Writing about the Arizona bullpen is like having to talk to your neighbors. No, not the friendly neighbors who invited you over drinks last night, I’m talking about the neighbors who smile when you see them but throw their dog poop over the fence and into your lawn. Discussing the bullpen is something you’d like to avoid but has to be done. At least, that’s how the old bullpen felt, but what about the “new and improved” bullpen?
To say that the roles in the bullpen are a little “murky” is an understatement. They have the guy that used to be the closer (Putz), the guys who was just the closer (Ziegler), the guy they think is going to be the closer (Reed) and the guy who they thought was going to be the closer (Hernandez). While that might sound like a good problem to have, it truly underlies the volatility of relievers in general and suggests that having pre-defined roles in the bullpen is a dangerous proposition should somebody struggle, which inevitably happens. As Ryan argued a few weeks back, locking the guys in can be troublesome and flexibility is something that should be desired when building a bullpen. I’ll share my thoughts on how “roles” should be handed out after we review the projections, but first, to the numbers!
Home runs and walks stung JJ Putz last year, just like they seemingly stung every Diamondbacks reliever. His strikeouts were actually up some, thanks to him bringing back the slider toward the end of the season, as Ryan recently noted. As the elder statesman of the ‘pen, he can clearly handle the ninth inning duties if needed but, of course, health is a concern. His elbow flared up and there was talk of Tommy John last summer, but rest and rehab did the trick, at least in the short term. Can he hold up in 2014? I’m not so sure and he might need to be used sparingly and avoid pitching on back-to-back nights with regularity. Still, he misses bats and if he can get the walks back to normal, he’ll be a strong option toward the end of games.
Steamer Essentials: Putz will still be a very good relief pitcher when healthy, but the walks and injuries are a concern.
Did Brad Ziegler save this bullpen last year or what? This guy is walking reasoning of why the “save” is overrated. Pitch him in the sixth, seventh, eighth or ninth, he doesn’t care and is going to get his ground ball outs. He’s essentially the bullpen equivalent to Ben Zobrist in Tampa as he just continues to produce wherever you put him. His BABIP was crazy-low last season and should increase some, yielding a few more hits, but the grounders will continue to limit the damage. He’ll likely pitch a few fewer innings in 2014, but he’ll continue to be who he’s always been: the guy who puts out fires on a consistent basis. And if there’s anything this bullpen needs, it’s consistency.
Steamer Essentials: Brad Ziegler will continue to do his thing, no matter how he’s used, by limiting hard contact and generating grounders.
Addison Reed was brought in to pitch meaningful innings, but whether that’s the 8th or 9th is anyone’s guess at this point. He was truly phenomenal in 2013 for Chicago, but his BABIP and HR/FB ratio were unsustainable. He’s going to give up more hits in 2014 than he did last season and likely a few more homers. With that said, he’ll still have a great shot at being the team’s best reliever. He generates strikeouts and limits walks, two things any good reliever has to do. My only hesitance is in regard to his fly ball tendencies, as we’ve seen how that’s played out with past relievers with similar profiles, and his drop in velocity. Steamer expects him to be the team’s most valuable bullpen piece and barring any injuries and I fully expect the same.
Steamer Essentials: expect Reed to miss bats and limit the walks again in 2014, resulting in him being Arizona’s best reliever, even if only by a little.
David Hernandez has become the forgotten man. I’m hopeful that he comes into Spring Training with a chip on his shoulder, but a troublesome 2013 will be hard to erase. He still generated strikeouts at a strong clip and his walks were up only slightly, but he got absolutely hammered by home runs. Big league hitters can turn around 97 mph heat if it’s in the zone and Hernandez found that out the hard way in 2013. But it’s a new year and Steamer likes his home run rate to drop significantly. As home run rates have little correlation year to year, we should be hopeful that Hernandez can avoid them in 2014. He’s projected to keep up the K’s and issue more free passes than you’d like to see, but he should be useful nonetheless.
Steamer Essentials: Hernandez will be better in 2014, but not a dominant reliever as the walks and straight fastball make him vulnerable from time to time.
Wow, Joe Thatcher was bad for Arizona last year. Really, really bad. After coming over from San Diego, he got shelled in the desert. Life outside PetCo is tough for some pitchers and Thatcher found that out in a big way. His career-low ground ball rate resulted in a career-high home run rate with much of the damage done while pitching for Arizona. Steamer, unfortunately, doesn’t see him as being much better in 2014. Thatcher, though, is the kind of guy that’s hard to project because he’s had an up-and-down career and the manager can decide if he faces righties (who kill him) or not. If used as a LOOGY, I think he can be better than projected. Arizona is in desperate need of left-handed relief, so Thatcher needs to be used properly and be effective in 2014; more effective than Steamer currently projects.
