Saturday, February 16, 2013

Call to The Pen

Last season, the Orioles shocked the Baseball world by turning the tables on the usual suspects in the AL East by winning 93 games, nabbing second place in the AL East, and one of the two wild card spots. The O's made the playoffs in 2013, making their way back to the post season for the first time in 1997. After making quick work of the Texas Rangers in the wild card play-in game, the Orioles ran into the Bronx Bombers in the ALDS. The Yankees outlasted the O's, beating them in a decisive game 5 to move on to the League Championship Series.

Since then, the AL East has undergone a make over. The Red Sox ridded themselves of big contracts like Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, as well as distractions like Josh Beckett. The Sox have since replaced that trio with a group of veterans like Shane Victorino, David Ross, Ryan Dempster, Jonny Gomes, Mike Napoli, and Stephen Drew. General Manager Ben Cherington prudently signed no players tied to draft pick compensation, and predominantly went after players considered "sure things" as opposed to big names and thus big risks.

Across the border, Blue Jays made the deal of the offseason, acquiring Jose Reyes, Emilio Bonifacio, Josh Johnson, and Mark Buehrle from the Miami Marlins in exchange for a bus load of prospects. After  years of prospect cultivation and development, the Blue Jays decided to use some young talent as currency in order to make a run at the playoffs. The Jays added the cherry on top of the sundae by making a second deal, this one for the reigning NL Cy Young award winner, knuckleballer R.A. Dickey. With this infusion of talent and experience, especially in the rotation, the Blue Jays are prime to make the playoffs for the first time since 1993.

The Rays, that scrappy young club from St. Petersburg, continued to rake in the young, talented, cheap, and team controlled players by trading veteran pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis to Kansas City. In Return the Rays received stud prospect Wil Myers along with pitcher Jake Odorizzi. While this deal didn't compare in size or impact to the dealings of the Blue Jays, the Rays secured one of the top MLB-ready talents in the minors without trading AL Cy Young award winner David Price, who's expensive arbitration years just kicked in. While this move might set the Rays back at first, with prospects like Chris Archer and youngsters like Jeremy Hellickson and Alex Cobb vying for places in the Rays rotation, Tampa looks to remain relevant in 2013 as well as the foreseeable future.

The Yankees offseason involved signing a number of older veteran players to short-term contracts, plugging holes, in order to stay under the luxury tax, but also not fall into the cellar of the AL East. The Yanks brought back Ichiro, Andy Pettitte, and Hiroki Kuroda, while adding veteran Kevin Youkilis to man the hot corner at 3rd. While these moves seem a bit desperate on the surface, the Yankees made shrewd moves that should keep them germane in the AL East in 2013. The only hole in the Yankees roster seems to be behind the plate, but the team has all spring training to figure out their backstop issues.

So, with every team in the AL East realistically eyeing the playoffs for the first time in years, what aspect might separate one from the rest of the pack? Last season, the Orioles used their brilliant bullpen to push them just past the Rays into the playoffs, and it seems as though the relief core may be the key to the east once again. In 2013, the O's bullpen put up a combined 6.4 fWAR, which ranked 3rd in the American League behind only the Royals and the Rays. Orioles relievers made quick work of the final innings of a game not by utilizing the strikeout, but instead by inducing more ground balls than any other AL East pen. In addition, the O's gave out few free passes, ranking second, behind only the Rangers, in BB/9.

Red Sox
Blue Jays

The Orioles didn't have the best offense, nor stellar starting pitching, but Buck Showalter's bullpen kept the team in every game, making the Orioles a deadly foe in close games. Unfortunately for Baltimore, their incredible winning percentage in 1-run games and extra inning games came halted in the ALDS in which 4 out of the 5 games played ended with a margin of victory of just 1 run. Given that the Orioles bullpen became their key to success, and the growing parity in the AL East, what have Baltimore's rivals been up to?

David Robertson
The Yankees lost a key part of their 2012 bullpen, righty Raphael Soriano, but they were able to parlay his success into an additional draft pick by offering him a qualifying offer that he didn't accept. Instead, once Soriano signed with his new club, the Washington Nationals, the Yankees picked up a compensatory pick, which turns out to be the 32nd pick in this summers upcoming draft. The Yankees willingly parted with their 2012 bullpen anchor given Soriano's desire for a lucrative multi-year contract, the ability to obtain a draft pick in return, and most importantly knowing that future Hall-Of-Famer Mariano Rivera would return in 2013 to fill the hole left by Soriano. In addition to Rivera's return, the Yankees still have Nate Robertson, the strikeout machine, who has posted a 12.20 K/9, 2.70 FIP, and accumulated 6.0 fWAR since 2009. Between Robertson, Rivera, and a mix of Boone Logan from the left side, the Yankees bullpen should hold up late in games.

