Thursday, March 08, 2007

Sox Bullpen

Now a week into spring training games, the question of who will be the Red Sox closer continues to be a wide open one. Now, this isn’t the time for discussion on the merits of the closer role—the Red Sox will not be trying a committee setup like they did in 2003. So, who are the candidates?

Joel Piniero – What’s the old saying? If you tell yourself someone is a good pitcher enough times, maybe he’ll actually become a good pitcher? Actually, I’m not sure if that’s an old saying or not, but it seems to be the mantra they’ve taken with Piniero, a one-time Mariners prospect whose ERAs have been increasing with age. In 2002, at 23, Piniero had a 3.24 ERA, earning him note as one of the best young pitchers in the league. Since that time, his ERA has increased in seemingly regular increments, to 3.78, 4.67, 5.62, and peaking with a 6.36 last season. Meanwhile, his strikeout rate dropped from the high 6’s/low 7’s into the 4’s. His walk rate has climbed into the mid 3’s. In spite of all this evidence that Piniero is slipping, the Red Sox not only signed him, but have seemingly made him the front runner to be their relief ace.

The Sox are high on Piniero on the advice of advance scout Allard Baird, former GM of the Kansas City Royals. Baird thinks Piniero was misused as a starter, and has the makeup and quality stuff to make a great closer. With all due respect to Baird, if he has the power to identify misused starters who can become bullpen aces, he certainly didn’t display it as Royal GM. The Red Sox need to get Piniero pitching well before putting him into high leverage situations, instead of hoping that the high-leverage situations will bring out the best in him. He may begin the season as the closer, but I’m not convinced that it shouldn’t be as the closer in Pawtucket, quite honestly. Putting a player in a major role without a recent history of success does not make any sense, regardless of how his spring training ERA turns out. This isn’t to say that Piniero definitely can’t become a closer—just let him prove himself first.

Brendan Donnelly – Like Piniero, Donnelly’s ERA has been steadily rising for four years now. Unlike Piniero, it’s still within the range of what is acceptable for a major league pitcher. In 2006, Donnelly had the worst season of his major league career, posting a 3.94 ERA over 62 appearances, a stat that shows just how effective Donnelly has been since the Angels plucked him off the scrap heap in 2002. His best season came in 2003, when he sported a 1.58 ERA, struck out 79 batters in 74 innings and was named to the All-Star team. He hasn’t matched that success since, but he has remained an effective part of the Angels bullpen, striking out close to a batter per inning. His control was a bit of an issue last season, but it’s to say how relevant that is when dealing with only 64 innings. He’s been an effective reliever, and all signs seem to indicate that he’ll continue to be an effective reliever. He’s not likely to be a shut down guy, but he’s a couple good bounces away from a 2.50 ERA/ 30+ save season. The Sox could do much worse at the back of their bullpen. And they may. Among this group, he’d be my choice, if only by default.

J.C. Romero – The Red Sox other offseason acquisition from the Angels, Romero got roughed up in a big way last season. Romero’s positives are essentially that he still keeps the ball in the ballpark. Other than that, everything else seems to have dropped off significantly from his glory days with the Twins. His strikeout rates have been dropping, and walk rates rising, to the point where they were nearly 1:1 in 2006. Lefties still had trouble with him, hitting only .202, but he couldn’t throw strikes to them either, walking 13 and striking out 13 against only 89 AB’s. Your lefty-one-out-guy can’t be walking lefties. He seems to be considered a real long shot for the closer role, and it seems likely that if he wanders into it, he won’t be there long.

Mike Timlin – Timlin is coming into his 5th season with Boston, a period of time unheard of by today’s standards for middle relievers. Middle relievers are often seen as replaceable parts. In some ways they are, but identifying relievers who can be effective on a yearly basis can be difficult. Timlin had a rough season last year, missing a month with a right shoulder strain, and having trouble missing bats, a big deal in front of Boston’s highly overrated defense. The 2.24 ERA from 2005 was a bit of a fluke, based on the fact he allowed only two homers all season, a stinginess he’d never exhibited in the past and didn’t replicate last year. Timlin isn’t a stopper, but he’s likely to be a solid middle of the bullpen guy if he stays healthy, a good sized if for a guy turning 41 on Saturday. Timlin is 39 appearances from the 1000th of his career, and 41 from tying Goose Gossage for 10th on the all time list.

