My goodness, there are a ton of relief arms in camp this spring. I know, I know. This isn’t exactly unheard of as relievers, especially those not slated for late inning duty, are probably the most fungible assets in the game. They’re also the most volatile. With performances fluctuating wildly and sample sizes small, evaluating relievers is difficult in the spring. One bad inning can tank an ERA. Coaches are evaluating “stuff” and how sharp pitchers are at this early stage, knowing that things will change over the course of the spring and into the season. It’s exactly an inexact science, which is only exaggerated when applied to relief pitchers.
There’s another item at play, further complicating matters. The team doesn’t just want to keep the best seven relievers; they want to hold onto as many quality arms as possible. Service time matters, as do minor league options. Some veterans are in camp on minor league deals, which may or may not allow players to opt out of their deal should they not make the team early in the season. Veterans are also often without minor league options, meaning the team would need to DFA them if they ever get punted off the active roster. These players are also not on the 40-man roster, so the team would need to boot someone off to give these players a shot on Opening Day. Meanwhile, younger players who may in fact be ready can be kept in the minors while older players get their shot.
You get the idea – this is a complicated situation. So let’s dive in and keep it short for each pitcher as there is an acre of ground to cover.
Stone Cold Locks
Fernando Rodney, RHP, 40
The Diamondbacks needed bullpen help this winter after losing Daniel Hudson, Tyler Clippard and Brad Ziegler over the last several months. Rodney had a great first half in 2016 with Padres before falling on hard times in Miami following a midseason trade. He projects as the team’s best reliever, and while he doesn’t threaten triple digits on the radar gun these days, he can generate plenty of ground balls. He’ll fill the closer’s role from day one.
Jake Barrett, RHP, 25
Barrett got his share of late inning opportunities last season, especially down the stretch. He performed reasonably well, though his stock could improve substantially if he’s able to get his walk rate under control. After scuffling for a few seasons in the upper minors, 2016 was something of a breakout for Barrett. Now, it’s time to see if he can continue to build upon his rookie success in a setup role.
Andrew Chafin, LHP, 26
Left-handers are at a premium for the D-backs this spring, and after spending much of the past few seasons with just one lefty in the ‘pen, the team would like two of them this time around. Andrew Chafin has a leg up on the competition, and despite his 6.75 ERA last season, there’s reason to believe he pitched far better than his ERA showed (3.96 DRA, 2.84 FIP). Chafin piled up the strikeouts last year in a couple of short big league stints (between injuries) and has always kept the ball in the yard — two things that bode well going forward.
In-Play, For Now
Enrique Burgos, RHP, 26
Burgos has big stuff with a mid-90’s heater and a nasty slider. He even added a splitter last season that showed good results, though he threw it sparingly. He got his chances in late innings last season once Clippard and Ziegler were dealt and it was a mixed bag of results. Burgos continues to struggle with his ability to throw strikes as control remains an issue. It’s a question now of patience for the D-backs, because with so many candidates around and minor league options remaining for Burgos, he’s not a lock for the Opening Day roster.
Tyler Jones, RHP, 27
The Diamondbacks used the Rule 5 Draft once again this winter and plucked Jones from the Yankees. He’s pitched consistently well in the minors for Minnesota, Atlanta and New York, but never got a crack at the majors. With a mid-90’s fastball and a solid breaking ball, Jones will have his work cut out for him to keep from being offered back to the Yankees. As the Rule 5 Draft stipulates, he’ll need to remain on the major league roster all season long if he’s to remain with the D-backs, hurting the bullpen’s overall flexibility. Will his performance warrant a strong commitment from Arizona?
Silvino Bracho, RHP, 24
Make no mistake about it, Bracho was terrible last season. Already a short guy, his drop and drive delivery and release point ensure that he doesn’t get much plane on the baseball. Hurting matters, his fastball has plenty of rise and little wiggle, resulting in a heater that stays true. While the “rise” is nice, it’s not helped by his height and delivery. He’s forced to throw up in the zone to generate fly balls and, well, that’s always a roll of the dice. Can he get back to form? If so, he may prove a reasonable middle reliever.
Randall Delgado, RHP, 27
It’d be easy to throw Delgado into the Stone Cold Locks category, but with this many guys in the mix, he’s not as sure of a thing as he may have been in the past. Delgado’s true value is his ability to be deployed regularly (he pitched in 79 games last season) and provide relatively stable innings. That said, he’s essentially average and there are plenty of guys in the organization that may be able to fill his shoes. While he’s perhaps more likely to make the team than not, there is a scenario here where he could be traded prior to the season.
Zack Godley, RHP, 26
Speaking of guys who could take Delgado’s job, Zack Godley has shown well in a relief role by striking out over 22% of batters, limiting the walks, and generating nearly 60% ground balls. While he’s struggled at times to turn lineups over as a starter with just okay stuff, he’s seen that stuff tick up in relief and that’s his best option moving forward. He does have a minor league option remaining, so there is some flexibility to his situation should the team wish to give someone else a chance. That said, Godley appears destined to fill the role of middle reliever fairly well in 2017.