Roberto Hernandez
The Rays made some minor changes to their bullpen, but given their recent success, these changes should prove fruitful. Tampa traded ground ball specialist Burk Badenhop to the Brewers, replacing him with Roberto Hernandez, the pitcher formerly known as Fausto Carmona. Carmona, like Badenhop throws from the right side, and more importantly throws a hard sinker that induces a great number of ground balls. Since becoming a regular in the Majors, Hernandez has posted a ridiculous 58.4 ground ball percentage, good enough for a 2.26 GB/FB ratio. Hernandez did most of his previous work from the starting rotation, and while the Rays may ask him to spot start in a pinch, his role will be out of the bullpen where Joe Madden expects him to induce ground ball after ground ball. The Rays also resigned Joel Peralta while retaining the services of All-Star closer Fernando Rodney by picking up the 2013 team option attached to his contract. Add those names to lefty fire baller Jake McGee, and the Rays bullpen looks ready to buttress their young starting pitching for another season.

Koji Uehara
The Red Sox made headlines by signing lots of free agents this offseason, including a few in the bullpen. The Sox signed southpaw, and well traveled, Craig Breslow, now onto his 7th MLB franchise, to a conservative 2-year $6.25 million contract, added former Ranger's righty Koji Uehara for 1-year and $4.25 million, and traded for former Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan. In addition, the Sox will benefit from the return of Andrew Bailey from an injury marred 2012 campaign, especially since Bailey's 2013 will determine how much money the reliever will get paid in his 3rd year of arbitration. Oliver, a projection system created by Hardball Times' Brian Cartwright, projects good numbers from the Red Sox bullpen, especially from Uehara, who I think represents the keystone to success for this relief core. Also, don't forget about Daniel Bard, who many at spring training say is progressing nicely and might fit into the Sox pen around after All-Star break if the team moves a pitcher a the trade deadline.
Name ERA K/9 BB/9 FIP
Koji Uehara 2.99 10.15 1.39 2.74
Joel Hanrahan 3.64 9.90 3.93 3.08
Andrew Bailey 3.99 8.25 3.20 3.12
Junichi Tazawa 3.77 8.67 2.89 3.28
Craig Breslow 3.75 7.93 3.32 3.51
Alfredo Aceves 4.35 7.10 3.44 3.86
Andrew Miller 5.17 8.58 6.34 4.10
Total 3.95 8.65 3.50 3.38

The 2013 Blue Jays bullpen looks eerily similar to the 2012 pen that ranked middle of the road in some statistical categories and poor in others amongst AL teams. They coaxed lefty Darren Oliver to return, and remain hopeful that Sergio Santos can overcome shoulder surgery to return to his level of nastiness by June. The Jays put a lot of faith in their starting rotation, stocking it with work horses like R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle, as well as possible ace Josh Johnson. These three starters should lessen the load on the Blue Jays pen, but given Johnson's injury history and Buehrle's age, the Jays may need to call on their relievers in 2013 more often than they expect.

Darren O'Day
How about those Orioles? Did the organization with the golden bullpen do anything to improve on 2012? Instead of adding or subtracting, the Orioles did their best to keep their 2012 bullpen in tact for 2013. The O's avoided arbitration with Jim Johnson and Darren O'Day, two of the most utilized and important parts of their 2012 relief prosperity. The team returns Luis Ayala, Tommy Hunter, lefty Brian Matusz, and Troy Patton, all of whom they hope will continue to perform at a high level. While the O's may not have "upgraded" their bullpen, the team expects to add one if not two highly touted starting pitching prospects in mid-season, Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman. With the addition of these young stars to an already solid starting pitching staff, the Orioles have no need to tinker with a bullpen that already promises to keep men off base, and to induce lots of double plays late in games.

The AL East is a free for all in 2013, with no one team looking like the current favorite. Given that fact, each team has done their best to ensure that their bullpen won't be the one to falter in 2013. Most of a team's success derives from hitting and starting pitching, but with 5 teams so close to each other in talent and projected wins, it may come down to which relief core can hold the lead in the latter third of the game. While we can only attempt to predict which bullpen will be the most valuable in 2013, it is safe to say that the competition for the, most-likely, 2 playoff spots in the AL East should be fierce.


  1. Thanks for the (as usual) stat-savvy preview. I can't believe it - Jose Reyes and R.A. Dickey on the same team. There may be no stopping the Jays...

  2. Thank you. Yes, on paper I think the Blue Jays have the best team in the AL East, but "good on paper" doesn't guarantee anything, just ask the 2012 Angels who didn't even make the playoffs. They took on highly talented players, but with talent comes risk. It'll be interesting to see what happens.