- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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Here we are a week into August, and National League starters have thrown 31 complete games this season. Only three more and they'll pass Robin Roberts' total of 33 with the 1953 Philadelphia Phillies.
Think bullpens rank low on the priority list for general managers these days? You must not have been monitoring the trade-deadline buzz last week when executives for contending clubs scrambled to add pieces for the stretch drive. As it turns out, only the Diamondbacks (Jon Rauch), Marlins (Arthur Rhodes) and Yankees (Damaso Marte) succeeded in their missions.
Assuming no other impact relievers switch teams this season, which contending clubs' bullpens are poised to pitch the best in August and September? We factored in depth, health, balance, experience and previous workload -- along with the results from the talent and swimsuit competitions -- and ranked the bullpens thusly in this week's installment
of Starting 9.
The good: Francisco Rodriguez is on track to obliterate Bobby Thigpen's single-season save record. He's added a changeup to complement his fastball and terrific curve, and he's motivated by the prospect of a huge free-agent deal this winter.
Fatigue shouldn't be an issue down the stretch. The Angels' bullpen has had the lightest workload in the majors, and the team's huge division lead gives manager Mike Scioscia the luxury of backing off in September and making sure the relievers are fresh for the postseason.
The bad: It's not the deepest 'pen on the planet. Darren Oliver is solid, but not your prototypical shutdown lefty. Then again, lefties are hitting .145 against Shields and .170 vs. Arredondo, so it might not matter.
Justin Speier, signed to a four-year, $18 million contract in 2006, has been a disappointment. He's given up 10 homers in 47 innings.
"His velocity is way down, and he's not locating his slider anywhere near as well as he used to,'' an American League scout said.
The yet-to-be-determined: Shields handles the Yankees' lefty hitters very well, and Tampa Bay's Carlos Pena, Carl Crawford and Eric Hinske are a combined 4-for-31 against him. But if it's October and David Ortiz is coming to the plate in a big spot in the seventh or eighth, who gets the call? Big Papi has three homers and a 1.480 slugging percentage in 12 career at-bats against Shields, so Scioscia better give it some thought.
Which Angels starter goes to the bullpen when the rotation gets shorter in the postseason? Jered Weaver looks like the early frontrunner.
The good: Feel free to deduct points for Kerry Wood's blister problems and Carlos Marmol's occasional hiccups, but Chicago's eighth and ninth inning duo has combined for 141 strikeouts in 108 innings this season. These are two relievers whom nobody enjoys facing -- trust us.
Neal Cotts has been solid from the left side, and Chad Gaudin was a nice pickup from Oakland in the Rich Harden deal. Although Bob Howry's overall numbers aren't pretty, manager Lou Piniella keeps running him out there. Howry has a 5.30 ERA, but he's stranded 21 of 24 inherited runners.
The bad: If Wood's blister issues reoccur, it'll turn into a daily soap opera in Chicago. Marmol is back on track after some pre-All Star Game travails. But after 58 appearances and 62 1/3 high-intensity innings, his workload merits watching. "The guy only has so many bullets,'' a National League executive said.
Chicago's bullpen has also allowed 44 homers, third-most in the NL.
The yet-to-be-determined: We talked to several front-office people who aren't sold on Jeff Samardzija yet, but one NL scout was bowled over by the former Notre Dame right-hander/wide receiver. "He has the potential to have the same impact for the Cubs as Joba Chamberlain did for the Yankees [in 2007],'' the scout said.
Samardzija hits 93-96 mph on the gun and his ball has lots of movement, but he needs to work on his control. He struck out 44 batters and walked 42 in Double-A ball this season. And in his first two August outings with the Cubs, Samardzija threw 33 strikes and 31 balls.
The good: The Phillies are baseball's premier bullpen-turnaround specialists. Brad Lidge, whose star was tarnished in Houston, is 28-for-28 in save opportunities and secure in a new, three-year contract. He's shown no signs of a drop-off after warming up a whopping six times in the All-Star Game.
J.C. Romero, whose three-year, $12 million contract was the focus of some industry scorn, has been terrific. While Romero's control comes and goes, lefties are hitting .083 (6 for 72) against him. And Chad Durbin has been a strike-throwing, double-play-inducing godsend.
