Revisiting the Bullpen
Kevin Cash stated early in the 2016 camp he wanted to “challenge some of our pitchers to extend themselves a bit from the pen…some guys that can give us 4+ outs.” In 2015, Cash utilized 17 different relief pitchers (excluding appearances by position players) and utilized four pitchers – Steve Geltz, Brad Boxberger, Brandon Gomes, and Xavier Cedeno – at least 60 times each. Did Cash do what he said he was going to do and what might we expect from the bullpen in 2017?
The collective 2016 bullpen results are not really worth re-hashing because they were terrible and a lot of that should be blamed on the shallowness of the talent pool rather than overuse with the new strategy. Cash did get many 4+ out relief appearances out of his pen last season, but was not close to leading the league in the category. Getting that many outs in a relief appearance was something more indicative of a non-competitive team as all but two of the teams in the top ten list failed to reach the postseason:
- Cincinnati: 144
- Baltimore: 144
- Oakland: 142
- Minnesota: 134
- Tampa Bay: 121
- Pittsburgh: 118
- Texas: 111
- Kansas City: 111
- New York (A): 109
- Atlanta: 108
The Rays had 98 such appearances in 2015, which was the lowest number in the American League East. In 2016, they jumped up to second place as the Orioles led all teams with 142 such outings and the Yankees were on their heels at 135. In 2015, the closer (Boxberger) and the LOOGY (Cedeno) appeared 60+ times, but so did the two lower leverage guys in Geltz and Gomes. 2016 was much different because one pitcher relieved in as many as 60 games – everyday Erasmo Ramirez.
Ramirez was the poster child for Cash’s expanded utilization plan and it showed right out of the gate. By the end of April, Ramirez had appeared ten times (9 in relief) in a game and have a 4-1 record. He only once faced fewer than five batters and that came in an outing three days after he faced 20 batters and went 5.2 innings in a spot start. As the end of May approached, Ramirez had already worked in 19 games of relief, with an average Leverage Index of 1.43 and faced fewer than four batters just twice in that span. The little engine that could sputtered in his final May appearance in yet another disastrous Kansas City road trip and by late June, looked gassed. To that point, Ramirez had pitched well enough to get four or more outs in 16 of his 19 relief appearances. Ramirez would go on to do so in just 18 of his final 44 relief appearances last year.
Cash went to Ramirez so frequently because he did not trust the rest of the bullpen to get the ball to Alex Colome. The trade of Jake McGee in the offseason in addition to the injury Brad Boxberger suffered in camp made the bullpen shallow in a hurry and the likes of Enny Romero, Dana Eveland, and Steve Geltz simply were not getting it done. Colome, Cedeno, and Romero were the only other relievers who worked in as many as 40 games last season. Cash utilized 17 different relievers last season, 7 of which – Ryan Garton, Tyler Sturdevant, Dylan Floro, Eddie Gamboa, Justin Marks, Jhan Marinez, and Chase Whitley – were not even on the 40 man roster to begin the season.
2017, in theory, should be better. Steamer and PECOTA show the following projections for the bullpen:
The bullpen has mostly been addressed with additions by subtractions this offseason. Shawn Tolleson was added to the roster for experienced depth but gone are the likes of Romero, Eveland, Kevin Jepsen, Ryan Webb, Sturdevant, and Dylan Floro that made up mostly the low and medium leverage work for the team and were responsible for 47 percent of the earned runs allowed last season.
The list above barely accounts for the depth of arms the club has at the upper levels of the organization. Steamer accounts for Andriese working in the pen while PECOTA leaves him in the rotation. Last year, everyone waited for Blake Snell to come up and this year’s Durham watch could include multiple names such as Jose De Leon, Brent Honeywell, Jacob Faria, and Jaime Schultz. The fact the club has not yet made any other additions to the pen this morning outside of finishing runner up in the pursuit of Sergio Romo hints at the club possibly relying upon in-house options such as Andriese, Whitley, Schultz, and Stanek. Additionally, there are a number of experienced relievers on the open market that could some in on a minor league deal such as Tommy Hunter, David Hernandez, and Peter Moylan as well as Travis Wood if the team decides to give Cedeno some help as the only lefty in the pen.
Another angle could be that Cash decides he still needs a heavy lifter in the pen and rather than run Ramirez into the ground again, the team takes the money they were chasing Romo and Chris Carter with and allocate it to Joe Blanton who has been a durable reliever the past two seasons out west. If not, Whitley could end up as that guy as it is unlikely Erasmo Ramirez is asked to do that again as much as he was last season.
Either way, the 2017 bullpen looks a lot better on paper than the 2016 situation ended up turning out. The lack of a second lefty is mitigated by the fact so many of the righties have good changeups and there is a decent mixture of experience and upside readily available on a shuttle from Durham. Cash should have a deeper toolbox at his disposal in his 2017 bullpen but a tool is only as good as it is used. A mixture of better utilization and better health along with the deeper talent pool is one of the ways the club could meet the current standings projections that have people buzzing.