Five National League Bullpens in Flux

In writing a series of team previews for Beyond the Boxscore, I’ve discovered that forecasting bullpens in February is fraught with difficulty. I suppose that’s obvious, but as I’ve tried to project the relief performance of teams like the Mariners, Pirates and Red Sox, it’s evident just how little we know.

In fact, it doesn’t get a whole lot better as we approach the season. While a few relievers get the big bucks for consistently turning in above-average seasons, most bullpens are full of guys who are riding the wave of a strong 2003, or are hoping to crack the big-league roster long enough to establish a record they can leverage into a lifetime of spring training invites.

With that in mind, let’s look at five National League bullpens that are even more unsettled than most. Next week, I’ll do the same for the American League.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Of the teams on this list, the D-Backs probably will have the best pen. That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s at all settled. Jose Valverde, who has been in and out of the closer’s role since he reached the major leagues in 2003, will return as the leading candidate.

However, he’s been as inconsistent as he’s been occasionally dominant: His 8.22 ERA in the first half last year suggests that, as in 2006, Jorge Julio or Tony Pena could end up pitching plenty of ninth innings.

Those two possible replacements, though, could prove just as volatile as the man they’d replace. Julio lives off his strikeout rate; he has to, since he allows far too many walks and home runs to be effective otherwise. In 2005, his K rate fell far below one per inning, and his other numbers suffered in turn. Last year, he benefited from facing the less powerful NL West, but if the league catches up to him, the D-Backs won’t want him pitching important innings no matter how inconsistent Valverde is.

Pena is brimming with potential and may be the closer of the future, but he too offers his share of risk. Perhaps due to his first full-length season, he suffered mightily in August and September after dominating in the minors and his first several outings in Arizona. His adjustment period to the level of competition and length of season could continue through 2007, so the D-Backs are left with three guys who could close…or could pitch like they belong in the sixth inning.

Florida Marlins

This year, the Fish aren’t messing around with veterans at all. Given the going rate for the Joe Borowskis of the world, I don’t blame them. Instead, if the likes of Felix Rodriguez and Wes Obermueller don’t make the team, 26-year-old Sergio Mitre could be the elder statesman of the Florida bullpen.

Early contenders for ninth-inning duties are Taylor Tankersley (49 career major league appearances) and Matt Lindstrom (zero career major league appearances). After that, it’s a mix of all the young arms the Marlins have acquired in the last couple of offseasons: Mitre, Renyel Pinto, Henry Owens and plenty more. Given that nearly all of these guys have options, Florida can mix and match all year long. With that capability, the Marlins may well find the six or seven best performers out of the couple dozen in major league camp.

Philadelphia Phillies

Of the eight relievers who made the most appearances for the Phils last year, only three will be back in ’07: Tom Gordon, Geoff Geary and Ryan Madson. Fortunately, those are the best three, and it isn’t even close.

Gordon and Geary were the leaders of the pack last year, but both have plenty of question marks. Gordon will be 39 and he missed time last August; on the flip side, when he was available, his strikeout rate returned to the neighborhood of his best years. Geary has gotten steadily better results in the last few seasons, but has never struck out enough batters to be a dominating reliever. Dan Kolb he’s not, but there’s not much room left between his current level of performance and his ceiling.

After that, things get iffy fast. In fact, it looks a lot like the Marlins pen: a converted starter in Madson; a highly-touted relief prospect in Fabio Castro; a slew of young guys of whom one or two might turn into a quality seventh-inning option. It seems likely that at least once during the year, everyone will have to move up a spot on the depth chart; at that point, there will be even less room for error.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Whether or not it’s a good idea for the team as a whole to trade your dominant closer for a slugging first baseman, it certainly makes your bullpen worse. Mike Gonzalez had been one of the few consistent bright spots for the Bucs lately, but now the presumptive closer is…Salomon Torres?

The problem here isn’t Torres; he’s as good a closer as any 70-win club ought to need. The issue is that Gonzalez’ departure leaves the Pirates with too few reliable relievers. Matt Capps and John Grabow had strong seasons last year, and there are plenty of young pitchers in the organization who have about the same ceiling as those two. On the other hand, no one there is a future closer in the mold of Pena or Castro; the Pirates are going to mix and match to get through three or four innings a night. Even if another prospect or two emerges, the results occasionally will be ugly.

San Francisco Giants

Whatever you think about the importance of a guy who pitches the ninth inning when his team has the lead, the presence (and effectiveness) of that guy does help his team sort out the rest. The Giants are in flux largely because they don’t know what to expect from Armando Benitez. In recent memory, he’s been great, he’s been mediocre and he’s been hurt.

There may be another good year or two in Benitez’s arm, but his arm may not matter if he can’t push off with arthritic knees. If Benitez is unavailable or ineffective, that leaves the Giants scrambling. If prospect Jonathan Sanchez doesn’t make the rotation, he could solve that problem; if not, Kevin Correia could get the call.

The real mess comes after those first few guys. Steve Kline is a capable lefty, and Correia was strong in his role last year, but aside from converting (and hoping for a darn quick adjustment from) Sanchez or Tim Lincecum, there’s no one else in the organization likely to become a dominant late-inning reliever this year.

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