Philadelphia's relievers have allowed only 24 home runs, fewest in the majors, despite playing half their games in a tiny park with no margin for error.
The bad: The Phillies kicked the tires on a bunch of lefty relievers, from Ron Mahay to Jack Taschner to John Grabow. But after dipping into their farm system to pry Joe Blanton loose from the Athletics, they didn't have much ammunition left to make a deadline deal. Good luck in your auditions, Les Walrond and J.A. Happ.
The yet-to-be-determined: Tom Gordon has begun throwing off a mound in Clearwater, Fla., but the Phillies aren't optimistic that he'll make a contribution in August. If he's back by September, Gordon could give the 'pen a boost.
The good: Like the Angels, the Diamondbacks take pressure off their bullpen with a deep and effective rotation. With Brandon Webb, Dan Haren, Randy Johnson and Doug Davis routinely pitching six innings or more, Arizona's bullpen is rarely overworked.
Juan Cruz is a strikeout machine in the middle, Chad Qualls churns out double plays, and Tony Pena could graduate to closing eventually. The addition of Jon Rauch, a workhorse in Washington, gives the Diamondbacks another guy to contend with Manny Ramirez, Matt Holliday and Albert Pujols in Arizona's 22 remaining games with the Dodgers, Rockies and Cardinals.
The bad: Arizona's bullpen is overwhelmingly right-handed. While Cruz, Qualls and Rauch all have good numbers against lefties, manager Bob Melvin won't have the luxury of playing matchups against the likes of Chase Utley, Ryan Howard or Carlos Delgado in the postseason.
The yet-to-be-determined: Max Scherzer, who missed a month with shoulder fatigue after striking out 33 batters in 31 innings for Arizona, topped out at 98 mph for Triple-A Tucson last week. You can count on seeing Scherzer again in Phoenix this season.
Brandon Lyon, Arizona's closer, relies more on fastball command and a four-pitch repertoire than overpowering stuff. We'll see how that plays in September and, possibly, the postseason.
"Will he keep you on the edge of your seat? Yeah, sometimes,'' said a scout. "He wouldn't be one of my top choices as a closer. But he's taken that role and thrown strikes and gotten guys out.''
The good: Bobby Jenks gives Chicago one of the dominant closers in the game when he's right, and Octavio Dotel is averaging more strikeouts per nine innings (12.87) than Carlos Marmol. Scott Linebrink, on the disabled list with shoulder inflammation, has begun a throwing program. And lefty Matt Thornton has 55 strikeouts in 46 2/3 innings.
The White Sox play in one of the most homer-friendly parks in baseball, yet their bullpen has surrendered only 25 homers. Chicago's relievers have also walked a major-league-low 106 batters.
The bad: While the 'pen was a strong point through June, Chicago's relievers have a 6.23 ERA in their past 19 games. You also have to wonder about Jenks. His velocity has held steady in the 94-95 mph range, but 22 strikeouts in 39 1/3 innings don't compute for a closer with his stuff.
The-yet-to-be-determined: Linebrink's problem isn't structural, and the White Sox think he'll be ready for a rehab assignment soon. He has a lot of mileage on that right arm, so the brief hiatus could do him some good down the stretch.
The roster merry-go-round kept spinning Tuesday when Chicago sent Clayton Richard to the minors and recalled Adam Russell. If the Sox need further reinforcements they could look to Double-A closer Jon Link or baseball vagabond Jason Childers, who is posting some eye-popping numbers for Triple-A Charlotte.
The good: The Dodgers' bullpen ranks second in the majors in strikeouts and OPS against and first in ERA. The 'pen took a hit when closer Takashi Saito went down with a sprained elbow ligament, but Jonathan Broxton has been fine as a replacement. Right-handers have four extra-base hits in 108 at-bats against Broxton this season.
Let's face it: The NL West isn't exactly a repository for killer lineups. And with Manny Ramirez around, the Dodgers might actually be able to score some runs and take some pressure off the pitching staff.
