Tuesday, August 30, 2005

« A closer look at each team's ... closer (NL) »

By Suss
The playoff race is very close to September, and these are the 13 teams that are either guaranteed or close to (within 3 games) one of the 8 playoff invites:
  • Cardinals
  • White Sox
  • Red Sox
  • Braves
  • Yankees
  • A's
  • Angels
  • Indians
  • Phillies
  • Marlins
  • Mets
  • Astros
  • Nationals
  • Padres
(The Twins are 5 1/2 back of the Wild Card ... go on a run and I'll include you in this. Plus I said the Mets were out, and I still believe that, but for the purposes of this post I'll include you since you're only 2 games behind Philly)

Let's look at perhaps the most crucial element of a playoff team's chances: the bullpen. In a playoff race as tight as this, a bad bullpen could be a divisional rival's best friend. If a team can't hold a close lead, not only will a team lose a couple extra games, but momentum can get sucked out of the clubhouse faster than a Kyle Farnsworth fastball.

Starting with teams with the worst record:

San Diego Padres. It never hurts to have the active leader and 2nd-all time in saves (Trevor Hoffman) as your stopper. This year he is 33-for-35 in save ops. Behind him are 5 solid relievers, only one of which has an ERA higher than 4: Scott Linebrink, Antonio Otsuka, Chris Hammond, Rudy Seanez and Paul Quantrill. Since this team won't be able to score 10 or hold a team to 2, they will have close games in the postseason and will need to count on these 6 to hold the other team to one run for every three innings they pitch. And with a bullpen ERA of 3.48 so far -- putting them 2nd in the NL in that category -- this team shall not be counted out once they make the playoffs.

Washington Nationals. While the team has taken a bit of a dive since the All-Star Break (yeah, they're in last place now), they're still much in contention for the Wild Card, and you can't blame closer Chad Cordero. Going into the All-Star game with 31 saves, he has added 10 more plus lowered his ERA from 1.13 to 0.96 (note: it's hard to lower a 1.13 ERA!) The rest of the 'pen, like Cordero, was unheard of prior to this year: Hector Carrasco, Gary Majewski, Luis Ayala and Joey Eischen. They solidified that 'pen with a veteran middleman with a couple of WS rings: Mike Stanton, whom the Yankees threw away earlier this year. Livan Hernandez ought to count as a reliever as well, since when he pitches, the pen gets the night off.

Houston Astros. If you haven't heard of Brad Lidge, get used to his name. This hard-throwing righthander has 81 K's in 52 innings, the best ratio in the major leagues. He has saved 31 of 34 games, and his middlemen haven't blown much either. Dan Wheeler (1.77 ERA) has been the star of the middle relief, and Chad Qualls, Russ Springer, Chad Harville and Mike Gallo. To be fair, Springer and Lidge are the only two I've heard of before writing this post. But you have to respect that 3.77 ERA (4th best in the NL), and if the Astros can muster up any hitting, they may go deep in the playoffs as well.

New York Mets. Closer Braden Looper headlines an eclectic mix of pitchers in this bullpen. You have the seasoned veteran setup man (Roberto Hernandez), the young guns (Aaron Heilman and Heath Bell), the journeyman (Manny Aybar) and the bitter 37-year-old rookie (Dae-Sung Koo) who, after an OK year, refused to warm up for a game Saturday night and was promptly demoted to AAA Sunday. At face value it's not an attractive bullpen, and among the 8 NL contending teams they're 5th in ERA (3.90, 6th in NL). They may need to rely on their starting pitching (which they've done) because I wouldn't want this bullpen in October.

Florida Marlins. On a team with Guillermo Mota and Antonio Alfonseca, somehow Todd Jones emerged as the closer this year. Someone forgot to tell him what year it is, because his 31 saves are the most he's had since his Detroit Tiger days in 2000. He has a sub-one WHIP (0.92) and has blown only two saves. But Jones is the closer because of all the injuries. Jim Mecir and Tim Spooneybarger are currently injured, and they got Alfonseca back last month. If the pitchers can get to Jones, game over. But if the pen gets in the game by the 6th inning, there will be trouble. That 4.41 pen ERA is not what you want in the postseason.

Philadelphia Phillies. Is this the same team that closer Billy Wagner said lacks "the know-how to win?" Because they're leading the Wild Card. And Wagner's no stranger to success. Having over 270 career saves, he has 31 this year and a tiny, tiny 0.82 WHIP. But while the pen is bolstered by Ugueth Urbina, too many of the relievers are left-handed. It's good to have a solid southpaw in a pinch, but Wagner, Aaron Fultz and Rheal Cormier are all lefties. There are way too many quality right-handed hitters to make a 'pen like that work.

Atlanta Braves. While the team has shown amazing resilience from big-name injuries and impressive rookies/managing/GMing, the team doesn't have an amazing bullpen. Danny Kolb began as the closer, coming off an All-Star year with the Brewers. Now the job belongs to Chris Reitsma (29 career saves, 15 this year) and they made moves bringing in Kyle Farnsworth for a hard-throwing setup man. The team needs to adjust to John Smoltz being back in the rotation, because they were banking on him for a few years. They even became the first team this year to bring up a 2005 draft pick -- Joey Devine -- whose career stats stand at 2 innings, 7 runs. John Foster has been an OK middleman and Blaine Boyer (1.94 ERA) is the unsung star of the pen. Still, the composite ERA is 4.60, too high for my taste to feel comfortable with them in close games.

St. Louis Cardinals. What more is there to say? Randy Flores (3.82 ERA) is by far the worst pitcher in this bullpen. Only four NL teams have a better average pen ERA below 3.82. Ray King (2.80), Julian Tavarez (2.77), Brad Thompson (2.62), Al Reyes (2.31) and closer Jason Isringhausen (1.75). These six have accounted for over 90 percent of the entire bullpen's innings, showings its durability and consistency to produce and average ERA of 3.00, best in the NL. When this team has few faults, fewer reside in the bullpen.

AL bullpens coming later.