Hideki Okajima – He’s the wild card in the closer race. It seems unlikely that he’ll be in the closer role to start the season, but if he pitches well early in the season, and the closer situation still isn’t sorted, it’s very likely he’ll be given a chance. Okajima, a lefty, features an overhand curve as his best pitch. He may actually be best suited coming in in the 7th and 8th innings, following the flamethrower starters. He had a 2.12 ERA for Bob Costas’s favorite Japanese team, the Nippon Ham Fighters. While Japanese statistics don’t always transfer, the level of play there is somewhere higher than Triple A baseball in the states, and a 2.12 ERA is impressive in any language. Here’s to hoping he doesn’t get stuck with lefty-one-out-guy duties. At $2.5M over the next two seasons, he could turn out to be one of the bargains of this crazy offseason.

Manny Delcarmen – Delcarmen will not be the closer when the Red Sox break camp, but don’t be too surprised if he’s one of the Red Sox more effective relievers in 2007. That 5.06 ERA from 2006 is not indicative of the quality pitcher Delcarmen was. He, more than anyone else, was let down in a big way by the Red Sox bad defense in the second half. His BABIP of .368 was the second lowest in the AL among pitchers with over 50 innings, behind only Kris Benson, who was pitching in front of a league-worst Oriole defense. Sometimes pitchers have a high BABIP because they’re bad, and get the ball hit hard off of them. Other times, it’s because they’re unlucky. With Delcarmen, it appears to be the latter. If he was just bad, and was prone to giving up rockets all over the field that fielders can’t get to, it would also seem likely that he’s prone to giving up hits that go out of the park. That was far from the case with Delcarmen, who gave up only two homers to 243 batters faced, the third best rate in the AL with pitchers of 50+ innings.

There were 14 pitchers in the AL who gave up a homer fewer than once every 70 batters—7 of them had ERAs of .3.00 or lower, and the highest after Delcarmen’s was Ruddy Lugo’s 3.81. Seven of the guys in this category had 30+ saves: Mariano Rivera, B.J. Ryan, Joe Nathan, Jonathan Papelbon, Akinori Otsuka, JJ Putz, and Huston Street. Fairly strong company. I wouldn’t give him the closing job straight off, myself. Hey, maybe he IS a guy who is just always going to be prone to giving up a high number of hits on balls batted in play. However, Delcarmen should absolutely be on the opening day roster.

Julian Tavarez – What a season that was. I’m not going to sit here and predict what Julian Tavarez is going to do this season, because nobody has any clue, not even Julian. He could be the best reliever on the team, he could be released in June, he could end up suspended for kicking someone in the face. It’s a total mystery. He was a lot of fun to watch in September, though, with the highlight being the one-hit complete game win against Toronto. As far as handling the pressure of Boston, he’s perfect for it, since he’s completely insane. I wouldn’t trust him as my closer or housesitter, but he could be a valuable member of the bullpen.

Craig Hansen – Hailed as the bullpen stud of the future coming into the season, the Red Sox didn’t seem willing to wait for the future when it came to Hansen, despite the fact that he’d seen mixed results at Triple A Pawtucket. There were some positives in Hansen’s season—I like any 22 year old who can come into the majors with less than a year of minor league experience and strike out 30 guys against 15 walks in only 38 innings—but it was pretty apparent that Hansen wasn’t quite ready for the majors. In a couple of the paragraphs above, I talked about pitchers needing to experience success before being put into a major role. Hansen may have been an example of the opposite—a guy coming to the majors who had never really experienced failure. He had been the best closer in college baseball, was a first round draft pick in 2005, was given a major league contract on signing, tore through the minors up to Double A without giving up a run, and made his major league debut within three months of being drafted. When he got hit hard with Boston, he didn’t seem to really know how to make adjustments, and it compounded his problems. By the end of the year, his ERA was 6.63.

The Red Sox use of Hansen in 2006 was really a mistake. First, they started him in Double A Portland, despite the fact that he’d been dominant at that level in 2005. Once they brought him to Pawtucket, they decided they were going to use him as a starter to strengthen his arm and get some innings under him. That lasted four starts, until the Red Sox decided they needed him in the majors, despite some high walk rates. Their interest was understandable. Hansen’s ERA was below 3.00, he was highly touted, and the Sox had success throwing Papelbon into the fire.

From there on, he was terribly inconsistent, and usually downright bad at Fenway, where his ERA was 8.70. Hansen’s biggest problem was his first pitch. When he throw a first pitch strike, the OBP against him was .268, against a .488 OBP when he threw a first pitch ball. There’s almost always a difference there, but rarely is it so profound. There’s little shame in having a bad season in the majors at Age 22. Hopefully he’s a strong enough kid to overcome it. He needs to start the season in Pawtucket though, and stay there through June. With any luck, he’ll be the closer in 2008.