Monday, October 27, 2008

Position-by-Position Off-Season Outlook: Relief Pitchers

Continuing my series looking at the Nationals' current personnel organization-wide and the opportunities to upgrade this off-season, next up is the starting pitching. If you missed it and are interested, click to check out my looks at the catchers, first base, second base, shortstop, third base, outfield, and starting pitchers.

As always, I have two key questions in mind, the first far more important than the second: 1. what can we do to speed the arrival of The First Great Nationals Team (FJB target date: 2011), and 2. what can we do to move towards respectability in 2009? The first step is to evaluate accurately and honestly where we stand now, and the next step is to look at opportunities to upgrade.

The Present
  • Closer: Joel Hanrahan
Led by a bumper crop of former Expos including Chad Cordero, Jon Rauch, Luis Ayala, Gary Majewski, and others, the Nationals bullpen has been the team's greatest strength since the team arrived in 2005. Even in 2008, when the bullpen was gutted by below-par performances (Ayala), injuries (Cordero), and trades (Rauch), the relief corps did pretty well. The bullpen ERA of 4.18 trailed the NL average bullpen ERA of 4.09, but considering that Nationals RPs threw a total of 553 1/3 innings, compared to the NL average of 514 per team, we really got pretty near league-average productivity from the bullpen.

Joel Hanrahan, who went from spring training surprise to closer in a matter of four months last year,
was a nice story, but still didn't really pitch like a bullpen ace, posting a 3.95 ERA in 84 1/3 innings. His 9.92 K/9 were impressive, but command has always been Hanrahan's limiting factor. In 2008, he managed to cut his BB/9 from a risible 6.72 last year to a merely not great 4.48 this year. More encouraging, his walk rate improved as the season went along, dropping from 5.09 per 9 in the first half to 3.46 in the second half.

Closing is more a matter of mindset than skill, and Hanrahan seems to hold up ok. He earned 9 saves while blowing 3 after Jon Rauch was traded to Arizona the third week of July. Keep in mind the small sample size, but his ERA in save situations was 3.12, compared to 4.16 in non-save situations.
  • Middle relievers: Saul Rivera, Mike Hinckley, Steven Shell, Jesus Colome, and two of the following: Jason Bergmann, Shairon Martis, Garrett Mock, Marco Estrada, Ryan Wagner, Brian Sanches
No part of the team is more unsettled than this group.

Really, only Rivera is really a sure thing. Saul, who never seems to get the love he deserves from Nationals fans, was his usual grounder-inducing, innings devouring self last year. No reliever in baseball has thrown more innings than the 177 Rivera has thrown the past two seasons. His 3.96 ERA was solid if not spectacular, but that number is a bit inflated by a .336 BABIP.
He actually raised his groundball rate last year to 54% from 49% in 2007. Relievers are a notoriously erratic sort from year to year, and you have to wonder when his usage will start to catch up, but Rivera has been one of the most consistent RPs in baseball the last three years and will be counted on to continue that next year in his age 31 season. Also, should Hanrahan regress, I would have to think Rivera would be the next choice to close, barring a new acquisition.

Jesus Colome has, for reasons I don't totally understand, has become one of the guys Nationals fans love to hate. Yeah, he's annoyingly slow on the mound, but this is a guy who throws 95 and has a 4.07 ERA over two seasons and 137 innings for the Nationals. In '08, he finished with a 4.31 ERA, almost exactly the matching the 4.30 NL-average ERA for all pitchers.
He was a bit lucky with his .275 BABIP and 7.1% HR/FB rate, so chances are he'll slide into the high-4s next year. And he still walks too many (4.94 per 9 in '08) and gives up an awful lot of flyballs (41% in '08). But that's why he's not a candidate to close or set up; you don't want a guy like that pitching in high-leverage situations, but he's a perfectly good 4th or 5th guy back there. Colome is arbitration-eligible, and while he's very likely to be non-tendered, the team should be able to re-sign him to another one-year deal for around $1.5 mil.