Steamer Essentials: Thatcher should be a good option against lefties, but how he’s used by Kirk Gibson will determine his overall production.
Although Thatcher was surprisingly terrible, Will Harris was surprisingly terrific for Arizona last year. The righty made strides in the strikeout and walk departments while limiting home runs and remaining durable. Steamer doesn’t see the same production in 2014, which makes sense give that Harris literally came out of nowhere (Colorado) to post excellent numbers, but thinks he’ll remain effective when on the mound. Putz, Reed, Ziegler and Hernandez are all righties, though, which may limit his innings. Ryan was correct in pointing out, however, that Harris was good against lefties last season and will likely get the chance to prove that his reverse-platoon splits weren’t a fluke. The problem is, they might’ve been just that. Either way, Steamer likes him to be above average for Arizona.
Steamer Essentials: Harris shouldn’t be expected to be quite as dominant in 2014 as he was last season, but he’ll remain a good option to put out fires when he’s on the mound.
The Beard was in full effect in 2013 as Josh Collmenter really kept Arizona in the hunt by providing quality innings in extended games. While he walked a few more than usual, his K’s were up and he kept the ball in the yard for the most part. He thrived in the long relief role and that’s likely the role he’ll occupy again in 2014. Steamer, however, has a hard time projecting these unique roles, so it’s best to stick to his rate stats when looking into the future for Josh. Expect his strikeout and walk rates to come down closer to his career averages and his BABIP to rise some. Whether or not he can keep the ball in the yard is another issue as his fly ball rate would suggest that he gives up a few more homers in 2014.
Steamer Essentials: Collmenter will remain a useful long man but Arizona shouldn’t expect to hang their hat on him again in 2014 as he regresses towards his career averages.
Quick Notes: there are some notable omissions from the list above in Matt Reynolds, Matt Stites and Jake Barrett. Reynolds, of course, underwent Tommy John last summer and could maybe make some late season appearances, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Stites and Barrett should both open the year in AAA and be the first called up if/when someone struggles or gets hurt. Both guys can rack up the K’s and some fans have suggested that they’re ready for the majors now, but I’m in favor of both guys receiving some more seasoning. Neither have pitched above AA and there’s no need to rush these guys with the arms that are already in place.
In Sum: the Diamondbacks’ bullpen is a collection of interesting arms, but there’s no one dominant force. Reed has the best chance to be that guy, but repeating 2013 looks iffy at best given his peripherals. With him heading into arbitration after the 2014 season, Arizona may want to consider limiting his save opportunities as they tend to greatly inflate salaries as I discussed recently at Beyond the Box Score. The Diamondbacks, however, are not in a position where they can afford to suppress salaries at the expense of wins and my gut says that Gibson goes with who he sees as the best guy for the job.
Speaking of jobs, I’m not in favor of strict bullpen roles. They’re an artificial construct as outs are outs and they’re all important, but the Arizona front office doesn’t appear to see it that way. I expect them to start with Reed as the closer and allow JJ to set him up. This is great for a few reasons: Reed is probably the team’s best pitcher while JJ is a close second and both have proven that they can thrive in high-leverage situations. The best thing about this, though, is that it allows the team to use Brad Ziegler as he should be used: to diffuse whatever sticky situation arises throughout the course of the ballgame rather than saving him for some future situation that may or may not be a good use of his talents. Having Ziegler to move around and use in a flexible manner should greatly benefit team’s ability to protect leads or keep games close.
Collmenter will continue to be the long man, Thatcher the LOOGY and Harris the guy who finishes the sixth when the starter can’t make it through. This makes David Hernandez the wild card and the guy without a clearly defined role. He could realistically pitch anywhere from the eighth inning in Arizona to AAA Reno depending on what kind of year he has. He’s got to locate the ball down in the zone to be effective as his heater can get crushed up in the zone. Further development of his secondary offerings would really help, too. It would be great if he can regain his form as JJ Putz will likely need some help throughout the year to manage his health and Hernandez, if he’s right, can take some of those high-leverage innings.
Of course, this is what I think the front office will do, not what they should do. My one critique of what is expected is that I’d like to see them break up the closer duties between Putz and Reed, alternating the two and keeping JJ fresh. Both are more than capable of closing and there’s no reason to commit to one guy if you can effectively utilize two of them. This allows them to use Reed and Putz on some nights and just Reed in others to keep from overusing the 37-year old Putz. It also keeps Reed’s save total down and will suppress his 2015 salary through arbitration. I would like to see them add another lefty but at this point, I’m thinking this won’t happen. There are some guys still out there that can help Thatcher out and provide some security if he still struggles. That said, this bullpen will be better in 2014 than it was in 2013, if not by much.
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