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April 1, 2011

Divide and Conquer, AL East

The Pen's the Thing

by Ben Kabak

In each of the past five seasons, the American League East team featuring the bullpen with the highest WXRL has emerged the division champ. While starting pitching always dominates the conversation, the late innings could hold the key to the outcome of what figures to be another competitive race for the playoffs.

Nonetheless, the AL East bullpens—always a point of volatility—remain in flux. Last year's division winners have seen an entirely new cast of characters take up shop down the line in Tropicana Field, while the Yankees have added to their strengths and the Red Sox have loaded up on closers. With the back ends of Baltimore's and Toronto's bullpens still works in progress, it would hardly come as a surprise if the final standings shake down in order of bullpen efficiency once again.

The Rays’ bullpen enters the season as the most intriguing of the quintet. Yet, theirs is the least likely to duplicate its past successes. Last year, Joe Maddon's stellar pen led the AL in almost every applicable category. Maddon made the most pitching changes, coaxing a 3.33 ERA out of his relievers in the process. Thanks in large part to Rafael Soriano's 5.9 WXRL, Tampa Bay’s pen paced the AL in that department by a significant margin after sporting an overall 5.6 WXRL during the team’s disappointing third-place finish in 2009.

Now, though, that entire cast of characters has moved on. Closer Rafael Soriano jetted for greener pastures when he signed an insanely lucrative or lucratively insane deal to set up for Mariano Rivera. Joaquin Benoit, eighth in the AL in WXRL, will pitch for the Tigers, and Lance Cormier made the Dodgers out of spring training. Dan Wheeler signed a nifty $3 million contract with the Red Sox, while Randy Choate moved south to Miami and Grant Balfour went west to Oakland. After earning just under $16 million last year, those six pitchers will make a combined $24 million in 2011.

The Rays, then—the new darlings of building a team on a budget—had to jettison these players over cost concerns, and GM Andrew Friedman has assembled a brand new slate of cut-rate talents to replace them, including Kyle Farnsworth, who has served with a certain lack of distinction in the division before. Farnsworth will be part of a closer-by-committee group that also includes Juan Cruz, Joel Peralta, Jake McGee, and Cesar Ramos. Stalwart Andy Sonnanstine will provide depth, while Adam Russell will simply do his best to stick around.

With this motley crew, Joe Maddon might need to work some miracles. The current mix of relievers combined for just a 2.357 WXRL with various teams last year, and Maddon, who loves to mix and match, will miss the reliability of Benoit and Soriano. If McGee can emerge as the stud closer he thinks he can be and the rest of the pen can miss bats as they have in the past, the $5 million investment could more than pay off. For now, though, Tampa Bay is serving as an on-the-fly test of the volatility of relievers, and the club's chances behind the Yankees and Red Sox could hinge on a bullpen far less certain than last year's.

Heading up the eastern seaboard and down the 2010 division standings, the Yankees are one of the teams that enjoyed—and paid for—the spoils of the Rays' successful bullpen. The only club in baseball that can truly afford to pay two relievers at closer rates, the Yanks gave the ageless Mariano Rivera a two-year, $30-million deal and then inked Rafael Soriano to a three-year, $35-million contract with various opt-outs. For a cool $25 million, the Yanks appear to have the eighth and ninth innings down pat.

Familiar faces and new arms fill out the rest of the pen. Joba Chamberlain will star as the most overhyped middle reliever in baseball, while David Robertson will continue to hope that he can avoid disaster while walking nearly five batters per nine innings. Boone Logan resumes his role as the club's primary LOOGY after holding lefties to a .190/.286/.215 line last year. To replace the injured Damaso Marte, the Yanks inked Pedro Feliciano to a two-year, $8-million deal, but the one-time Mets workhorse couldn't make it out of spring training before injuring his shoulder. Bartolo Colon, literally and figuratively, rounds out the pen as the team's long reliever.

