Like most teams, Arizona is likely to have more turnover in the bullpen than in any other portion of the roster. The much-maligned relief crew actually came on pretty strong in the second half of the season, but we can expect Kevin Towers to make some changes — even if that’s just because there are more candidates on the current 40-man roster than there are spots on the 25-man. Nonetheless, all pitchers who played a relief role of any significance in 2013 is under team control for 2014.
After Matt Reynolds went down, the search for an effective lefty lasted the rest of the season (and it now looks like the D-backs will play all of 2014 without him, as well). Tony Sipp didn’t capitalize on his strong 2012, and after a great first series in Boston, Joe Thatcher was terrible after coming over in trade from San Diego. Eury de la Rosa was quite good in his first appearances with the club, but his minor league numbers are now much better than the 7.36 ERA he ended up with at the major league level (14.2 IP). With no lefty currently on the roster promising to be above-average in relief next season, it seems that Arizona might do well to have at least a good back up plan for 2014.
Assuming a seven-man bullpen, however, there may only be one space for a lefty in the bullpen to open the season, to be awarded to one of the three men above, or to the enigmatic Joe Paterson. The reason is that there are six RHP who are either too expensive to write off, or too likely to succeed given their performances this season.
I don’t need to spell out who falls in the former category, but both Heath Bell and J.J. Putz will be given spots to open the season — although with contracts expiring at the end of the 2014 season, neither pitcher is likely to be given a very long leash. I don’t expect Putz to struggle or to get cut, given the significant success he had toward the end of the season (dislocated pinky notwithstanding) once he started throwing a slider again, which was the pitch that most contributed to his success in his days in Seattle as closer. Putz ended the season with a 2.36 ERA in 34.1 innings, and while peripheral numbers point to at least a little luck, the fact that he seemed to put his rocky patch behind him is at least encouraging for 2014.
Bell ended the season with a 0.0 WAR, despite pitching 65.2 innings — suggesting that just about anyone the D-backs might consider would be at least as effective. But even if Bell struggles in the spring, he will probably be given a chance to succeed in the major league bullpen to open the season. In a best case scenario, he might show enough effectiveness to be sold off at the trade deadline next year (if the team’s posture permits them to sell).
In the second category of pitcher is Will Harris, who was claimed off waivers early in the 2013 season before establishing himself as a potential above-average reliever going forward. Even his 2.91 ERA is misleading, as a few of those lumps came after heavy use (remember how taxed the whole team was in August) or in stints of more than one inning. Harris would have to look pretty bad in the spring to not break camp with the team; he was the second-most valuable reliever for the D-backs in 2013 (0.9 WAR).
That brings us to the most effective reliever on the team: Josh Collmenter, who was worth 1.1 wins above replacement by posting a 3.13 ERA in a whopping 92 innings. You can question whether Collmenter might be better used in short, high-leverage situations (as Towers did in August), but you can’t really question whether Collmenter deserves a spot on the team. Arizona needs a long man, and they happen to have one of the very best in the business.
We haven’t even touched on Brad Ziegler, who was good for a 2.22 ERA while pitching the second-most innings in relief on the team (73). I don’t expect Ziegler to start the season as closer (more on that below), but obviously Ziegler has a bullpen slot with his name on it.
That brings us to David Hernandez, who was really quite terrible for a big chunk of the season (4.48 ERA overall). If he gets into a sustained rough patch again, you can expect David to get the hook a little more quickly — but after his stint with Reno, Hernandez finished the season with a fantastic September (1 earned run in 14 innings, for a 0.64 ERA). David’s April (2.84 ERA) and May (3.60 ERA) were in line with his performances in 2011 and 2012, so in terms of planning for the 2014 season, I think it’s fairly obvious that the team will bet on him, rather than against him.
Putz, Harris, Collmenter, Hernandez and Ziegler seem like absolute locks to open the season with Arizona, with Bell highly likely to open the season with the team as well, and with Chaz Roe waiting in the Reno wings to add some innings if necessary. Matt Langwell really didn’t show enough (5 earned runs in 8.2 IP) to earn a 2014 roster spot, and it looks like Charles Brewer also has more waiting to do.
The LHP element to the bullpen is a more difficult question, and with Reynolds down and Thatcher and de la Rosa not looking like answers, I wonder if KT will be motivated to acquire a lefty who seems likely to be above-average next season. If Reynolds was in the mix, we’d have the makings of a really strong bullpen, with Putz closing unless he proved he shouldn’t, Reynolds setting up, Hernandez back to a set up role and Ziegler armed and ready to put out fires whenever they cropped up.
It’s true that the bullpen was often to blame when the wheels started to come off for the team in 2013, but with the exception of Heath Bell, most of the relievers who struggled look like bounce-back candidates in 2014.
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