Which teams have the best bullpens?
Red Sox, Padres and Indians look to have top relief in 2008
Bullpens have to be baseball's most contradictory element. Start with the fact they define the modern game, yet where do you find the last of that relic, the rotary telephone? In bullpens, of course.Bullpens put out fires -- or start them in the stomachs of managers and fans. Teams can squander a good bullpen -- the Yankees' Mariano Rivera had only six save opportunities the first two months of last season -- or overcome a weak one -- the Phillies rallied to the 2007 National League East title with the Majors' 24th "best" relief ERA (4.50). Most significant, bullpens are like underwear. You are going to have to change them often. As noted in MLB.com's Around the Horn series last month, teams on average went through 17 relievers last season. So picking the best bullpens is a little like picking the nicest clouds; blink, and it's all changed. But let's move past the disclaimers ... with all Major League teams averaging about the same 5 2/3 innings per start, bullpens are difference-makers. The ratings that follow are based on two factors: How bullpens performed in 2007 and how they were altered in the offseason. However, even past performance is a suspect indicator. As pointed out by Cleveland general manager Mark Shapiro, whose bullpen has blown hot-and-cold for years, even past 'pens tend to be unpredictable because the grind of a successful season can take a toll on the ensuing season. Also bear in mind, these ratings reflect one opinion of the best bullpens, not the most improved. So the Reds, who snapped up Francisco Cordero's 44 saves, and the White Sox, who invested heavily in relief help in Octavio Dotel and Scott Linebrink, moved in the right direction, but from too far back in the pack to register. 1. Red Sox: It starts -- or, rather, ends -- with Hideki Okajima and Jonathan Papelbon. It took manager Terry Francona a while to realize what he had in the left-hander from Japan, who snuck into town in Daisuke Matsuzaka's shadow, then it was lights out. In games in which Okajima and Papelbon both appeared, the Red Sox were 28-5. But when they worked back to back, something that didn't happen until Okajima was given his first eighth-inning setup assignment on May 6, Boston was 22-1. If last season was an aberration and Javier Lopez reverts to his career trend, he can be an effective mid-game matchup lefty. Manny Delcarmen (41 strikeouts in 44 innings, opponents' average of .183) is ready for more important roles. With young guns having taken his spot-starter's role, Julian Tavarez, always more effective as a reliever anyway, can share the old man's (42-year-old Mike Timlin's) burden. 2. Padres: This might raise some eyebrows, since the last time we saw San Diego's bullpen it was giving away the NL West title -- twice -- and it returns essentially intact. But it's hard to hold those nine runs they allowed in Games 162 and 163 against a solid crew. Ageless Trevor Hoffman, the goat at that wire, is in tremendous shape, a tipoff to his determination to have a happier finish at 40. After four straight 40-save seasons, the all-time saves leader (524) isn't going to fall off a cliff.
The Padres will miss another 40-something, Doug Brocail, but still have a wall in front of Hoffman in Heath Bell and Cla Meredith, who between them stranded 56 of 74 inherited runners. Kevin Cameron should have a meatier role after a solid rookie season. The Friars could use a lefty in the mix, and hope youngster Joe Thatcher can prove to be the one.One of the best things the San Diego bullpen has going for it is someone who will never deliver a pitch. Manager and former pitching coach Bud Black has a sixth sense for blending the right combination. He and pitching coach Darren Balsley will figure out a way to save Hoffman's bullets, given how he buckled physically at the end of last season. 3. Indians: The Tribe ("Major League") could also be the inspiration for a retro TV series, "Sliders." The Indians' under-appreciated bullpen depends on people who live by that pitch. It's what makes Joe Borowski much more valuable than his stats (5.07 ERA, 96 baserunners in 65 2/3 innings) would suggest. Sliders can go flat, but Borowski has been around long enough (13 seasons, seven teams) to know how to shrug that off; 18 of his league-leading 45 saves came in one-run games. Now, a new conditioning routine has him in the best shape of his life. Left-handed poison Rafael Perez's featured pitch also is the slider, and the slider-arsenal has been joined by Japanese import Masahide Kobayashi. Perez faced left-handed hitters 92 times and struck out twice as many (22) as got hits off him (12).
Spot them alongside Rafael Betancourt's and Jensen Lewis' heat, and it's an effective shuttle. Aaron Fultz gives manager Eric Wedge the luxury of a second lefty for mid-game matchups. These incumbents (excluding Kobayashi, of course) inherited 142 runners in the course of last season; 28 of them scored.4. Brewers: How can a team let a 44-save closer (Cordero) and a valued middle man (Linebrink) walk, yet still rate a top-notch bullpen? Milwaukee GM Doug Melvin scores on the proactive meter. Cordero already had a track record (with Texas) for crash-landing after a big season, so Melvin felt better about rebuilding his bullpen and went all out. A lot rides on whether Guillermo Mota and Eric Gagne can re-enact the deadly combination they formed with the 2002-04 Dodgers. There are people with closing experience all over the place. Melvin also added David Riske and Salomon Torres, and Derrick Turnbow is still on the scene. Brian Shouse has aged into a trusted matchup lefty (only 24 of the 94 he faced reached base). 5. Blue Jays: Toronto rates on the cloud-with-silver-lining theory. In the wake of the devastating loss last April of closer B.J. Ryan to Tommy John surgery, the Blue Jays hustled up the league's most surprisingly effective 'pen. Plugging a healthy Ryan's lefty hammer back in would turn good into great. Ryan, who had his elbow operation in mid-May, appears to be on an accelerated track to recovery. By the end of this week, he could make his Grapefruit League debut; barring setbacks, that would make his availability on Opening Day feasible. Ryan's return would knock Jeremy Accardo, who did such a terrific job as the pinch closer (30 saves in 35 opportunities), down a notch. Unless Accardo suffers from Gagne Disease and loses his edge in a setup role, he'd be a nasty eighth-inning guy. Scott Downs helps bridge the gap between the starters and Ryan, a role that Casey Janssen would have also played had he not been lost for the season due to a torn labrum. Brian Tallet is another lefty in the pen.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.