Mike Hinckley made a splash with 13 2/3 scoreless innings in his MLB debut. No matter what happens from here on out, he'll always have that pretty 0.00 ERA on the back of his rookie baseball card. The 25-year-old former Baseball America Expos #1 prospect had a shoulder injury in 2005 that had robbed him of velocity and effectiveness. There was even some talk of retirement earlier this year. Then, he was moved to the bullpen and was suddenly throwing in the low-90s again. His K/9 in AA and AAA this year was over 7, but command was a big problem, with a minor-league BB/9 over 5. But in his brief time in the bigs his command was excellent, walking just 1.98 per 9, while he struck out 5.93 per 9, giving him an impressive K:BB ratio of 3.00. You also gotta like his 2.13 GB:FB ratio. But the command problems will almost surely re-emerge, and with that regression to the mean we'll find out who he really is.

Steven Shell was the other late-season revelation last year. As I've noted previously, the 25-year-old, side-arming righty was one of just five
relief pitchers in the NL to throw 50 innings with an ERA of 2.16 or better (Brad Lidge, Joe Nelson, Hong-Chih Kuo, Cory Wade). Still, expect him to regress into the high-3s or low-4s next year as his fluky 85.7% strand rate and .225 BABIP revert to more typical rates of 70% and .295.

If you assume that Hanrahan, Rivera, Hinckley, Colome, and Shell will all be on the 25-man on Opening Day, that would give us five bullpen arms, two short of what we'll need. It's really unclear who those last two will be, though one of the odd men out in the rotation, like Mock, Bergmann, or Martis, will probably fill one of those spots.

Not to go unmentioned is Chad Cordero, who is arbitration-eligible but is coming off a torn labrum. He should have been re-signable for a discounted, incentive-laden deal, but it appears that the hurt feelings over Bowden's off-hand announcement that the team would non-tender him on 980 sports talk radio has ensured Cordero's departure.

In the Minors
  • Adam Carr
When 24-year-old pitching prospects experience major regressions, it's usually time to move on. A lot of people no doubt are thinking just that about Adam Carr, whose 97-mph fastball, plus-slider, and intimidating mound presence inspired hopes of a future stud closer. He had a 2.08 ERA in 64 games over four low minor-league levels in '06 and '07 but slipped all the way to a 6.60 ERA in 51 games in A+ and AA this year.

In fact, Carr is more of a case study in how sample size and luck and play havoc with pitching stats. His strand rates across two seasons and four levels in '06-'07 were 75.3%, 83.3%, 89.7%, and 95.5% (70% is typical). His BABIPs against were .280, .355, .257, and .250 (.290-.300 is typical). In '08, his strand rates at A+ and AA fell to 62.8% and 66.4%. His BABIPs were .375 and .320. In other words, two stats that are largely outside a pitcher's control and that can have a big effect on ERA swung from unsustainably favorable for Carr to unsustainably unfavorable. His other peripherals didn't suffer nearly as badly as his ERA. In fact, in his 26 1/3 innings at Potomac, where he posted an ugly 6.15 ERA, he actually showed significant improvement in key areas, especially command. His BB/9 fell to 4.44 per 9 from 6.9 in '07, and he continued his strong K numbers, with 10.6 per 9. Once he got the call to AA Harrisburg, is K rate fell to 7.22, the lowest of his pro career, and his BB/9 rose back to 5.88, but I wonder to what extent he may have panicked and gotten off his game. Bottom line, anyone who was excited about Carr going into '08 shouldn't be writing him off now. A strong showing in early '09 should put him back on the radar, but at his age time is running out.

Free Agents
Courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors, here are the free agent starting pitchers available this off-season:

Brian Fuentes (33)
Eric Gagne (33)
Eddie Guardado (38)
Trevor Hoffman (41)
Jason Isringhausen (36)
Brandon Lyon (29)
Francisco Rodriguez (27)
Salomon Torres (37) - $3.75MM club option for '09 with a $0.3MM buyout
Kerry Wood (32)

