miller
  • Yuhei Nakaushiro
  • Jimmie Sherfy
  • Josh Taylor

None of these have ever appeared in the major-leagues, and the list covers a broad range, from those whose invite to spring training is more a courtesy, through to some with a genuine shot to make the roster - albeit perhaps not necessarily on Opening Day. Jones and Sherfy have the advantage of being already on the 40-man list; the former was also a Rule 5 selection by Arizona, so might be lost to the team entirely if he doesn’t make it. Miller is the trendy pick to click, after his overwhelming Arizona Fall League performance (18.1 shutout innings, with 30 strikeouts), but don’t overlook lefty Nakaushiro who had a 1.23 ERA and 40 K’s over 29.1 IP, across four levels in 2016.

Conclusions

There’s a lot of options, and to be honest, you could probably throw darts at the list above and get results little if any worse than the 2016 bullpen. Indeed, I knocked up a quick PHP script which takes one random arm from each of the groups above, and combines them with the three near-certs, in order to generate Your 2017 Arizona Diamondbacks Bullpen.

I presume the D-backs will be more rigorous in their method of selection. Though if spring stats are meaningless, spring stats for relievers are particularly so, since you’re typically dealing with a sample size which would benefit from the use of a microscope. One mistake can inflate a pitcher’s entire pre-season line horribly, if it happens to come with a couple of runners on base; a pitcher that hits his spots, has good stuff and is missing bats, should get the nod over one reliant on his defense making plays behind him. The coaches and front office will see far more of these candidates than us, and so it’s an area in which we will largely have to trust their judgement.