Saturday, April 4, 2009

Aviv's View: The Bullpens

There is nothing I hate more than trying to analyze bullpens. That’s because there is nothing in baseball that is more unpredictable than set-up men and long relievers. While closers are fairly predictable, they guys who pitch ahead of him tend be great one year or even two and then terrible the next season. Sometimes it’s workload. Other times the league adjusts. Often the reason is just inexplicable.

Still, let’s a look our rivals’ bullpens … and laugh in September at how much this turns out to be wrong.


Boston

Yankees fans will hate to read this, but Jonathan Papelbon is second to no one — even the great Mariano. Right now he is an elite closer who has proven himself in the postseason and won a World Series. In his three seasons starting in 2006, he’s saved 37, 37 and 41 games and his ERA has been outstanding, though it has been rising (0.92, 1.85 and 2.34).

The only thing he needs to do is to prove is his longevity. We’ve seen that closers tend to have a relative short period during which they are dominant. Most flame out within five year. Very good ones might last 10. And there’s Mariano Rivera, who is a freak, but more on him later. We don’t know how Papelbon’s career will progress — time will tell — but as we sit here today, he belongs in the discussion as the game’s top closer.

Hideki Okajima was a revelation in 2007, solidifying the seventh and eighth innings. Last season he was less effective, getting credited with eight blown saves and his ERA rising from 2.22 to 2.61. His biggest struggles last season came with inherited runners and with runners in scoring position. Did the league adjust to Okajima? Was he off mechanically from the stretch? He did improve in those situations as the season went on, but we’ll learn a lot more about Okajima this season.

He’ll be joined by Takashi Saito, signed after being released by the Dodgers following an injury-filled season. Saito, 39, had been emerging as a top closer before his injuries and if he regains his form, he’ll be formidable in the eighth.

Justin Masterson will start the season in the bullpen, where he was terrific last season. In 27 appearances and 34-1/3 innings, he went 2-2 with a 2.36 ERA. He’s capable of filling several roles, including the eighth inning bridge. But the Sox also think he can be a starter. Is he Boston’s version of Joba Chamberlain?

Javier Lopez and Manny Delcarmen will fill out the bullpen. Both have had periods or effectiveness and both have struggled. But for the most part they have been solid and reliable.

New York

The bullpen actually was strength of the Yankees last season and Joe Girardi proven to be much more adept at managing the arms out there than Joe Torre. Girardi was able to get guys consistent work, yet space them out enough to be rested. He also was able to define roles fairly effectively.

The big problem was that bullpen had to eat up too many inning in support of ineffective starters, such as Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy, Sidney Ponson, Darrell Rasner and Carl Pavano, among others, and an aging starter in Mike Mussina., who won 20 games, but had turned into a six-inning — at-best — pitcher.

Rivera remains the standard by which every closer is measured. And at 39, you’d expect him to be slowing down. But he only appears to be getting better by age, becoming increasingly efficient and last season posting 39 saves in 40 opportunities and a 1.40 ERA — his lowest since 2005 and second lowest of his career. His only struggles last season seemed to come when he entered with a tie score. That hadn’t been a problem for him in the past and probably won’t be a problem this season.

He is coming off shoulder surgery that was called minor, but has shown no signs of that surgery this spring, allowing a no runs in seven innings over seven outings. The Yankees’ revamped rotation, which includes CC Sabathia, could help to limit Rivera’s innings.

The eighth inning — the bridge to Mo — is a big question. The guy best suited for the role is Chamberlain, but he’s the No. 5 starter. Entering the season, Jose Veras likely will fill that role, but lefthander Phil Coke might get a shot to claim it.

Veras went 5-3 with 3.59 ERA last year, but was particularly effective in the seventh inning when Joba and then Kyle Farnsworth were responsible for the eighth. Coke was impressive when he was called up last season. A starter in the minors, he went 1-0 with 0.61 ERA in 12 games and 14-2/3 innings. He got out of some tough jams and the Girardi and Yankees are high on him.

Brian Bruney was derailed by a lisfranc tear last season, but had been strong late in games before the injury, finishing the year 3-0 with a 1.83 ERA. His success depends on his ability to throw strikes consistently and is an option for the eighth.

Edwar Ramirez will be the situational righty and Damaso Marte the situational lefty. Jonathan Albaladejo, after a terrific spring, will be the “long” man capable of pitching two innings. Alfredo Aceves and Dan Giese will start the year in Triple A. But Girardi and the Yanks are banking the starting rotation will be able to pitch enough innings and go deep enough into game to limit how much these guys work.

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