The Bullpen Steps | The Process Report

The Bullpen Steps

Writing too much about bullpens can be a fruitless, yet irresistible act. The volatility and liquidity lead to a state of mystery, which leads to curiosity and interest. The Rays’ bullpen figures to have its fair share of mystery entering the season, but that’s not always a bad thing. Step one in accepting the 2011 Rays bullpen is entering with an open mind.

To assist in liberating the shackles, consider the top 10 relief seasons (as determined by ERA+, so these are almost certainly not the actual 10 relief seasons) from a Rays’ reliever with 40-plus innings pitched:

Joaquin Benoit (295, 2010)
Grant Balfour (287, 2008)
Rafael Soriano (228, 2010)
J.P. Howell (199, 2008)
Albie Lopez (183, 1998)
Grant Balfour (174, 2010)
Roberto Hernandez (163, 1999)
Jim Mecir (161, 2000)
J.P. Howell (160, 2009)
Roberto Hernandez (155, 2000)

You would expect the list’s population to include a variety of veteran relievers (otherwise referred to as known commodities) and hotshot youngsters (otherwise known as probably mismanaged youth). It wouldn’t be worth sharing if it matched expectations.

Benoit had appeared in a little over 40 games in two seasons prior to joining the Rays thanks to injuries. In eight seasons, he posted an above average ERA twice. Two of his previous three seasons saw him finish with ERA higher than 4.85.

Balfour was another injury-prone reliever. He had found success with the Minnesota Twins (back-to-back seasons with above average ERA+) and yet, injuries forced him into other systems. ERA has the tendency to lie, and it lies with Balfour, but in between his 2008 season he posted ERA+ of 60 and 90.

Soriano was – wait for it – an injury-prone reliever, but a relatively successful one compared to the others.

Howell transitioned to the bullpen in 2008 and seized it like a sugar ant on Candy Cane Island. Starters should fare better in relief, but Howell went from a career ERA+ well below 100 to consecutive seasons with ERA+ above 150.

Lopez is similar to Howell, although he spent the previous season doing swingman work for the Cleveland Indians. Lopez exploded in 1998 and pitched his way back into starting. He never had a season quite like 1998 again.

Hernandez is the most accomplished pitcher on the list. His 1992, 1993, 1996, and 1997 seasons with the Chicago White Sox actually rank ahead of his 1999 season, while his 2005 cameo with the New York Mets ranks ahead of his 2000 season.

Mecir is another journeyman type. He broke into the bigs with the Seattle Mariners in 1995, throwing in two games. Then found himself with the New York Yankees over the next two seasons, faring poorly (his career Yankees’ ERA is 5.47) before landing with the Devil Rays and excelling. Eventually he would be dealt in the Ben Grieve trade.

Accepting the volatility of breakouts is step two in accepting the 2011 Rays’ bullpen. Assuming the Rays carry seven relievers – which has not been a given in the past – then the team will have nine more contending pitchers than spots. Of course, not all of those pitchers have equal chances.

Joel Peralta, Adam Russell, and Kyle Farnsworth are guarantees to make the club barring injury. In fact, if the season began tomorrow, one could envision those three filling the traditional end-game roles. Such a thought may horrify based on the perception around each pitcher. Peralta is a veteran but inexperienced in a consistent high leverage role. Russell lacks experience, yet packs explosiveness. Farnsworth has the experience, the explosiveness, and the exposure to the downside of big world relieving.

Fans of the New York Yankees and Chicago Cubs ridicule Farnsworth for his time with both cities. As it turns out, his ERA with the Yankees was 4.33 and his ERA with the Cubs (once he became a fulltime reliever) was 4.17. Those experiences seem like walks on the beach compared to the horrors the Rays have unleashed on the world in the past by opening the bullpen equivalent of Pandora’s Box — or whatever held John Rocker. There is a narrative stating Farnsworth cannot pitch in high leverage situations.

Farnsworth’s career OPS in high and low leverage situations are separated by .002 points. And even those numbers are skewed by the last three seasons, where Farnsworth has posted high leverage OPS against of .902, 1.422, and .802. Before that? Farnsworth was mostly fine. The sample sizes these assumptions are based on are 92, 38, and 61.

Over the two weeks between June 20 and July 3 of this past season, Evan Longoria had 54 plate appearances and hit .216/.259/.255. A month or so later (August 1 through 13) Longoria had a 51 plate appearance stretch where he hit .229/.275/.354. Another month passed (September 8 through 21) nd Longoria had 52 plate appearances with a .279/.365/.326 line. Nobody cares about those stretches because we know Longoria can hit and there is no reason to believe they told us more than the good stretches in Longoria’s season.

