As the San Francisco Giants found out last year, the bullpen can be just as important as the starting rotation. While the starters compile most of the pretty stats, like wins, innings, strikeouts, and so forth, relievers handle much higher pressure situations, as well as the nitty-gritty stats like holds and saves.
In 2008 the Giants relievers tied for the second-worst ERA (4.45) in the National League, behind Pittsburgh and tied with San Diego. They also gave up the worst slugging percentage (.426), second worst OPS (.776), and third worst WHIP (1.47). Worst of all, they tied for third with 15 wins lost, showing a lack of ability to hold a lead once they entered the ballgame.
Going into the offseason, Brian Sabean stressed the bullpen as the most important part of the team to improve, and did so by signing Jeremy Affeldt and Bobby Howry, in addition to non-roster invitees Brandon Medders and Justin Miller, who have all been integral parts of the relief staff so far in 2009.
This year the San Francisco bullpen is third in the majors with a 3.39 ERA. They’re also sixth in batting average against (.241) and fifth in OBP (.317), have given in the second least homeruns (22) behind Atlanta (18), and are 3rd in wins-lost (6).
There are still question marks around the bullpen, such as the role of Merkin Valdez and Howry’s struggles, and here is what the situation should look like for each pitcher in 2010.
Jeremy Affeldt, 2 years/$8M (2009-10)
Affeldt was the first free agent of the offseason to sign, and it looks like the Giants were absolutely correct in their swift decision. Brought in to be a left-handed set-up man in the mold of Scott Eyre (c. 2005) and Jack Taschner (or what he was supposed to be), setting it up for Brian Wilson in the ninth.
They got that, and in addition received a pitcher that can seemingly handle anything, pitching multiple innings, entering with runners on base, and even picking up a hit in two at bats. His ERA is a microscopic 1.50, and had a streak of 27 scoreless innings over 28 appearances.
Instead of just being a lefty specialist, Affeldt has actually held right-handed batters to a .200 batting average, and if not for three intentional walks, his K:BB ratio would be almost 2 (16:9). Batters only hit .176 off of him in July, and his addition to the team has been invaluable.
There’s no reason Affeldt won’t be on the team next year. His contract is relatively cheap, but he also lucked out on being the tone-setter for free agency. He has been lights out this season, leading the charge of this top-ranked bullpen.
Bob Howry, 1 year/$2.75M (2009)
Howry is somewhat of a question mark this year. His 2008 was suspect, but Giants brass attributed his inflated ERA (5.35) and drop in strikeouts (72 in ’07 to 59 in ’08) to overuse by Lou Piniella.
This year he started off well, but his game relies on control of the corners. At times it just seems that he throws too many strikes, and they’re getting hit.
Don’t get me wrong, because Howry’s numbers are nothing to scoff at. His ERA is relatively low (3.92), batters are hitting .233 off of him, and he has only given up four homeruns. Granted, two of those three have been walkoffs in extra innings, but he’s no Tyler Walker.
What it comes down to is this. At 35, he isn’t exactly part of San Francisco’s youth movement. That hurts him, as there’s less of a time frame for development. And even though his numbers are good, his 0-5 record just isn’t good enough for the Giants fans. Unless he has a stellar second half, I don’t expect to see him back in 2010.
Brandon Medders, 1 year/$0.475M (2009) *minor league contract
Signed to a minor-league deal before the year, Medders was impressive during Spring Training, and has taken Keiichi Yabu’s spot in the bullpen, working short relief as well as eating up innings if needed.
With the exception of back-to-back outings where he blew saves in June, Medders has been solid, putting up a 2.84 ERA in 42 appearances. Batters are only hitting .244 against him, and he has struck out 38 while walking 22, 4 intentionally.
Medders is a key contributor to this bullpen, and as cheaply as he came this year, I’m sure he will be back in a similar role in 2010.
Justin Miller, 1 year/amount unknown (2009) *minor league contract
For whatever the Giants paid for Miller, it was worth it, as he has emerged as one of the biggest surprises of 2009. A former setup man and middle reliever for the Marlins, Miller signed a minor-league deal with the Giants in November of 2008, and was called up when Joe Martinez went down with his skull fracture.
Since then he has been pitching wherever the Giants need him to. His durability means that he can go more than one inning, as he has eleven times this season, in 35 total appearances. He has groundball stuff, with a good sinker and slider, which is invaluable out of the bullpen.
Miller also is trailing only Affeldt in ERA for the relievers, and after he pitched 3.1 scoreless innings after Matt Cain was struck in the arm, his ERA was down to 1.98. Now it’s “up” at 2.06. He leads the team with 48 innings pitched out of the ‘pen, and is deserving of his spot. I expect him back in 2010.
Sergio Romo, 1 year/$0.4017M (2009)
After an impressive rookie year in 2008, where he had a stellar 2.12 ERA in 29 appearances, Romo established himself as a sure thing for a 2009 roster spot. But an injury to his elbow kept him out of the final games of Spring Training, and he also missed the first two weeks of the season on the DL.
Since his return up until July 17, he stayed true to form, using heavy movement to both sides of the plate to strike out 17 in only 13.2 innings, and posting a 2.63 ERA. Batters were only hitting .226 off of him, his 7 holds were second on the team, and only one inherited runner had scored off of him.
And then he hit a rough patch, allowing 6 ER and recording no outs in Pittsburgh and Atlanta to balloon his ERA to 6.59. After he was diagnosed with an injured knee, he has since come back with 3.1 scoreless innings, allowing one hit and striking out two, lowering his ERA to 5.19
Romo is under team control until 2011, so he will be back next year.
Merkin Valdez, 1 year/$0.401M (2009)
Merkin Valdez is the other question mark in the bullpen. He has appeared so infrequently that it is hard to gauge what he means to this team. He has appeared in 27 games, but he is given so few pressure situations that it is tough to evaluate his performance.
His 4.45 ERA is second highest in the bullpen. And his dependence on his fastball will hurt him. The fact that he is 28 doesn’t help either, as the time for development of a pitch is closing.
But he’s a hard thrower, consistently hitting 97 and 98, which is valuable in any bullpen. He can strike batters out, but also walks a lot of hitters. I would hope that the Giants take some of Howry’s time and give it to Valdez, which will help to gauge his value to the team in the future.
His status for 2010 is still up in the air, but with Waldis Joaquin lurking in the wings, his time could be up.
Brian Wilson, 1 year/$0.48M (2009)
Wilson didn’t make the All-Star Team this year, but his stats are very similar to last year. His 27 saves are second in the National League right now, and his 3.02 ERA is much lower than 2008’s 4.62.
His save rate is 87%, and he only has four blown saves on the year. In addition, his inherited-runners-scored is only 10%, allowing only 2 of 20 runners to come around. He’s also working a lot more this year, making in 11 multi-inning appearances.
Wilson is getting the hang of closing, and after last year’s hair-graying season, he has toned it down a little. He’s still capable of making things exciting, but this year he seems to feed off of that excitement and nail the subsequent hitters.
The consistency of the 98 MPH fastball is amazing, and his slider is close to Robb Nen status, breaking it in at speeds in the low 90s. He can be straight up dirty at times, and is on pace for another 40 save season. That’s not bad for a 24th round pick out of LSU.
Wilson is eligible for arbitration this year, and is currently rated by Elias as a type B free agent. But after a couple years of an unresolved closer situation, San Francisco won’t let Wilson walk in 2010.
Be sure to check out Part II of this article by Danny Penza, where he looks at some of the young arms in the Giants farm system that could make an impact on the 2010 bullpen situation.