Steve Hathaway, LHP, 26
Late in 2016, Steve Hathaway got annihilated, then pitched pretty well. In his first big league game, he surrendered three earned to the Dodgers, then allowed only five earned runs over his next 23 appearances. With another lefty needed to compliment Chafin, Hathaway has a decent shot to earn another chance in the majors. He struck out plenty of batters and can get some grounders, too. His stuff has plenty of arm side run and when he locates down in the zone, he can be effective. With minor league options remaining, he may face an uphill climb to break camp with the big league club.
Matt Koch, RHP, 26
Koch has pitched primarily as a starter since joining the D-backs’ organization, but his ultimate role may be that of a swingman or long reliever. With mediocre stuff, he survives by limiting walks and letting batters put the ball in play. That’s a risky profile in Arizona and the NL West in general. He lies in the “danger zone” in terms of batted balls, not yielded a bevy of grounders or flies. Truth be told, Koch has a shot at the major league roster, but probably needs some help to get there (trades or injuries).
Evan Marshall, RHP, 26
Marshall put a skull fracture behind him by reemerging in the majors last season, and while the results were perhaps underwhelming, his presence was a victory in and of itself. His velocity has held steady in the mid-90’s, but his release point has dropped and his stuff lost depth in 2016. It’s yet to be seen if that’s a trend that will carry forward into this season, but Marshall was at his best in 2014 throwing a bit more over the top. With a minor league option remaining, Marshall may find himself a victim of the numbers game even if he shows well this spring.
Jimmie Sherfy, RHP, 25
High-A and Double-A proved too easy for Sherfy in 2016, but he hit a major roadblock in AAA Reno. With a nasty fastball/slider combination, Sherfy has the stuff to succeed in the majors, so long as he can control his arsenal. Walks have long been the thorn in his side, but should he iron those issues out, even a little bit, he could prove a useful right-on-right option. While he has an opportunity to earn a spot come Opening Day, it’s more likely he winds up back in Reno and waits for the call.
Jorge De La Rosa, LHP, 35
It’s hard to believe the veteran lefty was still on the market and D-backs couldn’t pass up the bargain. Dave Cameron of FanGraphs noted that De La Rosa was the best bargain remaining on the market given his performance and ability to handle adverse pitching conditions (such as Coors Field). Can he serve as the team’s long man out of the bullpen or adjust from being a starter to a reliever? Without knowing the exact parameters of his contract, it’s unclear if he’ll accept a minor league assignment should he miss the Opening Day roster. He’s a valuable piece for the D-backs and a lottery ticket they’re undoubtedly thankful to be holding on to.
Rubby De La Rosa, RHP, 28
The Diamondbacks have finally pulled the plug on Rubby as a starter, thanks in part to his latest bout of elbow woes. He’s getting by for now after plasma injections were opted for over a second Tommy John surgery. With no minor league options remaining, he’ll have break camp with the club or be exposed to waivers. The stuff is good enough to get out big league hitters, especially fellow righties, so if De La Rosa can get through March healthy, his chance to make the Opening Day roster look quite good.
Daniel Gibson, LHP, 25
Everything said above about Jimmie Sherfy applies to Daniel Gibson. While he’s got a leg up as a lefty, Gibson has made slow and steady progress in the minors until he hit a snag in AAA last season. His velocity isn’t a huge asset, but Gibson has a slider that can put hitters away and his stuff is best thrown low in the zone. Gibson’s potentially a lefty specialist in waiting, but he’s not likely to make the squad come Opening Day.
J.J. Hoover, RHP, 29
Hoover joins the Diamondbacks on a minor league deal after pitching for the last five years for the Cincinnati Reds. In 2012 and 2013, he pitched well for the Reds, but saw the wheels fall off in subsequent seasons. With a minor league option remaining, he may be the type of veteran the team can stash in Reno for a later date as there are others on this list who may have better odds of breaking camp with the club.
Kevin Jepsen, RHP, 32
Another minor league sign, Jepsen has seen his velocity fall steadily over the past few seasons and while the results had remained strong, he got hit around plenty in 2016. With a four-seamer, curve and changeup, Jepsen knows how to pitch and has a long track record of getting the job done in the majors. He’ll have a chance to crack the Opening Day roster, but may face an uphill battle with so many guys vying for so few spots.
Brian Matusz, LHP, 30
Since converting to the bullpen full time, Matusz has enjoyed steady success until injuries bit him in 2016 and he found himself without a job this winter. The D-backs scooped him up on a minor league deal and he should be considered a contender for the second lefty job. His velocity hasn’t quite returned yet this spring, but that’s understandable. He does tend to limit the free passes but allows plenty of fly balls and has had trouble with the long ball in the past. At this stage, he profiles best as a left-on-left matchup in a middle relief role.
