It wasn't hard to figure out what the most uncertain part of the game was for the Diamondbacks in '05. Virtually every game, against virtually every opponent, began with hope. Our starters might not have been Cy Young worthy, but with the exception of Russ Ortiz, we went into every game this year thinking, "If (insert starter's name here) is on, we've got a shot."
Javier Vazquez was inconsistent, but there were outings where he was on, and he looked like the guy everybody was scrambling to get three years ago. Shawn Estes was always capable of keeping us in it, Brad Halsey and Claudio Vargas had great stretches, and when Brandon Webb kept the ball down it looked like infield practice.
The problem was the next inning. That inning when Vazquez, Webb, Vargas, Halsey, Ortiz or Nippert, had to leave. When the pitch count got up near the 100 mark, when the ball started getting up. In a nutshell, when Bob Melvin had to go to the pen.
It was a sinking feeling all year. He'd walk to the phone, pick it up, and frankly, by the middle of May, when Brandon Lyon went down, there wasn't a single person down there that gave the D'Backs a chance. Sure, Lance Cormier had a run, Jose Valverde looked good the last month, but if you needed more than one pitcher, was there ever confidence? Was there ever a bullpen rotation we liked?
The short answer is 'No.'
There is no doubt that the D'Backs have some live young arms. Brian Bruney had a stretch, Greg Aquino was stellar the second half of 2004, Lyon was incredible in April. Oscar Villarreal was good when he was healthy, but that was in 2003, and from the left side? Well, let's just say that Buddy Groom has hit that point in his career when you could start placing bets as to whether the speed of his fastball is going to top his age.
The bullpen is the biggest question mark the D'Backs will have going into 2006, and the real problem is that with those live young arms, how much cash are we willing to spend on free agents? Todd Worrell was supposed to be that veteran presence, but his best years are definitely behind him, and I'm not sure there are that many good years left. Mike Koplove has lost all confidence, and even if he had it the velocity is down. Jason Bulger is a question mark, Javier Lopez is a former Colorado Rocky (need I say more...and don't bring up Shawn Chacon, I have met Shawn Chacon, and Javier Lopez is no Shawn Chacon), and nobody else seemed ready or willing to take the mantle and run with it.
When setting up a bullpen, you are essentially looking for four good innings. While everyone is aware that sometimes pitchers don't go six innings, when planning a bullpen, you're looking for a few good men, and the rest you hope you stumble on. In the same way you have a starting rotation, winning teams have a bullpen rotation. Four pitchers who, when things are going right, are the end of the game. The Diamondbacks have Jose Valverde penciled into the closer's spot. That's the good news, one reliever, one inning. Between Aquino, Bruney, Bulger, and Worrell, all of whom are likely to be back in the Snake's pen next season, you can basically hope for one inning. That's two innings down, two to go. Brandon Lyon was dominant the first month of last season, and appeared to be coming back into form late in the year after coming off the DL. That's three. For a bullpen that seemed to be in such disarray, they'll really only be looking to add one or two pieces, and that's where the free agent market comes in.
The problem for the Diamondbacks is that even if they are willing to spend, they likely won't get much bang for their buck. The top free agent relievers this season are virtually all closers, and that might be the one spot the Diamondbacks aren't looking for. That isn't to say that if Billy Wagner or BJ Ryan suddenly shows up in Phoenix asking new GM Josh Byrnes to sign them on the cheap he wouldn't jump at it, but the fact of the matter is that the D'Backs just aren't likely to get into a bidding war with the likes of the Mets, Cubs, and Braves, all of whom will be after some of the top guys. Even more of the top relief options will be knocked out of the running because they are likely to resign with their 2005 clubs. So mark Bob Wickman, Trevor Hoffman and Tom Gordon off your wish lists. Still, there are options out there. The top names are Scott Eyre, and Ugueth Urbina, with two dark horses we'll get two in a bit.
To begin, both Eyre and Urbina are quality options. The Diamondbacks will be thinking with their wallet, so we will too. Urbina has a track record, a former closer with a World Series ring, and a price tag to go with it. While he has rarely complained about being a set up man, it seems likely that given his choice he'd prefer to close, which might actually make the Diamondbacks, and their revolving closer role last season, more attractive than some other clubs. That might persuade Urbina to drop his price some, but he'll still be looking for four to five million a year, for at least two years. At 31, he's certainly got some life left in his arm, but the reason he's been a set up man the last two years is that his fastball's velocity dropped significantly over the last three years. He's still been effective, his ERA last season with the Phillies and Tigers was a solid 3.62, but he's no longer the lights out reliever he once was.
The better choice, for a variety of reasons, is Scott Eyre. The first, biggest, best reason is that he's a lefty. While the Diamondbacks are ideally looking for a lefty specialist, bringing aboard a lefty set up man would be a step forward, and allow the Diamondbacks to concentrate on finding someone who could, literally, be asked to get one hitter out a game. Eyre's versatility, he was almost equally effective against righties and lefties, and experience point to him as one of the few 'undervalued' players in the league. At 33 he's actually older than Urbina, but he's shown durability, appearing in 86 game last season for the Giants, and since he made just north of $1.5 million last season, even doubling his previous salary would bring him to town for less than Urbina would cost. Since he's coming from the Giants he's familiar with the NL West, so no concerns there, and as set up men go, he's as dependable as they come.
Still, there are two dark horse options, neither one of which would be 'bad' signings, but neither would settle the stomachs of D'Back fans. The Braves are unlikely to resign Kyle Farnsworth, despite a very solid last month of the season. The massive right hander went from the Cubs to Tigers to Braves in a year, and while nobody questions his talent (hard to question the arm of a guy who hits 100mph on the regular), he's never quite been able to put it together. Unlike Eyre and Urbina, Farnsworth has no track record, which could bring him in cheaper, but conventional wisdom says with Farnsworth you're adding a question mark to a bullpen in desperate need of a period.
The final dark horse would be a reclamation project, but one that could make Josh Byrnes look like a genius. Anyone who thinks Braden Looper is going to be closing games for the Mets next year has been hanging out with Ricky Williams for too long. Looper, who was a closer in Florida until Urbina took his job, and will be the closer for the Mets until the sign Wagner, or anybody else, to take his place, has been absolutely decimated by the New York media, and needs a change of scenery in the worst way. He'll be cheap after coming off a season in which he converted only 80% of his save opportunities, he's durable, having appeared in more than 70 games six of the last seven years, and he's had experience setting up. If Valverde does go down he could be short term answer as a closer, and simply playing in a place where there is one major newspaper, instead of seven, might be enough to return him to the form he showed as part of the World Series winning Marlins.
It might seem like the D'Backs bullpen needs a complete overhaul, and certainly changes need to be made, but so much can change with just one simple addition and a couple of key releases. Relievers have arguably the toughest job in the Majors. They come to the park never knowing if they'll watch the whole game from the bench, or be asked to get the most important outs, in the highest pressure situations. If a starter has a bad outing, he's got the next four days to figure out what went wrong, exercise the demons, and come back strong. If a position player makes an error they can make up with it the next inning with a stellar play or big hit. Relievers make that long walk in from the bullpen, take the ball, and perform. If there is one way to give these guys some consistency it is to give them a role, and let them know what they are going to be asked to do. Why did the D'Backs pen look so good the first month of '05? Because Brandon Lyon was a lights out closer. Everybody else knew their job was to get the ball to him.
Once Lyon went down, the bullpen turned into a madhouse, because everyone was put in unfamiliar roles. Suddenly Mike Koplove wasn't the 'seventh inning guy' he was the eighth inning guy, or maybe the closer, or maybe just there to get one right handed bat out. With one big addition, an Eyre or Looper or Urbina, the D'Backs could go into '06 with defined roles. Brandon Webb goes five, hands the ball to Lyon who gets you through the sixth, then to Brian Bruney who blows three straight hitters away in the seventh. On comes Eyre who gives them a different look during his 1-2-3 eighth inning, and then Papa Grande comes on for the save. It's a rotation, something the Diamondbacks never had last season, and something worth $10 million over the next three years.