In 2007, the Padres and the Red Sox topped their respective leagues in bullpen ERA and batting average against. Thing is, entering the season, neither team had much to boast about in that department. In fact, the Sox pen was in such shambles that Jonathan Papelbon told Tony Francona that he wanted to move back to the closer role (or at least that’s how Boston tells the story). So how did these two teams come out ahead?
Obviously, the first step in building a bullpen is creating a viable endgame. Both Trevor Hoffman and Jonathan Papelbon qualify as such. They keep things relatively stable at the end — Papelbon more than Hoffman, though, as he blew just three saves last year (and we remember a couple of ‘em), while Hoffman was the goat in seven games, including the most important one for the Padres.
There’s not much else to say about this. We have it in Mo, who I think we all can agree is better than Hoffman at this stage of his career.
Superb setup man
This is what Yankees fans have been clamoring for since the days of Stanton and Nelson. Yeah, we had a viable 8th inning arm in Tom Gordon, but there were problems further down the ladder that hindered the Yanks success while he was around. But I digress.
Both the Padres and the Red Sox got sub-2.50 ERAs from their setup men, who both pitched predominantly in the 8th inning and secondarily in the 7th. Yet, neither expected to get such production from these players.
Okajima was acquired after the Daisuke Matsuzaka signing. Many in the press thought that this was to give the star a companion. Yeah, they figured, having a quality lefty in the bullpen was a nice benefit of this arrangement, but surely no one expected Okajima to post a 2.22 ERA in 69 innings.
Heath Bell was acquired from the Mets in the Xavier Nady trade (Correction by Mike: Bell was acquired from the Mets along with Royce Ring for Ben Johnson and Jon Adkins. Nady, as you may recall, was dealt straight-up for Mike Cameron). He always had good peripherals with the Mets — just shy of a strikeout an inning, low walk totals. He had a home run problem in 2006, which is possibly why the Mets weren’t so keen on him. But in any case, Bell was a career underachiever who moved to a new park and watched his WHIP plummet below 1.00.
No one expected this out of Bell in 2007. No one expected this out of Okajima in 2007. So how did they perform to this level? We’ll explore that a bit more later.
Think guys lost a bit once they turn 40? Okay, that could be an understatement. But both the Padres and the Red Sox got serious production from guys aged more than four decades. For the Sox, Mike Timlin stepped up after a poor showing in 2006. Though he only pitched 55 innings — his lowest total since 1995 — he was effective, walking just 14 batters and posting a 1.084 WHIP for a 3.42 ERA. He wasn’t a world-beater, and might have been suspect in a strict 8th inning role. But he did his job — keeping other teams at bay — very well.
The Padres got their veteran help in the form of Doug Brocail. He hadn’t been overly effective since coming back in 2004, posting ERAs of 4.13, 5.52, and 4.76 heading into 2007. But he came through in a huge way, posting a 3.05 ERA over 76.2 innings. Though Brocail’s history is a bit spottier than Timlin’s, they’re both veterans who, for at least one more season, managed to get guys out. And their contributions to the bullpen were huge.
Half a season of a mid-aged vet
This appears to be total coincidence, but it works out. The Padres got a quality half-season of Scott Linebrink in before dishing him to Milwaukee. The Red Sox saw Brendan Donnelly post a 3.05 ERA over 20 innings before going in for elbow surgery. Clearly, Linebrink’s contribution was greater — he logged more than double Donnelly’s innings. But hey, if you paste in J.C. Romero’s 3.15 ERA over 20 innings, you have basically the same thing. Some decent quality veterans for limited innings — kinda like the Yanks and Proctor in 2007.
Moving on to more important matters…
Smattering of young guys
After their closer, set-up man, and vets, the Padres decided to throw some youngsters against the wall and see what stuck. Cla Meredith, Justin Hampson, Joe Thatcher, and Kevin Cameron all had limited or no major league track records. Yet they combined to pitch 212 innings, and all posted excellent ERAs — Meredith was the worst of the bunch at 3.50, while Cameron was at 2.79, Hampson at 2.70, and Thatcher at 1.29.