Middle relievers
Jeremy Affeldt (30)
Luis Ayala (31)
Joe Beimel (32)
Joe Borowski (38)
Doug Brocail (42)
Shawn Chacon (31)
Juan Cruz (30)
Alan Embree (39) - $3MM club option for '09
Scott Eyre (37)
Kyle Farnsworth (33)
Casey Fossum (31)
Keith Foulke (35)
Tom Gordon (41) - $4.5MM club option for '09 with a $1MM buyout
LaTroy Hawkins (36)
Mark Hendrickson (35)
Matt Herges (39)
Bob Howry (35)
Jon Lieber (39)
Jason Johnson (35)
Damaso Marte (34) - $6MM club option for '09 with a $0.25MM buyout
Trever Miller (36) - $2MM club option for '09 with a $0.4MM buyout
Guillermo Mota (35)
Will Ohman (31)
Darren Oliver (38)
Chan Ho Park (36)
Horacio Ramirez (29)
Al Reyes (38)
Dennys Reyes (32)
Arthur Rhodes (39)
Juan Rincon (30)
Glendon Rusch (34)
Rudy Seanez (40)
Brian Shouse (40)
Russ Springer (40)
Mike Timlin (43)
Ron Villone (39)
David Weathers (39)
Kip Wells (32)
Matt Wise (33)
Jamey Wright (34)
FJB's Take
Relief pitchers are notoriously erratic, and over-spending (either in money or trade commodities) is a good way to run a team into the ground.

That said, the Nationals have too many question marks back there. First, counting on Hanrahan to close with Rivera as plan B seems like a dangerous plan, even for a bad team that won't have very many saves opportunities. I think it would make sense to bring in a reasonably priced veteran with closing experience like Akinori Otsuka or David Weathers. Juan Cruz could be a good risk-reward option to throw into the mix at a reasonable cost.

It also might make sense to move a guy like Mock or Martis to the 'pen, assuming they don't earn a rotation spot. These guys both have the strikeout rates you normally associate with bullpen aces, and I think both could make successful transitions to relieving. However, I think the team should only do this if they are prepared to commit to that transition. Bergmann would be another good option for a potential long-man/spot starter, but I worry that the team has yanked him back and forth from starting to relieving and from the majors and AAA that they might be better off just trading him for whatever we can get rather than trying to mess around with his role again, assuming he isn't in the cards to start in '09 (which I don't necessarily assume).

Regardless, I think the team has to bring in at least one, probably two, reliable veterans to give ourselves some margin for error with all the question marks back there. There are always a slew of guys out there, and this year is no exception, with the likes of Jeremy Affeldt, Darren Oliver, Will Ohman, Brian Shouse, Bob Howry, Tyler Walker, and probably a dozen other names out there in the pool of mediocre veteran relievers who can be had for one-year deals of around $2-3 million. I would also re-sign Colome.

One last word on Chief: even if he never pitches another inning in the major leagues (and I think he will again be an effective reliever, maybe as soon as next year), Bowden's bumbling of the situation was a careless, amateurish, ham-handed, blundering gaffe that in anything resembling a well-run organization would have cost him his job. There's just no excuse for it, and someone so totally unable to exercise good judgment in how he speaks and acts shouldn't be in charge of any operation remotely as big as a Major League Baseball team.


Steve Shoup said...

Steven once again I think you were dead on. I think bringing in 2 vets to help stablize the pen would be a good idea. While our bullpen wasn't the worst if we can improve it to be good or at least above average we will see more wins as well as not putting as much pressure and innings on our young starters.

I think the names you mentioned are right on with one exception, it appears that Darren Oliver and maybe Howry might be Type A guys. These guys for this situation are def. not worth giving up draft picks. I like Juan Cruz alot also he is young so if he has a good year his trade value would be higher at the deadline. Or he would be worth more doing a 2 or 3 year deal with. Jeremy Affeldt is a guy who I think would be perfect for the Nats, he's not just a situational lefty, he's young enough that he can be effective for a couple of years.

Steven said...

Some things I probably should have said in the post, but to say now:

--there's no way I'd want to spend even a 2nd round pick on a veteran middle reliever. They're just to erratic to be worth that. So take any type As off the table.

--No LOOGYs. Period. The only way any team has room for a guy who will be used in that way is if they have 2-3 starters who can be counted on for 200+ innings. We have none like that. So we have to use all our RPs for full innings, facing righties and lefties. We have no room for Ray King, Joey Eichen, etc.