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