Creeping Inexorably Toward A Worthwhile Sub-Heading.
Monday, January 12, 2004
Assuming the Position - Part 7 - The Bullpen
After an absolutely appalling year from the relief corps in 2002, the Cubs went on a massive spending spree in the offseason to improve the bullpen product, and it brought forth....well....mediocrity. Certainly an improvement, but in a year where a good bullpen could have taken a lot of pressure off an overworked starting staff, not quite improved enough. In order for the Cubs to be viable this year and into the future, Jim Hendry must assemble a cadre of relievers that Dusty Baker will not hesitate to use. Has he done the job?
Joe Borowski - The feel-good story of Borowski's roundabout trip to the Cubs' (complete with Mexican detour) has been well documented, but 2003 brought the ultimate fortune for JoBo in the form of another player's mis-fortune. When Antonio Alfonseca injured his groin during spring training, the Cubs were left with a gaping hole where their closer used to be. Dusty Baker refrained from anointing anyone out of spring training, so when the first save situation of the year came on April 5 in Cincinnati, it was anybody's guess who would come trotting in from the bullpen.
Out went Joe, out went three Reds, and out went the question of who would finish games for the Cubs.
One season and 33 saves later, Borowski comes into 2004 as the incumbent closer for this squad, a role that no one in baseball could have foreseen for him at this time last year (and if you did, I'd love for you to handle my stock portfolio). The time for concern over the possible fluke nature of his success is passed, as he followed his fine 2002, during which he was the best reliever on an awful staff, with an even better 2003. And now, for a little Table Time!
His strikeout rate declined slightly, and because of his more specialized role he threw fewer innings, but everything else points to a pitcher who is not only a non-fluke, but has managed to figure things out and become an extremely valuable asset in the bullpen. He's a fine choice to continue in the closer's role since he's not only a solid pitcher, but is also blessed with a short memory, perhaps the most valuable attribute a man who will occasionally be handed all the blame for a loss can have. If Dusty doesn't have confidence in JoBo, he ought to. He's doing the job.
LaTroy Hawkins - The Cubs signed Hawkins this offseason for near closer money, and while Borowski is a good pitcher, when LaTroy puts on his Cubbie blue uniform, he becomes the most potent weapon in Dusty Baker's relief arsenal. Stop! Table Time!
Look at those strikeout to walk ratios. Yikes! Hawkins possesses two of the most important skills you look for in a good reliever. He doesn't let men on base, and he keeps the ball in the yard. If you do that coming out of the bullpen, you're more than halfway home, and Hawkins does it in spades.
While there is idle chatter about LaTroy taking the ball in the ninth, I wouldn't anticipate that scenario unless Borowski is hurt or starts to fail badly. The fun thing about the way this has played out is that, as a non-closer who happens to be the best pitcher in the bullpen, Hawkins is free to come into the most critical game situations with little regard to what the inning is. Imagine that. A one-run lead, two men on, one out, top of the seventh, and in trots your best reliever. Shocking!
The Cubs are likely to occasionally execute the Red Sox initial 2003 bullpen plan, without even intending to. Lacking a dominant reliever, the BoSox plan was doomed to failure and ridicule. Not an issue for the Cubs, as they not only have the man for the plan, but any adherence to it will be completely accidental. I don't know if Jim Hendry is savvy enough to have done this on purpose, but intentional or not, it sets up a possible usage pattern that should keep sabremetrically inclined Cub fans happy all year long.
Mike Remlinger - For the first lefty out of the pen, he sure has trouble sitting down southpaws. Last year, Remlinger put up a .263/.343/.442 line against his fellow portsiders, versus his .180/.301/.323 line when facing his opposites. His three-year splits are even more pronounced (.277/.335/.455 vs. L, .186/.280/.290 vs. R), so why Dusty used him more against lefties than anytime over the last three seasons is beyond me. Still not convinced he shouldn't face his brethren? Take a look at this.
The R/L Ratio is the number of at bats facing right-handers divided by the number of at bats facing left-handers. The lower the number, the more often he faced a lefty. See a pattern? More lefties for Remlinger = more runs for the other team. I don't know if Dusty has figured out that he should be used like any right-hander with a bad platoon split (*cough* JeffNelson! *cough*), but the sooner he does, the better off the Cubs, and Remlinger's ego, will be.
Kyle Farnsworth - Cub fans didn't know what to expect from Kyle in 2003. Would we see the dominating flamethrower of the 2001 campaign, or the fragile, hitable owner of 2002's 7.33 ERA? The only thing anyone knew for sure was how he would look in his uniform ("Pants by Dutch Boy®, the leader in skin-tight comfort.").
As it turned out, the hand-wringing was unnecessary, and Farnsworth turned the heat back up on his way to his second-best season.
Um...wow. That's one heck of an improvement. I wonder how many relievers have thrown at least 45 innings in two consecutive seasons and seen their SLG against sliced nearly in half? My guess? Not many.
It's pretty obvious that the one thing keeping Kyle from dominating everyone in the ballpark (besides, perhaps, his psyche) is his control. Get that walk rate under three, and Dutch Boy will own the National League.
Kent Mercker - Finally! A lefty who gets out lefties....sort of!
2002 VS. L .209/.303/.433
2003 VS. L .222/.350/.358
In 2002 he kept his lefty opponents' average down, but most of what got hit was hit hard, while in 2003, he wasn't hit as hard, but was hit more often. He also walked a bunch of guys last year, and if there's anything that's really troubling about his performance, that would be it. True, he kept his ERA down to a miniscule 1.95 last year, but when you walk 32 men in 55.1 IP, you're playing with fire. I would also not expect him to keep right-hander's down to a .230/.303/.393 line again. He was absolutely murdered by his opposites in 2002 (to the tune of .350/.424/.675), and while I wouldn't expect an outright repetition of that kind of "work" again, even if the truth lies between the two, he should be shielded from righties at all costs.
Mercker has become the definition of LOOGY, and if he's used as such, he can be a net positive.
Todd Wellemeyer/Sergio Mitre/???????? - This spot is, or could be, less about who can contribute most to the team today, and more about who will benefit from the experience tomorrow. After having a year to monitor his usage patterns, it's clear that to Dusty Baker, even more than with some managers, the last spot in the bullpen is reserved for use in blowouts and extra inning emergencies. There's little reason to have a veteran mediocrity fill this spot when there are young arms in the system for whom time with the big club could be valuable. That doesn't mean we won't see a semi-famous NRI breaking camp with the team in April, after all, Dusty has a thing for those who have been around the block (Gary Glover or Jamey Wright, anyone?). It just means that in an ideal world, a young pitcher from the system who doesn't have a ton left to learn in the minors would get a chance to clock some time in the show, becoming acclimated to the Majors in a relatively low-pressure gig. Not that the veteran NRI route doesn't have its merits (it's certainly served the Angels and Braves in the past), but rooting around in the salvage yard hasn't been one of the organization's strengths, and isn't likely to become one anytime soon.
Had the Cubs merely acquired LaTroy Hawkins, or simply dumped Antonio Alfonseca, they would have done themselves a service, but having accomplished both has gone a long way toward making the Cubs' pen one of the best in the National League. Adding a lefty who might occasionally sit down others of their ilk is a bonus, but in the aftermath of all this activity we're left with a question. Will an improved bullpen take some heat off the starting staff?
It's a big question, and it might hold the key to the organization's future. In an upcoming entry, I'll take a peek at Dusty Baker's usage patterns and see if I can find the answer. It may not be there, but it can't hurt to look!