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April 8, 2011
Prospectus Hit and Run
AL Bullpen Blowout
Once upon a time, the Angels' bullpen was the envy of baseball, with skipper Mike Scioscia appearing to have an innate ability to manage the stable of live arms his team's front office assembled, often on the cheap. Anchored by closers Troy Percival and Francisco Rodriguez and setup man Scot Shields, the Angels ranked among the top three in Reliever Expected Wins Added (WXRL) five times in a seven-year stretch from 2002-2008. During that span, the team won a world championship and reached the playoffs four other times, with the bullpen’s performance helping the Halos set a record for the margin by which they exceeded their third-order Pythagorean projection.
Unfortunately for Scioscia, his bullpen salad days are behind him: according to PECOTA, the Angels project to have the American League's worst relief corps this season. To determine this, I tallied the top five playing-time adjusted WARP totals among each team's relievers, as I did with the National League earlier this week. PECOTA-wise, most teams are into the sub-replacement realm by the time you drill past the fifth man, and on top of the already difficult challenge of predicting a class of players who get relatively little playing time, it's tougher to predict how long teams will stick with potentially subpar performances given the availability of other options.
The resulting WARP totals are relatively minuscule given Colin Wyers' tweaks to our valuation system, but through this admittedly imperfect exercise, we can get a feel for which bullpens the system expects to do well and which it doesn't:
Less than a week into the new season—after two save opportunities, only one of which was successful—Mike Scioscia removed Fernando Rodney from the closer role, although it may not make a difference, either in the theoretical, big-picture sense or in the specific case of the Halos. It's not hard to see the folly of the Angels' decision to make him their closer in the first place; this is a pitcher who posted a 4.45 ERA and walked 5.2 hitters per nine innings from 2008-2010, and one who saw his strikeout rate plummet from 10.9 per nine in 2008 to 7.0 last year. He's been displaced in favor of rookie Jordan Walden, a well-regarded prospect both as a starter and, after switching roles due to elbow concerns, as a reliever as well. While he didn't exactly dominate at Double-A and Triple-A last year (7.4 K/9, 4.6 BB/9 in 49.2 innings), Walden lit up radar guns in his late-season callup, averaging 98.8 MPH with his fastball and posting a 23:7 K:BB ratio in 15.1 innings.
Scott Downs (3.06 ERA, 0.9 WARP) and Hisanori Takahashi (3.59, 0.4), to whom the Angels committed a combined $23 million over the next three years while forsaking upgrades elsewhere, rank as the Angels' top relievers according to PECOTA. Rodney (4.12, -0.1), on the other hand, projects to be a touch below replacement level. The rated quintet, which also includes Kevin Jepsen (4.24, -0.1) and the newly-anointed Walden (4.77, -0.6) at the expense of Jason Bulger (35 innings, 3.45 ERA, 0.3 WARP) projects to have the third-lowest strikeout rate and the worst strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.1) of any AL bullpen. If his late-season major league performance was anything close to real, Walden should exceed his projection considerably, but it's going to be tough for this unit to give the Angels as big a boost as the team's bullpens have in years past.
Topping the rankings are last year's ALCS participants, the Rangers and Yankees. The Rangers' bullpen has been in the news all spring as a result of the team's dalliance with turning closer Neftali Feliz (3.44 ERA, 0.9 WARP) back into a starter. In a sheer failure of imagination, the Rangers' brass decided it had enough back-end rotation options to make do, while Ron Washington was spooked by the thought of not having Feliz to mismanage in the ninth inning. When Tommy Hunter went down with a groin injury, the team moved the pitcher projected to be its most valuable reliever—not to mention its most legitimate alternative as closer—Alexi Ogando (3.03, 2.2) to the rotation as a temporary measure. No matter the configuration, Darren Oliver, Arthur Rhodes, and Darren O'Day project to provide strong support, with each worth at least 0.7 WARP.
As for the Yankees, venerable closer Mariano Rivera (2.54 ERA, 1.6 WARP) and setup men Rafael Soriano (2.77, 1.7) and David Robertson (3.39, 1.2) project to be the league's strongest "big three," not to mention its most expensive in light of Rivera's two-year, $30 million deal and Soriano's even more controversial three-year, $35 million pact. Manager Joe Girardi appears to have bumped Joba Chamberlain (3.95, 0.5) ahead of Robertson in the pecking order, calling him the Yankees' "seventh-inning guy," though perhaps the clarity of Chambelain’s role will help him more than the uncertainty to which he's been subjected in the past. Meanwhile, the folly of throwing $8 million at "abused" lefty Pedro Feliciano (4.20, 0.2) is apparent in the PECOTAs, as fellow lefty Boone Logan (4.38, 0.1) projects to be almost exactly as valuable, albeit at a fraction of the cost.
The Red Sox are positioned about halfway between the top two teams and the next three. Anticipating the departure of pricey closer Jonathan Papelbon (2.74, 1.5) following this season, the Sox went out and signed a burly seventh-inning guy of their own in Bobby Jenks (3.39, 0.8) to act as a bridge—either as a setup man or a stopgap closer—to future closer Daniel Bard (3.80, 0.6). They also signed ex-Ray Dan Wheeler (3.44, 0.8) and ex-Yankee Alfredo Aceves (4.00, 0.7), a pair of battle-tested righties, away from their AL East rivals. The latter was supposed to be the Opening Day starter in Pawtucket on Thursday, but he was scratched, a move which in fact heralded a callup.
