As our intern so terribly announced, it’s “Mission Accomplished” now on upgrading the rotation, with Zack Greinke at the front and Shelby Miller replacing someone else. If a lefty fourth outfielder or utility infielder or backup catcher fell in the team’s lap, they’d probably listen — but the team’s attention is now turned to the bullpen. Thing is, toward the end of the season, it looked like the D-backs actually did have a good relief crew, meaning extra guys probably won’t help unless they’re Guys. And for planning purposes, it also matters that the D-backs’ total of 579.1 innings from relievers last season was much, much higher than it is likely to be in 2016 — the previous franchise record was 523.1 innings. Just as the D-backs’ starter additions bump others from the rotation, the D-backs will use the equivalent of one fewer reliever in 2016, even if they match the previous record.
They won’t, though. Potential innings limits for Patrick Corbin loom over the 2016 season, but even if he averages just 5 innings per start to keep him in play for the postseason, Greinke and Miller are likely to average more than 5.5 innings per start. Yes, injuries happen. But if a season-long injury happens to Greinke… the D-backs will be off book anyway. We’re not planning for the worst, here — we’re planning for a few different versions of the best, and a need to fill about 500 innings with relievers.
Right now, we’re looking at Brad Ziegler, Andrew Chafin, Daniel Hudson, and Josh Collmenter as bullpen arms that one really can’t expect to upgrade. In the Offseason Plan, we suggested that without changes, the rest of the bullpen would probably be Silvino Bracho, Randall Delgado, Rubby De La Rosa and Matt Reynolds. Reasonable minds could differ, but from where we stand right now, Bracho and his unusual blend of strikeouts and extreme fly ball rates make the do-not-upgrade list of relievers a quintet instead of a quartet. Chances are the team will roll with eight relievers for most of the season, but with pitchers like Enrique Burgos and Evan Marshall as depth, even the likelihood of injury doesn’t change that any additions to the bullpen need to have more promise than Delgado, RDLR or Reynolds in order to be helpful.
In my humble opinion, then, no upgrade is actually needed in the bullpen. It absolutely does make sense to explore options, but either the upgrade will be marginal, or the cost (in the wake of the Ken Giles trade) is likely to be too high. It also may be too late; as we discussed on this last episode of The Pool Shot, most of the free agents and several of the trade targets we thought made sense are no longer among those options.
The free agent market still offers a handful of interesting reclamation projects like Greg Holland and Bobby Parnell, and in at least those cases, a minor or minors contract for 2016 paired with an option for 2017 does make sense; that year matters a lot, and by next season those opportunities will be past. Most of the healthy free agents just don’t seem like upgrades over the D-backs’ current options, with the possible exception of Tyler Clippard… who features an extremely extreme fly ball rate (that Bracho piece provides some context). We know a reliever with ground ball rates in the 60s can succeed at Chase Field, and fly balls might also work if they’re extreme enough. We have Bracho for that experiment, though, and maybe now is not the time for Clippard to try his 21.2% GB% from last season to Chase.
I’m adding some other options into the mix:
Yeah, he’s already in the bullpen. But is it time to consider Collmenter a setup man, and have him pitch more games in shorter stints? Long relief was a needed commodity last season, and in hindsight, Jeff’s foresight in predicting the need to have two long relievers looks pretty good. Delgado, however, only pitched 2 or more innings 10 times in 2015, finishing the year with 72 IP in 64 games (1.13 IP/G). As a reliever, Collmenter pitched 52.1 innings in 32 games (1.64 IP/G). That’s kind of weird, right? Collmenter was once again one of the premier long relievers in the game, and there’s no reason to think he’s less likely to thrive in a short relief role.
In 2015, the D-backs didn’t really use anyone in a “mop up” role. In terms of the pitching staff, the team more or less went for broke in every game rather than writing any off. Maybe they should be more willing to pull the plug when things get out of hand. If so, we probably don’t want Collmenter cleaning things up after us; if someone’s going to do it, it might as well be Delgado, or possibly Rubby De La Rosa. If they pitch so well that the team comes back to win a few of those games, all the better. It may be that Collmenter’s arm slot causes problems for batters just by being different (one reason why pitching as a starter was less than ideal), and that it can cause problems when the same hitter faces someone new. He can do a lot of great damage as a long reliever, but even in throwing him for fewer innings, a short relief role might get the most out of Collmenter’s arm.
Did someone say “mop up” man? Maybe keeping a pitcher around just to clean up after the staff is not an optimal use of a precious 25-man slot. It would be great if, say, he was a lefty that could also be used as a matchups guy in a pinch (and in a point in the game when the need for a long reliever seems unlikely). What if the mop up man could also be used as a lefty pinch hitter?