There is little doubt that the Yankees have the best bullpen in the American League. Enough of the Steinbrenners’ dollars have been invested in late-inning arms to make it so (despite Brian Cashman’s protests). The questions for the Yanks focus on health and age. Can Rivera defy his 1969 birth date? Can Soriano stay healthy? And when will we see Mark Prior, dominant in the spring and my favorite feel-good story of the Grapefruit League, make his Yankee debut? These are worries most teams would die for.

In a sense, though, the Yankees are rolling the dice with their bullpen strategy. They lost out on Cliff Lee and are hoping that a shut-down bullpen can overcome a starting rotation that's short on depth and high on question marks. In Boston, PECOTA's darling and the Yanks' primary competition for the AL East title, Theo Epstein's bullpen strategy seems to focus on overcoming a weakness as well, but in the case of the Red Sox, the weakness is a shaky closer.

Jonathan Papelbon sports the save totals and strikeout numbers to sustain the illusion of an elite closer, but few Boston fans embrace him as such. Papelbon put up a pedestrian 1.874 WXRL last year, ranking him just above Joel Peralta, and he'll earn $12 million this year. He will leave Boston for a team willing to overpay him when he hits free agency, and after a poor Grapefruit League showing, members of the rabid Boston media are wondering whether Papelbon is finished. What makes Papelbon's role on the Red Sox so perplexing is the arm behind him. Daniel Bard, one of the AL's top ten relievers last year, remains in the set-up spot, and Papelbon must feel the heat of his 98 mph fastball bearing down on his job.

Looking to upgrade one of the league's least effective pens last year, Theo Epstein added Bobby Jenks, Dan Wheeler, Dennys Reyes, and Hey, Hey, Hey, It's Matt Albers to join Tim Wakefield and Felix Doubront. Alfredo Aceves, non-tendered by the Yankees, could be another long-relief option if his back holds up as he starts at Triple-A. The Red Sox have shown a proclivity toward making big moves with marquee names, and if Papelbon and Bard position themselves appropriately this year, Boston could move its current closer come July. After sporting a meager 4.844 WXLR last year, the Sox invested over $25 million in the pen, but aside from Bard, will these relievers be $20 million better than Tampa Bay's? If anything, these two clubs will underscore the need—or lack thereof—to invest heavily in relievers.

Outside of the AL East's heavy hitters, the up-and-comers and also-rans must also seek their 400-plus relief innings. The Orioles, the likely fourth-place team in the East, have a bullpen composed of spare bits. Last year, the club's relievers finished the season with a 4.44 ERA, just 0.02 runs better than Kansas City's abysmal pen. Their big off-season splash involved doling out $10 million to Kevin Gregg and then anointing him co-closer with Koji Uehara. Mike Gonzalez, Jim Johnson, Jeremy Accardo, former starter Jason Berken, and Josh Rupe make up the remainder of the Opening Day pen. Justin Duchscherer could join the mix—if not the rotation—if he can stay healthy for more than two weeks at a time.

Throughout his career, Buck Showalter has won in spite of weak bullpens, and the Baltimore pen will ensure that if he excels this season, 2011 won’t be an exception to that rule. This is a crew more reminiscent of the 1995 Yankees pen than of the 1999 Diamondbacks, and Baltimore has neither the arms nor the payroll leeway to invest properly.

Finally, the Canadians enter the picture. The Blue Jays put together just the 10th-best AL bullpen last year, and they lost closer Gregg to the Orioles and lefty specialist Scott Downs to the Angels. Jon Rauch and his 2.259 WXRL will inherit the closer spot, but the remaining arms—Jason Frasor, Shawn Camp, Mark Rzepczynski, Casey Janssen, Carlos Villanueva, and David Purcey—are warm bodies on a team spinning its wheels.

By midseason, an entirely new cast of relievers could take center stage in the East, even as the Sandman himself bears down on 600 saves. Yet, for all of its power-packed offenses, the high-priced bullpens of the American League East might just be holding the ace in this division's deck of cards.

Related Content:  Relievers,  Rafael Soriano

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