Spurned by Adrian Beltre and other free agent hitters who might have added some punch to their lineup, the A's were plenty aggressive in upgrading their bullpen in the offseason, signing both Grant Balfour (2.79, 1.1) and Fuentes (3.24, 0.7) to support Andrew Bailey, who finished last year on the DL due to surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow and began this one sidelined by a forearm strain. When he's healthy—hopefully later this month—Bailey figures to be an asset (3.42 ERA, 0.4 WARP), though the chances of him extending that quality across a workload similar to what he carried in his 2009 rookie season (83.1 innings) have been shot. In any event, both Michael Wuertz (3.13, 0.8) and Craig Breslow (3.18, 0.6) help round out a unit that's impressive when it's healthy and projects to have the league's third-highest strikeout rate behind those of the Yankees and Royals.
The Twins have welcomed Joe Nathan back a 2010 season lost to Tommy John surgery, and he projects to be as valuable as any reliever in the game, with 2.2 WARP and a 2.14 ERA. Before you scoff at that, note that from 2004 through 2009, Nathan posted a 1.87 ERA and averaged 41 saves per year, numbers virtually identical to Rivera's except for a substantially higher strikeout rate (11.1 to 8.7). Furthermore, he's five years younger than the great Yankee. Since the Twins are reluctant to pitch him on back-to-back days in the early going, Nathan will share early-season ninth-inning duties with Matt Capps (3.83, 0.5) on occasion. The unit's rankings are boosted by the presence of swingman Kevin Slowey (3.94, 1.1), who was squeezed out of the rotation by Nick Blackburn, apparently because strikeouts are something for godless coast-dwellers as opposed to wholesome midwestern folk.
With Jenks gone from the South Side, the closing chores have fallen to heat-throwing lefty Matt Thornton, who's demonstrated his ability to be the ninth-inning go-to during his predecessor's numerous injury-related absences. Thornton (2.81, 1.5) and fellow power lefty Chris Sale (3.00, 1.5)—who was drafted last June and reached the majors in early August—are forecasted for double-digit strikeout rates. They'll be supported by former Twins righty Jesse Crain (3.96, 0.5) as well as Sergio Santos, a converted infielder who came out of nowhere to pitch fairly well last year, though he failed to make a believer out of PECOTA (4.48, 0.0).
In the middle of the pack, there isn't much that separates the bullpens of the contending Tigers from that of the pretending Royals; both figure to average more than a strikeout per inning, at least among their top five relievers. Free agent signing Joaquin Benoit (2.91, 1.4) and crazy-faced closer Jose Valverde (3.33, 0.8) head the former unit, while veteran Joakim Soria (2.68, 1.4) and pint-sized rookie Tim Collins (3.25, 0.9) head the latter. The two AL East hopefuls clustered in here are birds of a feather in more ways than one; both the Orioles and Blue Jays begin the year with uncertain closer situations affected by injury, and both hope that the 0-6 starts of the Red Sox and Rays portend further struggles that could elevate a different team into the division's upper reaches for a change. For the O's, the fragile Koji Uehara (3.44, 0.7) and Kevin Gregg (3.97, 0.4) figure to share closing duties; on the subject of fragility, it's worth noting that their ranking is propped up by a projected 60 innings and 0.9 WARP from Justin "Godot" Duchscherer, whose ongoing hip and back woes limited him to one Grapefruit League appearance this spring. For the Jays, top-ranked Frank Francisco (2.20, 0.9) starts the year on the DL while Jon Rauch (3.81, 0.6) holds down the fort, with the less helpful one-man cavalry of Octavio Dotel (4.02, 0.3) waiting to fall short of his peripherals by allowing a few extra homers once his hamstring heals.
Meanwhile, down in the cellar with the Angels are the Rays, who lost virtually their entire 2010 bullpen—Soriano, Benoit, Balfour, Wheeler, Randy Choate, and the immortal Chad Qualls—to free agency and nontendered Lance Cormier just for good measure, because really, who wants to rebuild their bullpen around Lance Cormier? Joe Maddon appears ready to go with a closer-by-committee, which doesn't inspire a ton of confidence given the material on hand. Joel Peralta (3.47, 0.5), Kyle Farnsworth (3.87, 0.2), Juan Cruz (3.91, 0.2), and rookie Jacob McGee (4.09, 0.0) appear to be in the mix for high-leverage duties, though the fact that the Rays haven't held a single lead has prevented anyone from seeing exactly how that will work. Hopefully, the Rays will have shown us their blueprint by the time J.P Howell (3.55, 0.3, and excluded from the tally in favor of Andy Sonnanstine) returns from shoulder surgery around the beginning of May.
The takehome is that the Rays’ bullpen situation will do them no favors in the AL East race, assuming they eventually hit enough to enter. Likewise, the AL West race shows a clear separation between the Rangers and A’s and the rest of the division, while the ever-competitive AL Central remains a division where the slightest deviation from expectation could determine who goes on to play in October and who stays home.