January 16, 2010

No One On The Team Is Named Van Benschoten

PITTSBURGH, Pa. / January 16, 2010

Relief pitching is fairly unique in sports because is incredibly unpredictabile. As sports fans we generally expect players to do as well this year as they did last year. Evgeni Malkin is having an off year so far which constitutes averaging 1 point a game rather than his career average of 1.2. Matt Capps had an off year last year which consisted of allowing over twice as many home runs and over three times as many walks as in 2008, while batters hit .324 against him.

So while your star center has a bad year and is still a productive star center, your closer has an off year and is completely unusable. Compounding this problem is that pitchers are some of the most likely athletes to get hurt.

So basically to have 12 productive forwards in hockey you need 13 talented guys because one will be hurt at any given time. To have a 7 man bullpen in baseball, with 5 of the 7 being dependable, you need 13 talented guys. Inevitably three will be terrible and get released or traded, three more will be hurt at any given time, one will have a bad year but has to be on the roster because of his contract or option status, and another is ineffective at any given time.

The problem with the Pirates' 2009 bullpen was that there was no one in reserve. At any given time there were only two or three pitchers who John Russell could put into a game without fans getting the feeling that he was giving up. That's why Capps never lost his job. With no one to slide into the set-up or 7th inning roles there was no point in moving Capps.

To avoid that problem this year, Pirates management is taking what I think is a pretty smart approach by compiling a bunch of guys who could be good. Yesterday's signee, Brendan Donnelly, falls into that category. He had a 1.78 ERA last year and an 8.56 ERA the year before. The Pirates signed him for $950,000. It's worth that much for the 50% chance that he'll be effective in 2010.

Of course, there are a few guys who buck the unreliability trend. Trevor Hoffman is a Hall of Famer because he's had 17 consecutive good years in relief. In fact no one else in history has done that. That's why the Brewers are paying Trevor Hoffman $8 million this year. They're guaranteed to have one effective pitcher for their $8 million. The Pirates' philosophy is to invest that $8 million by bringing in 8 different guys, figuring on getting four or five effective pitchers out of the bunch.

Large market teams and championship teams do the same thing. The Phillies won the World Series in 2008 in large part by having a great bullpen. Pitching in relief in the World Series were J.C. Romero (claimed on waivers in 2007 after walking 15 batters in 20 innings in Boston), Scott Eyre (36 years old, picked up for a garbage prospect in midseason after pitching to a 7.15 ERA in Chicago), Chad Durbin (signed for $900,000 after posting a 5.75 career ERA), Ryan Madson (setup man, 9th round draft pick, failed starter coming off a major injury) and Brad Lidge (former star closer, traded for marginal players after losing his job in Houston). All those guys had career years and pitched great in the postseason, and none looked like sure things in January.

Assuming the Pirates sign Octavio Dotel as rumored, they'll likely start the season with a bullpen of Dotel, Donnelly, D.J. Carrasco, Joel Hanrahan, Evan Meek, Javier Lopez, and Steven Jackson. That would yield a potential Indianapolis bullpen of Neal Cotts, Craig Hansen, Jack Taschner, Brian Bass, Vinnie Chulk, Tyler Yates and Chris Jakubauskas. Most of those pitchers are capable of a 3.00 ERA and most are capable of a 6.00 ERA. Find the seven who will have a 3.00 ERA this year and you have a group that can be part of a World Championship.

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