When J.J. Putz came to Arizona from Chicago, New York and Seattle, he’d already been through a lot as a major league reliever. Five campaigns as a Mariner, then one as a Met and one with the White Sox had left Putz with a lot of mileage on his right arm. But he still threw kinda hard and had a nasty split finger that could generate swings and misses. He filled the role as the Diamondbacks’ closer, notching 77 saves between 2011 and 2012 and become a face of the franchise. Of course, injuries eventually caught up with him and he was limited in 2013 before pitching briefly in 2014, then retiring.
But the success of JJ Putz seemed to reinforce a trend that would end up plaguing the Diamondbacks for several more seasons. Kevin Towers inked Putz shortly after becoming Arizona’s GM in the winter of 2010. Best-known for his ability to rebuild bullpens and capitalize on middling relievers, Towers resurrected Putz career by buying his one-year rebound in Chicago and installing him as the team’s closer where, for two years, he rediscovered success.
Following Putz’s downturn, Towers turned to Heath Bell, buying his closing experience and total number of saves over the signs that Bell was winding down (rising FIPs, reduced velocity and strikeouts). The Heath Bell Experience ended notoriously. Towers had bought an aging reliever in Putz who’d shown signs of life, then replaced him with an aging reliever who’d shown signs of slowing down. His third time around, Towers went younger in Addison Reed, who was traded to the Mets Saturday night.
Reed, of course, was embattled in his own right. After sending third base prospect Matt Davidson to the White Sox in exchange for Reed, he was inserted immediately as the team’s closer. His rookie campaign in 2012 was just okay and 2013 was very similar. Aside from his saves totals, nothing really stood out as truly elite. The White Sox cashed in and flipped him to Arizona while they still could get something of value (although I was never high on Davidson and his departure opened the door for Jake Lamb, whom I’m much fonder of). 2014 ended up being Reed’s worst season as a pro, putting his role as the team’s closer in jeopardy for 2015. After a demotion to AAA and inconsistent results in the majors this, Reed’s now with another team, ending the cycle of Kevin Towers’ closers.
Reed’s struggles weren’t completely unforeseen. The first and most obvious reason to think he might not work out as intended is the simple notion that relievers are volatile players. Performances among relievers are more unpredictable year-to-year than any other group. This inconsistency makes any reliever a tough bet, outside of those who are truly elite or have special skills (like Brad Ziegler’s ability to generate double plays). Addison Reed had two years under his belt when he was acquired – both were alright but far from phenomenal. Any slip in the results would surely sink him.
And then the slip came, although it wasn’t necessarily due to a change in the way Reed pitched. Instead, he kept up the same routine, actually increasing his strikeouts and reducing his walks slightly, while maintaining the same batted-ball profile. The trouble there was that he’d always allowed a lot of fly balls, and since he’d now be on a club that played about 90 games a year at Chase Field and Coors Park, that wasn’t going to be ideal. Home runs plagued Reed and when he blew saves, he did so in magnificent fashion. Were it not for all of the homers, he would have been pretty good as his 3.26 xFIP suggests. But with the homers, his ERA ballooned to 4.25 and he was unpredictable in the 9th, despite his 32 saves.
This discrepancy, Reed’s relatively high saves total and his poor ERA, helps paint the picture that despite a large save total, a pitcher doesn’t necessarily have to be all that good in terms of runs allowed. This is well-known throughout baseball, yet it was unknown to Kevin Towers. It had worked with J.J. Putz before, failed miserably with Heath Bell, didn’t go as planned with Reed and the whole charade didn’t help his cause before Towers was eventually let go. The trade of Addison Reed ends this era for the Diamondbacks.
But the Mets were willing to trade for Reed, and if he were utterly awful, they wouldn’t have done so. Despite a similar ERA in 2015, Addison Reed has pitched better this year. His strikeouts are down and his walks are up, but yes, he has pitched better. How? He’s allowed only two home runs in over 40 innings pitched as he’s generating far more ground balls these days. If the ground ball thing is to be believed, and clearly the Mets are buying it, Addison Reed might just be a much better pitcher than we’ve been led to believe. The Mets are buying low on Reed and hoping the shift to ground balls and out of the thin desert air will work wonders for him. Honestly, I kinda hope it does as Reed seems like a good dude who’s just had a hell of a time since joining the D-backs. Chase wasn’t a good fit for him and he paid the price given that Kevin Towers ignored the warning signs.
The Diamondbacks are still in need of a closer, at least so we’ve been told. The team is seeking one this winter after they couldn’t acquire one at the trade deadline. Who they end up with is anyone’s guess, but they should take away one important note from the Kevin Towers era: Towers routinely paid for saves, not performance. In the case of Putz, Towers paid for past saves and the nice turnaround that Putz had showed in his only season in Chicago. In Bell, he paid for a bulk of past saves despite the fact that Bell was a fly ball pitcher who’d benefited heavily from pitching in San Diego. The move to Arizona looked from the outside to be a major obstacle and it turned out to be exactly that. In Reed, Towers paid for a “proven closer” who was young and cost-controlled although, yet again, was prone to fly balls that would turn into home runs and blown saves with the D-backs. Rather than find the best fit for his team, it appears that Towers simply sorted the list of available relievers by saves and moved forward.
This leaves the Diamondbacks with a couple of choices heading into 2016, a year in which they hope to be more competitive. They can stick with Brad Ziegler as their closer with a lot of faith in his ability to get through the ninth unscathed while reinforcing their 7th and 8th inning options. They can pay full price on the trade market for a Craig Kimbrel or Aroldis Chapman type and do some real damage to the minor league system in the process. Or, they can promote from within, likely utilize matches and try to make it work with Ziegler, Randall Delgado, Andrew Chafin, Enrique Burgos, Silvino Bracho and other youngsters. While it’s risky, it is cheap and given that so many relievers fail, it keeps them from spending resources on a volatile position.
Whatever happens, the team will be moving on without a Kevin Towers-acquired closer. This was one of his biggest flaws as a GM and it’s finally run it’s course. I doubt anyone will Towers’ failed strategies, but we’ll have to see if the new front office understands and avoids them or if they follow in the same mold.
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