The D-backs Bullpen Blues

The D-backs Bullpen Blues

Through the month of April, Arizona Diamondbacks relievers have an aggregate earned run average of 6.85. Not only does that mark rank as the worst among all 30 major league teams, but only one other team bullpen had an ERA over 6.00 in April, further illustrating the magnitude of the Arizona relief corps' struggles.

Arizona's bullpen ranks third in the majors with six blown saves in 12 opportunities.  The 14 home runs they have allowed tops any other big league bullpen and only the Kansas City Royals bullpen has accrued a higher on-base-plus-slugging against. 

It has been a constant state of decline for the Diamondbacks bullpen ever since their 90-win, NL West-champion squad from 2007 managed a bullpen record of 30-19, a bullpen ERA of 3.95, and a major league best 51 saves in 66 chances for a 77.0% ratio.  The following season, their relievers went 17-28 with 39 saves, a 62.9% save conversion rate, and a combined 4.09 ERA.  Last year, the bullpen record improved to 23-26, but their ERA ballooned to 4.61 and they saved only 36 games in 55 chances for a 65.5% conversion ratio. 

What has gone wrong?

Part of the problem stems from the fact that the Arizona Diamondbacks operate on a small-market budget even though Phoenix represents the fifth-most populous city in the country and has an extensive suburban area.  At the same time, the city's income per capita is lowest among MLB markets, which necessitates Chase Field having the lowest average ticket price of all 30 MLB stadiums. Additionally, the franchise is still paying off deferred salaries to players from a decade ago, which siphons revenue away from current roster salary.

The point being, the D-backs have needed to operate their bullpen under the tenets outlined in Michael Lewis' Moneyball: any reliever can become a closer and there is no reason to pay relievers an upper-tier salary.  The Diamondbacks have had some success with this rule.  They traded away Jose Valverde months after he led the National League with 47 saves in 2007.  His 2008 replacement, Brandon Lyon, was solid in saving 26 saves in 31 chances, with those 26 saves totaling more games than he had saved in his prior six years of big league service.  Arizona next allowed Lyon to depart via free agency, turning the closer duties over to Chad Qualls, who ha been acquired as part of the Valverde deal.   Qualls had the best strikeout-to-walk ratio of any major league closer last season and also surpassed his career save total with two dozen saves in 2009, but has struggled in the first month of 2010.

While neither Lyon nor Qualls performed quite as well as Valverde did in 2007, the real issue has resided in the Diamondbacks' bullpen depth.  When replacing a departed closer with an in-house replacement, you must also replace the setup man who received the promotion to the closer's role.  The Diamondbacks have not done that.  In fact, they have suffered even more losses to those middle relief corps.  Tony Pena and Juan Cruz, integral parts of the 2007-2008 pens, are no longer with the organization.  While minor league prospects such as Clay Zavada, Esmerling Vasquez, and Juan Gutierrez have stepped in to provide some solid late innings, none of them have been able to match what Pena, Cruz, Lyon, and Qualls provided as some of the best setup men in the game.

General manager Josh Byrnes recognized his squad's dearth of quality, experienced bullpen arms this winter and acquired discount veterans Bob Howry and Aaron Heilman to shore things up.  These were not well thought out acquisitions.  Both pitchers are on the wrong side of 30 and have ranked among their league's leaders in games played in recent years.  Their declines had already begun, and there was no reason to think they would not continue this season.  The two Cubs castoffs combined for a 6.05 ERA in April.

There is one remaining factor that has contributed to the downfall of the Diamondbacks' bullpen throughout 2009 and in the first month of 2010: the absence of Brandon Webb.  The former Diamondbacks' ace, who has now missed over a calendar year of baseball with shoulder issues, averaged 232 innings per season and 6.9 innings per start between 2005 and 2008.  In 2009, Yusmeiro Petit and Billy Buckner combined to make 30 starts, essentially taking the turns that Webb missed.  They pitched 156.2 innings in those 30 contests, an average of just 5.2 innings per start.  

Had Webb not gotten injured, Arizona relievers would not have had to log as many innings and might have remained stronger later in the summer.  As it was, the 2009 D-backs had a group of pitchers logging more innings than their more-talented 2008 counterparts did.  It is little wonder they struggled.

The fallout for the 2010 Arizona Diamondbacks is a good news/bad news scenario.  The good news is that if Brandon Webb can return to his former self by the All-Star break, he could provide relief to the D-backs relievers by going deeper into games than the likes of Kris Benson and Rodrigo Lopez do.  The more likely scenario is that even when Webb finally rejoins the team, he is on a limited pitch count to protect his shoulder and this already-thin bullpen is taxed all season long.

That is most certainly bad news for the Arizona Diamondbacks and their hopes of making the postseason.

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