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March 30, 2000

NL Central Notebook

Battle of the Bullpens

by Rany Jazayerli

Ignore, for a moment, the question of how much Ken Griffey Jr. is going to add to the Reds' lineup. Put aside the concerns of whether Pat Hentgen and Darryl Kile can regain their former glory. Cast away those doubts about whether Mitch Meluskey is healthy and ready to hit major-league pitching.

All three contenders for the NL Central crown can hit, and all three have question marks popping up in their rotation like dandelions. The deciding factor, then, may be their bullpens, where the Reds bottled the magic that brought them to within a game of the playoffs last season, and where the Cardinals hope they can manufacture some magic of their own this year.

In St. Louis, the Cards quickly abandoned the Ricky Bottalico experiment, releasing their saves leader from last season. Bottalico's 4.91 ERA was the 12th-highest of all-time for a pitcher with at least 20 saves...so the Cardinals replaced him with Dave Veres, whose 5.14 ERA ranked fourth all-time on the same list.

In fairness to Veres, he had to deal with a Mile High factor that affected his pitching more than usual. Last season, Veres posted a 2.52 ERA away from Denver, but was roasted for a 7.40 ERA in the unfriendly skies. During his outstanding 1998 season, Veres actually had a higher ERA (2.61) on the road, but was awarded the state of Colorado's highest medal of honor for his 2.98 ERA in Hanging Breaking Ball National Park. Walt Jocketty is betting his reputation that any pitcher who can survive Colorado is worth acquiring, a sentiment we heartily agree with. It sure beats trading for Dante Bichette.

Returning from last season to support Veres will be Tony LaRussa favorite Mike Mohler, who has spent seven years in the major leagues despite never actually pitching well, and Heathcliff Slocumb, who went from the scrap heap to the comfort of a multi-year contract after posting a 2.36 ERA for the Redbirds last year. Slocumb gets a lot of deserved abuse for mixing the control of a power pitcher (5.14 BB/9 for his career) with the stuff of a finesse pitcher (more than one hit per inning), but he does one thing very, very well: he keeps the ball down. For his career, Slocumb has allowed a home run every 19 1/3 innings, the best ratio of any active pitcher aside from Greg Maddux. While Slocumb's combustibility factor is quite high, it dropped considerably after leaving the arid terrain of Mt. Piniella. If LaRussa can successfully walk the tightrope with Slocumb again this year, it will bring the Cardinals that much closer to the postseason.

Rounding out the bullpen are lefties Paul Spoljaric, who has posted back-to-back seasons with ERAs over 6.00 despite striking out more than a man an inning in that time, and octogenarian Jesse Orosco, who will join the elite ranks of the four-decade players with his first pitch this season. That the Cardinals traded 27-year-old Uberutility man Joe McEwing for Orosco is evidence of how desperate LaRussa was for a pitcher to fill the Rick Honeycutt role, but as effective and ageless as Orosco has been, he isn't the same kind of pitcher as Honeycutt.

Honeycutt's primary value was in the role of left-handed specialist, facing no more than two or three batters an appearance, which was quite convenient, given how fragile his arm was. Orosco is too good a pitcher to be pigeonholed the same way; he is a much more durable pitcher than Honeycutt (no DL trips in his 20-year career) and is much more effective against right-handed hitters than Honeycutt. But Orosco was pigeonholed long ago--he hasn't faced more than four batters per appearance since 1994--and LaRussa certainly isn't the man to reverse the trend.

The Cardinals' bullpen has a much smaller safety net now, as the Kent Bottenfield trade moves versatile Garrett Stephenson into the rotation. The Cardinals' greatest hope for a mid-season boost comes from Chad Hutchinson, the Stanford-quarterback-turned-flamethrowing-righthander who should start the season in Memphis's rotation, but has already been handed the baton as a future closer, and who could slide into the Cardinals' bullpen as early as June.

In Houston, the Astros' hopes are one and the same with the health of Billy Wagner's left arm. The twinge in Wagner's elbow that kept him out of Game 3 of the NL Division Series last year sealed Houston's fate, and has heightened concern over his health this year, though his spring training performance has alleviated much of that. If Wagner has a season remotely as dominant as 1999, when he set major-league records for strikeouts per nine innings, strikeouts per hit and strikeouts per inch, the Astros will be in good hands no matter who pitches the eighth.

With Scott Elarton on the disabled list to start the season and headed for the rotation upon his return, the Astros need a setup man to emerge. Enter Jose Cabrera, who gave up just 46 baserunners in 51 Triple-A innings last season, then put up a 2.15 ERA with just 30 baserunners in 29 innings when called up to Houston. This isn't a new road for Cabrera--he was similarly dominant down the stretch for the Astros in 1997, but injuries limited him to just nine innings in 1998, and he is only now returning to form. The Astros can breathe easy if Cabrera can play Rivera to Wagner's Wetteland, especially since that means Jay Powell and Doug Henry will not have to be used to protect eighth-inning leads.

The Astros' greatest bullpen strength is simply that they don't require as many innings from their relievers as other teams. Larry Dierker gets more innings out of his starting pitchers than anyone in baseball, and Chris Holt should be able to provide more innings in his second year after arm surgery. The key for Dierker is to get Octavio Dotel (49 walks in 85 innings in 1999) with the program, and to find some way to get more than five innings per start from Dwight Gooden, who hasn't met a 3-2 count he didn't like.

The Reds are all a-giddy about their chances this season, because hey, they only lost by one game last year, and Griffey is worth more than one game, right? It's not that simple. The Reds won 96 games on the backs of the most effective bullpen in the majors, and there are reasons to believe that this year's outfit won't be nearly as good:

  • Scott Williamson was the NL Rookie of the Year, but it's hard for him to be any better than he was last season, and historically, Jackie Robinson relievers tail off somewhat as sophomores.

  • Scott Sullivan has thrown 97, 102 and 114 innings over the last three years, all in relief. At some point, this is going to catch up with him.

  • Danny Graves, who by Michael Wolverton's RRE rating was the best reliever in the NL last season, is not a power pitcher, and had an unimpressive 69-to-49 strikeout-to-walk ratio last season.

  • Dennis Reyes has outstanding potential, but he's miscast as a lefty specialist and may be needed for the rotation if Steve Parris or Ron Villone flop.

  • Gabe White has given up 47 homers in 250 career innings.

While a great bullpen is an essential ingredient for success, as the Braves showed us throughout the 1990s, a great bullpen requires constant turnover and maintenance, finding fresh new arms to replace pitchers whose effectiveness ends abruptly after one season. The Reds may feel smug in the knowledge that their bullpen was the game's best last season, but if they think they can pull if off again with the same contingent of pitchers, they're fooling themselves.

Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Rany's other articles. You can contact Rany by clicking here

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