We are a nation of quick fixes. Need to lose weight? There are literally hundreds of solutions on the market that can help you lose those last ten pounds before your 20 year high school reunion yet few try the tried and true method of eating less and exercising more. If you need money today, you can get advances on your paycheck with interest – an idea only slightly worse than doing the backstroke in the shark tank at Sea World. If your team is short on power hitters in the late 90’s, you can run out and overpay a bunch of sluggers who will cripple the team’s payroll for a few seasons afterwards while they fail miserably.
If you talk to Rays fans this off-season you are likely to get a few opinions while we watch this great 2009 post-season in disgust. As the ALCS approaches to its close, we are faced with the reality of pulling for the Phillies and thus puttin up with Clearwater area people gloating over back to back champs or pulling for the Evil Empire and thus putting up with all of the New York transplants in the area as they gloat about buying yet another title. That choice ranks right up there with re-marrying my ex-wife or watching a Washington Redskins game. The one thing I keep hearing from Rays fans as I chat with them in the last month is, “fix the bullpen!”
Here is a review of how the bullpen did in 2009.
This is why it is useful to take a 50,000 foot view of the situation. If you ask fans about the bullpen in 2009, most will say it under-performed and it is what killed the Rays’ 2009 post-season plans and just about all of them would bring up that lovely game in May against Cleveland where the pen blew a 10 run lead in the final three innings of the game. That said, the table above shows that the Rays pen performed above league average in all but two categories – losses in relief (league average) and save % (below league average). That last category backs up the claim of fans crying for a legitimate closer, despite J.P. Howell’s performance in 2009. Howell was one of the best relievers in baseball for most of 2009 until he finally wore down from the rented mule usage pattern that Joe Maddon has put him under these past two seasons. Once he wore down late in the season, the fact there was not an ample replacement to close out games really became a sore spot for the team and helped aid in writing the ending to the Rays season for all intents and purposes by early September.
I am not one of the fans who think the club needs a real closer as I am still 100% in J.P. Howell’s corner for the role, but for argument’s sake, let’s take a look at the list of relief pitchers that are on the market this winter that could serve in a closing capacity that are legitimately within the Rays budget. This would rule out Jose Valverde who is going to get somewhere near 9-10 million a year to close but does not quite rule out Billy Wagner who would be looking for a one year deal and the chance to finish his career with 400 saves. I have already said Wagner would be my top pick to add to the bullpen so let’s look at a couple of other names that are out there:
Danys Baez – our good old dearly departed closer from the middle part of this decade is back on the market. He does have 114 career saves but has only 12 since leaving Tropicana Field in 2005. His strikeout rate has fallen each year since 2003 from 7.9 down to 5.0 last season but he has transitioned into an extreme groundball pitcher by adding a split-fingered fastball and scrapping his curveball. He stranded only 67% of his runners last year, owned a 1.0 HR/9 rate, and his FIP of 4.6 and tRA of 4.70 paints the true picture.
Rafael Betancourt – I will be up front in saying I’d love to have his skills in the bullpen, just not as closer. First off, Betancourt is a Type A free agent so signing him would cost the Rays their 2010 first round draft pick. Secondly, Betancourt was given a few runs as a closer in Cleveland and failed quite miserably. Closing takes talent, opportunity, and the “it” factor to work under the 9th inning pressure. Betancourt has the first two but there is something about having a lead in the 9th inning that does not sit well with him.
Brandon Lyon – this is a name I expect you will hear some clamoring for this off-season as he is only one season removed from a 26 save season with Arizona and was a key cog in the Detroit bullpen in 2009 setting up Fernando Rodney. First off, the fact that the team considered him an inferior pitcher to Rodney should be enough of a red flag to you but let’s dive into his numbers.
It took a super-suppressed BABIP and a lot of stranded runners just to keep Lyon’s ERA at 2.86 on the season in 2009. When compared to his career norms, 2009’s performance looks very much out of whack. According to FanGraphs, Lyon re-introduced his slider, a pitch he dropped after an earlier arm injury in 2003 which helps speak to some of his success since opposing batters were used to seeing a lot of fastballs from him in the past. The big question – once the newness wears off, can Lyon sustain his 2009 performance? The odds of him doing so are stacked against him because those types of BABIP and LOB% are very tough for even the best relievers to repeat in consecutive years and as they regress to the mean, we are left with a reliever with a pedestrian tRA and supporting stats that are not closer worthy. Compare what Lyon and Howell did last year:
Now, let’s look at how they did in 2008:
Howell has been extremely effective for the past two seasons while we have seen Lyon at his worst in Arizona and his best in Detroit in the past two seasons.
Lyon is the last type of name I want to see the Rays adding to the bullpen as I do not feel the move is an upgrade in any way. Grant Balfour, Lance Cormier, J.P. Howell, and Dan Wheeler are locks to return to the Rays bullpen in 2011 which leaves 1-2 spots open for competition. Let’s assume Randy Choate is retained as the lefty specialist which leaves one spot open from competition internally (Andy Sonnanstine, Dale Thayer) or a free agent signing. If the club shares the fanbase’s concerns about the closer role, adding Lyon, Betancourt, or Baez will solve any of those problems. If they can add Betancourt to the bullpen to help solidify what is already a good bullpen, I am on board with that.