David Peralta‘s story of going from full time pitcher to full time indy league badass to part time major leaguer to full time major league badass is nothing short of amazing. Do you want seconds? Because while Loewen is unlikely to be a major league badass, he was once something Peralta never was: a top pitching prospect. Shoulder troubles (sound familiar?) caused Loewen to throw in the resin bag in favor of plying his trade as an outfielder. But after five years of playing professionally as an outfielder, a funny thing happened: Loewen’s arm stopped hurting. Loewen returned to the majors as a pitcher this last season, pitching 19.1 innings with a horrific 6.98 ERA. Walks were the problem in that stint, and were a problem in his Triple-A time in 2015. His walk rate was bad but not terribad in Double-A in 2014, though, and Loewen still records strikeouts.
Looks like the D-backs may be ahead of us on this one: they signed Loewen to a minor league contract on October 30. This could work, friends. Loewen could be a left-handed pinch hitter, a precious thing to this team, while serving as a fifth, occasional outfielder and the eighth, staff-saving man in the bullpen. Micah Owings, anyone? But really, it’s been over ten years since any team tried this, and it would be anything but conventional. If he really can hit a little against RHP, I’m in. This could be a cool thing.
The last team to try a hybrid 25th-man was the Brewers with Brooks Kieschnick. The Brewers may yet solve some bullpen problems for the D-backs by agreeing to trade Will Smith, as we pushed for in the Offseason Plan. I’ve never forgotten Smith, and maybe you haven’t, either. But Jeff had a pretty great innovation in trying to work a deal around former-catcher-turned-outfielder-but-probably-better-as-a-first-baseman Peter O’Brien. As he wrote it up:
Will Smith may not be a household name, but he has been the 10th-most valuable reliever over the past two seasons with Milwaukee. The Brewers are in full-scale rebuild mode and are looking to take a long approach to improving their club. They have made it known that first baseman Adam Lind is available via trade in his last year of team control and he should be a valuable commodity for an acquiring team. The hole he leaves could be filled immediately by O’Brien who, despite many experiments, doesn’t have another defensive position that suits him as well as first base does.
Foresight again: Lind was indeed traded, and word spread at the end of last week that the Brewers are “casting a wide net” for a new first baseman, per ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick. The Brewers have prime real estate in the majors they’re not really using to try to contend next year, and they have no first base prospect to develop at that level. It looks like they’re trying to do the MLB equivalent of house flipping, giving a veteran player enough time to be valuable by the trade deadline in July. O’Brien would definitely be around long enough to be a part of the Brewers’ plan, and seeing whether he’d pan out is another way to use that first base spot.
I probably need not say more about Smith, but, yeah: he might be the best reliever the D-backs can actually get at this point. He’s not just an upgrade; he’s enough to push the whole bullpen forward.
Huuuuuuuh? Yeah, this is a shot in the dark. But Cliff Lee is looking for another job after giving his arm an extended rest and banking a $12.5M buyout on the $27.5M option for 2016 that the Phillies declined. Chances are, he signs with a team like the Dodgers, Red Sox, Yankees or Cubs that have started to perfect the technique of using recovering veterans to fill the roles normally filled by rising prospects during the summer. I have no idea whether Lee is prepared to throw 200 innings next year, whether he’s hoping to put in a partial season, or whether he’s just hoping to pitch.
I just want him in camp, mainly. Lee’s career started so, so similarly to Robbie Ray‘s, and most of Lee’s excellence came from effective use of fastballs. Shackle them together, D-backs. Lee is the best possible version of Ray, and maybe he’s willing to share.
Lee could be a worthwhile sign for other reasons, though. Lee is not the man you put on mop-up duty, but enough time has passed — and Lee’s age is advanced enough — that a short relief role could look attractive. Even without knowing how healthy he is or what he looks like now or how good he might be at it, I’d take Lee over Matt Reynolds any day of the week. Lee, however, could also be a candidate to start. And if he could recapture even the 2014 version himself, that would be an excellent outcome that could really improve the team’s chances of winning.
There are other options, of course. Jeff has raised Zach McAllister of the Indians, who does look good. The D-backs have spoken with the Rangers, who might move Shawn Tolleson or Keone Kela, both of whom posted RE24 marks over 13 last year (not as good as Ziegler or Chafin and only as good as Collmenter’s partial relief season, but far better than most in-house D-backs options). Really, any trade of some of the D-backs’ MLB depth in 4th or 5th starters would be a coup, and if it turns into a reliever better than the D-backs’ current top quintet, it’s probably a good move. It may be that the market doesn’t change until spring training is underway, at least with respect to other team’s needs for pitchers like Delgado or Chase Anderson. That’s all right — the team has already made its moves, and now can afford to approach deals as though they don’t necessarily need to happen.
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