Sunday, June 26, 2005

« Third best bullpen, quietest .500 team »

By Suss
We've (I've) already established time and time again that a strong bullpen is a cornerstone of a successful ballclub.

Among the top five bullpen ERAs this year include the following teams and notable relievers:

1. Cleveland -- Bob Wickman, Arthur Rhodes, David Riske
2. Minnesota -- Joe Nathan, Juan Rincon, J.C. Romero
4. St. Louis -- Jason Isringhausen, Julian Tavares, Ray King
5. Los Angeles Angels -- Francisco Rodriguez, Brendan Donnelly, Scot Shields

The third best team in baseball was omitted for the purposes of this entry, because they're my second favorite team, and a team you wouldn't expect to have a winning record.

The Detroit Tigers.

And they're bullpen is among the best in the league, even after they traded Ugueth Urbina.

Their success (total ERA: 3.07) is a mixture of acquisitions and prospects, with one mainstay since 2002. And you've probably never heard of him prior to this post.

Their major acquisitions this year were the free agent Troy Percival, the Angels franchise leader in career saves, and Kyle Farnsworth, the flamethrowing righthander they received from the Cubs in a trade.

The prospect relievers -- Franklyn German and Chris Spurling -- were all prospects in the Detroit farm system, although German was acquired as a prospect in a trade.

German's numbers are outstanding (2-0, 2.39, 1 save) considering his ERA the previous two years was over 6.00 both times. He was a prospect that came over from Oakland in the 2002 three-team deal that sent former Tiger Jeff Weaver to the Yankees and New York's Ted Lilly to Oakland. (Two other players Detroit got from Oakland: First baseman Carlos Pena and a player to be named later, who turned out to be Jeremy Bonderman. Talk about a trade that paid dividends!)

Spurling is one of those classic touted Yankee prospects that somehow wound up in Detroit. This year, the 27-year-old has seen German's 2-0 record and raised him a 1.86 ERA.

The constant in that bullpen has been lefthander Jamie Walker. The former Royal found his way to Detroit in 2002 and, despite his ERA never going higher than 4.00, he has never grabbed the closer role and only has 5 saves in his Tiger tenure. He has been a steady setup man, garnering 45 holds in that timespan. And this year, Walker's numbers are even better (3-3, 1.78 ERA).

Those guys would make a good pen, but to mimic Al Pacino, "I'm just gettin' warmed up!"

Farnsworth warms up batters quite nicely, as his fastball can usually hit 100 MPH in a game (it did Saturday). He sets up Percival with that fastball and 88 MPH slider as he strikes out 11.79 batters per 9 innings, which is among the league lead for relievers.

This leads to Percival, who has been injured for most of the year. Percival only has 5 saves in 7 opportunities, but nobody doubts he can get the job done in the ninth inning.

The pen sets the perfect tone for how the team plays all of the game. The team is a blend of young players (Nook Logan, Chris Shelton, Omar Infante), veterans (Pudge Rodriguez, Rondell White, Dmitri Young) and role players (Placido Polanco, Brandon Inge, Craig Monroe).

And finally, the starting rotation has been consistent as well. Along with Bonderman, their team's best starter, pitchers Jason Johnson, Mike Martha, NATO Robertson and occasionally wile Ledezma make up a sort of 4-1/2 man starting rotation. The only man out of those five who have started a game was Saturday night when Sean Douglass was called up from AAA Toledo and pitched 6 innings, giving up only one run and earning the win in Arizona.

This team is winning ball games, but the payroll this year comes in just under $69 million, giving them the 15th highest payroll. But that doesn't seem right, given the unheralded names like Logan, Inge and Shelton making a name for themselves.

That's because over $19 million in checks go to Bobby Higginson, Magglio Ordonez and Fernando Vina, who have played a combined 26 at-bats, and those were all Higginson. Carlos Guillen, their $4 million shortstop, is also hurt. So if you took $23 million out of the mix of their salary, their payroll is about $45 million, about as much as 6th-lowest Toronto's.

Imagine what happens when they get healthy (except for Higginson -- he's never had amazing numbers since the 90's and they're stuck with his $8.85 million contract).