The bad: Broxton, who posted a 6.75 ERA in September last year, didn't pitch in a save situation Saturday because of a "tired arm.'' The Dodgers claimed it was just a precaution, but it's definitely worth monitoring.
The yet-to-be-determined: Geez, where do we begin?
Saito might return in September, or he could undergo season-ending surgery. Scott Proctor (elbow) is on a rehab assignment, but he got pounded in his first Class A appearance and is still very iffy. And GM Ned Colletti, who upgraded the offense with deals for Ramirez and Casey Blake, is still trolling the waiver wire for help.
"Like everyone else, we would look to add a pitcher if we get the chance,'' Colletti said.
The good: Will Mariano Rivera ever slow down? He has a 58-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a WHIP of 0.72, and he has quelled any doubts the Yankees might have had about giving a three-year, $45 million contract to a 38-year-old closer.
The Yankees have quietly built a bridge to Rivera at a reasonable price. Power guy Jose Veras and changeup artist Edwar Ramirez have combined for 89 strikeouts in 79 1/3 innings, and they gave the Yankees a sufficient right-handed presence to ease LaTroy Hawkins and Kyle Farnsworth out of town.
The bad: If you subscribe to the theory that big-game experience means a lot, Veras, Ramirez, Brian Bruney and David Robertson don't have much. If the setup crew hits a speed bump, you can expect a lot of wistful Jeff Nelson-Mike Stanton reminiscences on New York talk radio.
Marte, by the way, has an 11.57 ERA in his first five outings as a Yankee.
The yet-to-be-determined: Rivera's back spasms don't appear serious. Then again, he's Mariano Rivera. If he sneezes, it's cause for concern.
If Joba Chamberlain's shoulder issues force the Yankees to shut him down, it will put even more strain on a bullpen that has logged 373 innings -- third-most in the American League.
The good: Yes, we know the Red Sox have had some bullpen issues, and that they declined to dip into the farm system and make a trade after the Eric Gagne debacle last fall. But the bullpen has pitched better of late, and management seems confident that Terry Francona and pitching coach John Farrell can bridge the gap from the starters to closer Jonathan Papelbon.
As tough as Papelbon has been overall this season, he's a virtual Robo-closer at Fenway Park. He has a 1.00 ERA in 27 innings and opponents are batting .160 against him in Boston.
The bad: Justin Masterson has very good stuff, but it's a lot to ask for him to go from starter to bullpen savior in a month.
The yet-to-be-determined: After pitching 7 2/3 shutout innings in July, does Hideki Okajima finally have it together? Can Manny Delcarmen harness his mid-90s fastball and be a consistent performer? Will David Aardsma (41 strikeouts in 39 1/3 innings) return from his minor league rehab and have an impact? Could Clay Buchholz fit somewhere in the bullpen if the Red Sox make the playoffs? How much does the old war horse Mike Timlin have left at age 42? And is free agent Joe Borowski about to appear in the team photo?
The good: The relievers have played a huge role in Tampa Bay's surprising season. A bullpen that was once a disaster area leads the major leagues in batting average against (.215) and save success rate (85 percent). Like the starters, Tampa's relievers benefit from playing in front of one of the game's best defenses.
Dan Wheeler, J.P. Howell and Grant Balfour have allowed a combined 86 hits in 143 2/3 innings while setting up Troy Percival. That's pretty good considering that GM Andrew Friedman acquired them in trades for Ty Wigginton, Joey Gathright and Seth McClung, respectively.
Percival has had a few rough patches as closer, but you try prying the ball from his hand in the ninth inning.
The-yet-to-be-determined: Former No. 1 draft pick David Price is 10-0 with a 1.97 ERA in the minors and could join the big club for a homestand later this month. The Rays are hesitant to pitch Price in relief because he has never done it before, so he could slide into the rotation and push either Andrew Sonnanstine or Edwin Jackson to the 'pen.
Florida Marlins: Closer Kevin Gregg heads an underrated bullpen with some live young arms. Although the addition of Arthur Rhodes will help, the Marlins' bullpen leads the National League in walks and ranks second to Pittsburgh in innings pitched. That workload could take a toll in September.