Jared Miller, LHP, 23
Miller saw his stock take off last season after he moved to the bullpen and pitched well across four minor league levels. A strong showing in the AFL only elevated that stock further and he enters the spring as a sneaky contender for a spot in the Opening Day bullpen. Being a lefty helps, but he locates well down in the zone and has racked up the strikeouts while also generating plenty of grounders. With three minor league options remaining, the D-backs have plenty of flexibility with Miller as he can get shuffled from AAA to the majors with ease.
Keyvius Sampson, RHP, 26
Sampson can bring a low to mid-90’s heater from the right side with a slider and changeup. He’s an extreme fly ball pitcher who issued too many free passes for the Reds’ liking, making him available to the market after Cincinnati exposed him to waivers. The stuff is fine, but the walks aren’t and he’ll need to make strides in the control department for him to find big league success. He’ll get his chances to make an impression this spring and could be a sneaky pick to make the club, though a start in AAA is more likely.
Tom Wilhelmsen, RHP, 33
Yet another minor league sign, Wilhelmsen as once an electric closer for the Mariners who’s seen an increased number of walks take their toll. Being big and funky can cause it’s problems for Wilhelmsen’s mechanics, but he’s another experienced reliever who has a chance at the Opening Day roster. He throws plenty hard, so if he can just find more command, he’s got the stuff to succeed.
Erik Davis, RHP, 30
Davis has only pitched in the majors once, and that was way back in 2013 when he made ten appearances for the Nationals. He’s bounced around the minors a bit and now finds himself with the D-backs as a non-roster invitee. Tommy John surgery reset his career as he missed all of 2014 and began working himself back in 2015. He appears to be a veteran stash piece right now, but could figure his way back into the equation later in the season.
Miller Diaz, RHP, 24
Diaz has been reassigned to minor league camp. A minor league free agent signing back in 2015, Diaz has a way to go before entering the discussion.
Joey Krehbiel, RHP, 24
Krehbiel has been reassigned to minor league camp. With big stuff that’s delivered with major funk, Krehbiel has a few issues to smooth out before he’ll be considered a major threat for the big league roster, though that could come late in 2017.
Yuhei Nakaushiro, LHP, 27
Nakaushiro has been reassigned to minor league camp. He’s a lanky lefty with funk and plenty of pitches that move, though he’s still a way off from being a big league arm.
Josh Taylor, LHP, 24
Taylor has been reassigned to minor league camp. Though he’s pitched primarily as a starter, Taylor ultimately profiles best as a reliever.
Wild Card Because, Why Not?
Archie Bradley, RHP, 24
Bradley’s role hasn’t been decided yet, but he may figure into the bullpen equation as camp winds down. In that role, his limited arsenal may play up.
Battles to Watch
With seven spots in the bullpen and only three being tied up at the moment (at least from my perspective), that leaves four remaining slots for 20 guys. You don’t have to be a math major to know that everyone’s spot is precarious. There are guys like Sherfy, Gibson and Miller who are looking to push the envelope, while mainstays like Delgado and Godley are looking to hold on to what they’ve established. Veterans like Jepsen, Matusz and Wilhelmsen only complicate the situation.
So look for the Diamondbacks to adopt a strategy that allows them to keep the highest number of quality pitchers around early in the season. If some of the minor league signees have clauses that allow them to opt out at the beginning of the season if they’re not on the Opening Day roster, the team may choose to hold onto them and give it a go while pushing younger relievers back to the minors. Of course, this creates another issue as adding these veterans means subtracting other players from the 40-man roster. They’ll have to find a balance, of course, but expect there to be some musical chairs late in camp and early in the season as the team will try to find their best 8-12 relievers and adjust the roster accordingly.
Of course, the second lefty job is of high importance. The team doesn’t have to employ two of them, but it stands to reason that they will. Matusz might have the inside track here, but Jorge de la Rosa, Steve Hathaway and others will be happy to mix it up. Again, contracts and their clauses could prove a big factor. With all of the competition, the cream will hopefully rise to the top. Injuries will occur, trades could happen, and there’s always the threat of a starter being pushed to the bullpen, taking away a valuable opportunity for someone else. Long story short: this is a huge mess, but a good mess, and it’ll be intriguing to see how it all shapes up.
2017 Spring Previews
In case you missed any of the other installments in this series, you can find links to each preview piece below:
- Sequencing Matters: Which D-backs Pitches are Fooling Hitters?
- Which D-backs Pitches Work Well Together?
- Taijuan Walker’s Hot Spring Has a New Look
- Zack Greinke’s Velocity is Trending in a Predictable Direction, Sadly
- Statcast and a New Era for Evaluation
- 2017 Spring Preview: A Wide Open Bullpen
- How the Diamondbacks Landed in Baseball’s Toughest Situation and Don’t Have a Clear Way Out
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