Unless there is reason to believe something about Farnsworth’s mental state no longer allows him to pitch in high leverage spots, then the larger sample size probably tells us more than a collection of sample sizes as small as those. That’s not to say Farnsworth is guaranteed success, just like he is not guaranteed failure.

After those three, you have to assume one slot goes to a left-handed reliever and another to a long-man. These are the specialty roles in any pen. Someone has to be able to eat up the unusual innings and someone has to protect the right-handed middle relievers who can only retire same-handed batters.

Five lefties are coming to camp, but J.P. Howell will not be in the discussion. R.J. Swindle is signed to a minor league deal, meaning he can go to Triple-A without consequence, although one has to suspect he has a midseason opt-out. That leaves Jake McGee – who may or may not begin the season in the majors – , Cesar Ramos, and Cesar Cabral. Even if McGee begins the season in the majors, he probably slides into a more conventional set-up role instead. Cabral is a Rule 5 pick who must stick on the 25-man roster all season to stay around, which is unlikely given that he’s never thrown a pitch above the High-A level. Ramos seems like the favorite.

Given Andy Sonnanstine’s salary, he’ll break camp with the team,eEither as the long reliever or the fifth starter. If for whatever reason he is the fifth starter, Mike Ekstrom may slide into the long relief spot. Ekstrom is a bit weird. His big league numbers are limited to 44 innings and his recent minor league strikeout rates have translated almost perfectly. The walks are a problem, but if Ekstrom can curb those and post a strong groundball rate, he could conceivably be a decent option. Of course, if the walks stay high, then he’s basically Chad Harville, who wasn’t good enough to stick around on the 2006 Rays.

After that, there are a number of arms aiming for one of the two remaining middle relief positions.

Richard De Los Santos is a non-roster invitee who doubles as an organizational soldier. There does not appear to be anything special about his track record or stuff, so I’m inclined to believe his invite is out of courtesy and without an eye on him joining the pen.

Matt Bush, Dane De La Rosa, and Brandon Gomes are all new 40-man roster additions. Bush is still raw to pitching while De La Rosa and Gomes are yet to pitch about Double-A, meaning each is likely on the road to a minor league bullpen.

Jonah Bayliss and Cory Wade have major league experience, with Wade having major league success. I like Wade about as much as anyone is capable of liking a minor league signing of a once decent reliever. He’s someone who has shown the ability to get double plays (22% in 2008) while also holding his own against batters of either and (.208/.278/.372 career versus righties; .232/.275/.329 versus lefties).If Wade is healthy, it’s not difficult to see him winning a spot, which leaves on place – depending on McGee – open.

The third step for accepting the 2011 bullpen? Understanding and embracing the liquidity of relievers. They can and will switch teams often.

Andrew Friedman is on a media blitz and has suggested that a reliever may be acquired through trade. Attempting to parse through every team and find relievers who could be available is an impossible task. Just a glance at the teams who do not figure to content yields some interesting and affordable names. Like David Aardsma (whose injury saps his value, but also puts his performance into question), Brandon League, Robinson Tejada, Joe Smith, and Rafael Perez. If the team is limiting itself to closers with experience, maybe they can convince Los Angeles of Anaheim to dump Fernando Rodney while covering part of his $5.5 million salary, the Florida Marlins to move on from Leo Nunez, or the Athletics to part with one of their million late inning options.

The problem with dealing for those guys is paying the closer premium through trade. Sure, the tea could always take on a bad contract (like Brandon Lyon or Mike Gonzalez) and pay less with talent, but look at the output from the trades Friedman has made for relievers:

Jose De La Cruz (Marcos Carvajal)
Carlos Hines (Tyler Walker)
Russell Branyan (Dale Thayer and Evan Meek)
Jorge Cantu and Shaun Cumberland (Calvin Medlock and Brian Shackelford)
Seth McClung (Grant Balfour)
Ty Wigginton (Dan Wheeler)
– The Delmon Young trade (Eduardo Morlan)
-Cash (Chad Bradford)
Matt Gorgen (Chad Qualls)
Winston Abreu (Jon Meloan)
Akinori Iwamura (Jesse Chavez)
Jesse Chavez (Rafael Soriano)

Collectively the average talent is low. There are some exceptions, Iwamura mostly, but it’ll be interesting to see if a future trade follows suit, with the best guess being that the Rays trade someone out of options who could help a team this season (Justin Ruggiano or Elliot Johnson perhaps). If the A’s really, really want a new infielder for one of their relievers, I’m sure the Rays could find it in their hearts to send over Johnson.

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