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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.