September 14, 2010
Salvaging the Diamondbacks' Bullpen
With Kevin Towers possibly taking the helm as general manager of the Diamondbacks, one of the most interesting stories of the offseason for both Arizona and Padres fans alike will be how KT will approach the improvement of the Snakes’ bullpen. While the jokes have come piling in, the analysis has yet to reach Baseball Prospectus. I’m glad to oblige.
According to Ben Lindbergh, fellow BP intern alumnus and Halo veteran, the Towers-constructed group of “Friar Men” was a masterful and frugal construction made through a variety of low-risk moves. Now the man, the myth, the legend could be taking control of literally one of the worst bullpens of all-time. In his quest to bring respectability back to this deserted franchise, shall he try to salvage what is left of this leaky ship or just let it sink?
First, let us take a look at what pieces the D-backs have. As we can see from the chart below, the Snakes have slithered themselves all the way to the lowest portion of the totem pole in both WXRL and FRA. Relative to the Padres, who currently sport a 3.00 bullpen FRA and a 14.42 WXRL, the Diamondbacks have dug themselves an Arizona-sized hole in terms of stoppage power.
Of course, it would be too harsh to say that Towers would not be able to salvage some value from the current relief squad. As we take a look at the current Diamondbacks relievers who have thrown at least 30 innings this season, we can see that, among the wreckage that 2010 has unleashed upon this relief corps (or should I say corpse?), there are some non-euthanization inducing numbers to behold in terms of indicators for future performance.
*Qualls was traded to Tampa Bay on July 31, 2010
Ranking the relievers by the quality of their SIERA numbers, the true quality of these arms starts to shine through. No, none of these guys are putting up anything close to the production of Heath Bell and company, but it is hard to say that there is no value here. Sam Demel, acquired in the Conor Jackson trade with Oakland, does have a negative VORP, but his SIERA, control and knack for strikeouts have been respectable, especially when one considers the fact that he is a 24-year-old rookie and dealing with a .340 BABIP. Vasquez, only 26, is also showing some promise with his 4.04 SIERA, 7.51 H/9 and strong strikeout rate during his second major-league season, though control will always be a question. The best part about these two young arms is the fact that they are inexpensive. Yes, two of the freshest and best performing arms in the Arizona bullpen are making the league minimum and will be under team control for quite some time. So, while there may not be a Luke Gregerson in this mix, there is no Oliver Perez, which is the type of optimism the Diamondbacks will need in what surely will be a tedious bullpen restructuring process.
The rest of the members of this crew are, not surprisingly, tough to make arguments for. Heilman, probably the most recognizable name on this list, has struggled through his tenure with Arizona and will be hitting free agency this offseason, which will be a much less awkward goodbye than the non-tendering that he’d receive if he were to be eligible for arbitration. Blaine Boyer showed some success in Arizona last season after a DFA-induced trade, but has struggled this season due, in part, to a K/BB less than 1.0. He will be a serious non-tender candidate. Gutierrez, a sleeper on many NL-only draft sheets as a source for saves, has been pedestrian, even with a low BABIP. However, if Arizona is confident that Gutierrez can lower his 16.7% HR/FB and increase his strikeouts, he might be worth bringing back in 2010.
One interesting name on the Diamondbacks roster is D.J. Carrasco, who was picked up in the Chris Snyder deal with the Pirates on July 31. Carrasco has been arguably the best bullpen option for the Snakes since his arrival, posting a 3.79 SIERA in his 18 innings. A groundball-focused arm, he has shown an increased ability to strike out players in the NL while also maintaining the effectiveness of his worm-burning arsenal. Along with Demel, who has shown streaks of dominance and has a history of closing in the minors, Carrasco has to be considered one of the early favorites as closer for the (hopefully) incomplete 2011 relief squad for the Diamondbacks.
Of course, Towers isn’t especially known for making the most of what he currently has, but rather, making the most of what other GMs have. As described in the article by Ben Lindbergh mentioned above, most of the Padres relievers were acquired via trade. While it is impossible to gauge exactly who is available or what their cost will be, here are a few possibly undervalued relief options that Towers could target if he succeeds interim GM Jerry Dipoto:
Most of these players are dealing with inflated ERAs, relative to their SIERA, due to unlucky BABIP or home run rates. Betancourt, for instance, is dealing with a HR/FB rate above 12% in Colorado. What better way to suppress that number than a move from Coors Field, which has increased HR by nearly 50% this season, to Chase Field, which has increased HR by a mere 4.5%? Jenks will be another non-tender candidate as he is due for a significant raise during his third turn in arbitration. Given that he becomes a free agent, don’t be surprised if Towers makes a strong run for him.
Villanueva and Nunez will both be eligible for arbitration next season, but will both be more deserving of contracts than the aforementioned Jenks. However, if the Brewers and/or Marlins will look to dump underperforming players or avoid paying raises, it wouldn’t be a shock to see either of these two arms let go for very little. Also, Choate, a free agent-to-be in November, could probably be had for around a million bucks, maybe less. Signed for $700,000 in the offseason, Choate has put up strong peripherals for the Rays, but has not been able to avoid the long ball. If the Rays, who were ranked as the second-most sabermetrically savvy team in Baseball Prospectus' Matt Swartz’s survey earlier this month, want to move on from Choate, I’m sure the Diamondbacks will have a place for him.
In the end, Towers or whoever winds up being the permanent GM is going to have plenty of his plate in terms of improving this struggling franchise. Whether it is through trades, minor league signings or promotions from within, the Diamondbacks should be cautiously optimistic of where this team’s bullpen might be headed, especially if Towers gets the job.
Chase Gharrity is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus