My Current Love Affair with the 2008 Bullpen

Its been 7 games, a small sample yes, but the Orioles bullpen has been a vast improved over the late inning torments we’ve been subjected to over seasons past. Sure you could say “Its only been 7 games,” but the bullpen meltdowns began early and often last season. I’ve been all warm and doey eyed over them so far.  If you remember, 2007 was supposed to be the season that bullpen was fixed. Jim Duquette and Mike Flannagan spent over a combined 40 million dollars for Jamie Walker, Chad Bradford, Scott Williamson, and Danys Baez. 2007 was supposed to be the year that our bedeviled bullpen was exorcised of the demons and devils of yesterday season. Sadly, most of the signs brought in more devils that were gotten rid of.

Of the four, Walker and Bradford have been solid investments. Walkers made appearances in 81 games (equalling 61.3 innings) last season. That’s a staggering number, but with the shape the pen it was in, it happened. Despite the abuse, Walker pitched to a 3.23 ERA, struck out 41 batters and walked only 17. Bradford pitched 64.7 innings in 78 appearances. His ERA was 3.34, struck out 29 and walked 16. At first, I was not a fan of Bradford. His early appearances with the O’s were sidearm tightrope acts. Ignorantly, I disregarded his adjustment from the NL to AL. After a couple of weeks, Bradford was fine and was the other anchor of the pen. The other two, not so good. Williamson, who I thought was a steal with a cheap contract, was underused with ended up being related to his horrible inablity to stay healthy. Quietly, he was released. His appearances weren’t bad. His ERA was 4.40 in 14.3 innings with 16 Ks and 8 BB, but it doesn’t matter how good you are, if you’re not healthy then you’re about as useful as Mark Prior. Then there was Danys Baez. Signing Baez to a three year deal was akin to setting 18 million dollars on fire. Baez went 0-6 with 3 saves and sported a 6.44 ERA. He walked and struck out the same number of batters, 29. Baez pitched 50.3 innings and has since subcumbed to shoulder surgery.

We’ve seen out fair share of patchwork bullpens. Outside of those signings, last season’s bullpen was composed of mostly castoff veterans hoping to get one more go-round in the bigs and medicore talent from the minors. When those didn’t work, minor leaguers with legit talent would get rushed up (Jim Hoey, Radhames Liz, etc) would get rushed up and shelled and then sent back to Norfolk with a bruise ego and an inflated ERA. Remember Jim Brower, he was a Leo Mazzone job. He lasted only 12 games with the 2007 O’s, in those 12 horrible games, Brower pitched a wretched 12.3 innings, faced 71 batters, surrendered 21 hits, gave up 19 runs, 13 BB, 9 Ks and ended up with a 13.86 ERA before being released. We’ve seen guys like Brower come and go. There’s been Paul Shuey (9.82 ERA), John Hlama (6.14), Todd Williams, Kurt Birkins, Rob Bell, Julio Manon, Winston Abreu, Jorge Julio, John Parrish, Tim Byrdak, and the list goes on and on. The fact is that at some point some of the guys I just named would have been a serviceable bullpen pitcher. But Baltimore has been the place over the years where old relievers come to die. Some of these names came up with the O’s, like Julio, Birkins, Parrish, and Byrdak, and they could have been reliable possibly too if they weren’t rushed in and assumed that Kurt Birkins could be rushed in made a good long reliever. The fact is that previous O’s front office, when it came to the bullpen, would just single paint against the side of a barn and hope to paint the Mona Lisa.

In comes Andy MacPhail to the front office and Miguel Tejada and Erik Bedard gets traded. Among the players the Orioles get are George Sherrill from the Mariners, Dennis Sarfate and Matt Albers from the Astros and he takes Randor Bierd from the Tigers in the Rule 5. When the Bedard trade went down, I, like everyone else, was swooning over Adam Jones and Chris Tillman. When Tejada went to Houston, I was happy to get Troy Patton and Luke Scott. As it stands now, those trades are (for the moment at least) steals. Albers, Sarfate, and Sherrill (as well as everyone else in the bullpen except for Greg Acquino) has an ERA of 0.00. Sarfate was once a starter, but control was the issue and patience with the Brewers and Astros was lost. In 3.3 innings this season, he’s struck out 4 and walked one. He’s also 2-0 on the season. With Chris Ray out for most of the season and the fact he completely tanked last season, Sarfate could likely be the Orioles closer at some point in the future. Albers has pitched in 3 games (6.3 innings), striking out 7, and walking none. In 4 games for Sherrill this season, he’s picked up 4 saves already. Bierd has pitched two scoreless appearances already.

Outside of Greq Acquino’s lone bad outing, the bullpen’s ERA to date is 0.32. I’d say that its slightly unlikely that the ERA will stay that all season, but none the less its an improvement. In 2006, the bullpen’s ERA was 5.27. After spending 40 million, the 2007 bullpen’s ERA rose to 5.71. What’s different though, is MacPhail is doing the opposite of what the previous regimes have done. The old front office would get guys whose names you knew (Steve Kline, LaTroy Hawkins, Todd Williams) who at one point in time good to servicable relievers, but at the time when they get to Baltimore, they’ve already peaked and reached Camden Yards on the decline. What MacPhail had done thus far is acquring young relievers who haven’t reached their peak yet. With that strategy, some these guy won’t work but the upside is that plenty will and they’ll be under the team’s control for awhile. Then with having young relievers, you know that they’re going to take their lumps and you ride with them. The kids in the minors then won’t be rushed and can have the time to develop at a timely instead of the usual Camden rush job.

Its been a great feeling in this early season to see a starter come out and then have the bullpen be lights out. Its a feeling that with the O’s, I haven’t really been able to feel. This mix of young raw talent and veteran leadership has been nothing such of refreshing. I guess you could say the bullpen has, for once, been a relief.

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