The only one of them who had thrown more than 15 big league innings before 2007 was Meredith — though he was rather good and deserved his 79.2 innings. But no one had any idea what to expect from the other three. But they were given a chance, and they came through.
Couple of vets and a youngster
The Red Sox did things a bit differently, opting for veterans Javier Lopez and Kyle Snyder to round out their bullpen, and filling 25-year-old Manny Delcarmen in for 44 innings. So they used undervalued vets in addition to a well-rated youngster to kill the remaining innings.
This actually brings up a strong point about Boston’s bullpen. They only pitched 447 innings, third lowest in the AL — and the lowest was the White Sox, whose bullpen pitched so few innings because they really really really sucked (5.47 ERA). So one huge key to their bullpen was having starters who consistently go deep into games.
But in any case, both teams had similar ideas for the tops of their bullpens, and because of their respective situations, filled out the bottom half in different manners. However, the overall scheme was similar. No team overspent on bullpen cogs, which lowered expectations. And when they saw that a player wasn’t living up to his billing, they jettisoned him (Padres with Linebrink, Sox with Romero, despite their pretty-looking ERAs).
That the two teams acted in similar manners should shock anyone. Theo Epstein worked with Kevin Towers in San Diego.
How this works for the Yanks
As I said, we’ve got the closer role filled with Mo. The setup role we shouldn’t be totally worried about. As you saw, the top two bullpens in the majors had surprise setup guys last year. We shouldn’t expect that from the Yanks, but there are a couple of candidates.
I’m going to get lynched when I say this, but…Brian Bruney. Dude has nasty stuff, but has never been able to harness it. Maybe his snub last last season was a wakeup call. Maybe he’ll make the transition that Bell made. We can only wish.
Other than him, we have Ohlendorf and his nasty sinker. Chris Britton hasn’t been dominant, nor is he nasty, but he can be a candidate for that role, though less likely than Bruney and Ohlendorf. Jose Veras comes to mind, but only because the Yanks seem to like him so much. He does have a good fastball and slider, so we’ll see if he can fit in.
In the veteran department, we’ve got LaTroy. His track record is kinda like Timlin’s and Brocail’s, so while we can’t completely expect him to have a solid season, he does fit the profile.
With mid-aged vets, we have Kyle Farnsworth heading the list. He’s going to need a quality season — it is his contract year after all. While he could easily end up as the 8th inning guy, the best strategy might be to deploy him at other opportune spots.
Smattering of young guys? You bet. We have the aforementioned Bruney, Ohlendorf, Britton, plus Edwar, Jon Albaladejo, Jeff Marquez, Darrell Rasner, Steven White, even Alan Horne — all guys who haven’t really contributed at the big league level, but certainly could this year.
The Yanks hold an even greater advantage here: Sheer numbers. Here are all the guys on the 40-man roster who could end up in the Yanks bullpen this year at some point or another: Albaladejo, Britton, Bruney, Farnsworth, Hawkins, Henn, Igawa, Karstens, Marquez, Ohlendorf, Scott Patterson, Edwar, Mo, Humberto, Veras, White, and Chase Wright. That’s not even counting the non-40-man players like Horne who could get a shot.
This is why I get irritated when people say Cashman hasn’t addressed the bullpen. He has, and in the best way possible. The top bullpens in the league aren’t built around attractive free agent signings — just ask the Orioles, who inked three relievers (Walker, Baez, Bradford) before 2007 and ended up with jack shit.
The top bullpens in the league are built by amassing a number of players who can do the job, and letting them have at it. Not everyone’s going to work out. The Red Sox had to boot Joel Pineiro because he sucked. The Pads had the same problem with Mike Thompson. But they had enough moving parts that they could replace them with little risk.
No, I’m not saying the Yanks bullpen is set and ready to go as-is. But I’m saying that we have a wealth of talent. Combine that with a degree of luck, and you could see one of the best bullpens in the league this year (or, obviously, one of the worst, depending on how far that luck extends). We don’t need to go find that shut-down setup guy — he might already be on the team, and his name is not Joba Chamberlain.