For some MLB fans, the importance of a Major League bullpen sometimes gets lost in the excitement of more sexy discussions: the top five hitters available in the free agent market, constructing the best possible line-up, trying to predict the final 2011 standings, whether or not to switch from the $12.00 imported beer to the $9.00 domestic in the 5th inning.
Somewhere way down on the list of fascinating baseball conversations is the one about having an effective relief corps.
If thinking about relief pitching makes you nod off, let me give you Dyer's First Rule of Major League Baseball: the biggest obstacle between a baseball team and its ability to get wins is the quality of its bullpen. (Dyer's Second Rule of Major League Baseball involves the number of double mojitos and deep fried habaneros one should consume after an exciting Giants win. But I digress.)
Nothing better demonstrates the importance of a big league bullpen than what happened to the San Francisco Giants in 2009 and 2010.
In 2009, the Giants were in the process of finishing 3rd or worse in the NL West for the fifth year in a row (OK, in 2006 they finished in 2nd place but that was because two teams tied for 1st place). The Gigantes scored a paltry 657 runs in 2009-- 26th best out of 30 MLB teams. But, amazingly, they finished the year with a 88-74 record. How could this be?
Turns out Giant relievers posted the second best bullpen ERA in all of baseball in 2009-- 3.49 (the Dodgers' bullpen had a 3.14 ERA). Lefty Jeremy Affeldt recorded a 1.73 ERA and appeared in 74 games. The performance of the 2009 bullpen was the biggest difference maker in salvaging a potentially dismal season.
In 2010, Giant relievers again posted the second best bullpen ERA in the Majors-- 2.99 (second to the Padres' 2.81). Flash back to July 2010, when several injuries and poor performances threatened to sink the bullpen. Giants General Manager Brian Sabean made the resurrection of the bullpen his prime objective, picking up key relief pitchers Ramon Ramirez from Boston and Javier Lopez from the Pirates. That, in addition to the emergence of Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner, is what turned the 2010 season around.
So what will the Giants front office be looking at to reconstruct their 2011 bullpen? Of the seven relievers the Giants took to the 2010 playoffs, only two are signed through next year, Brian Wilson and Jeremy Affeldt.
Brian Wilson-- signed in January 2010 to a 1 year $4.437 million contract to avoid arbitration. Two months later, signed a two year extension 2011-12 for $15 million. At 28, Wilson is already among the elite closers in the game and hasn't even entered his prime years as a ballplayer. Sometime after the end of the 2011 season (one year from now), the front office should be mulling another contract extension in the four year range.
A fascinating comparison here is how the Yankees handled closer Mariano Rivera's contracts over the years. For the first six years of his Yankee career, Rivera signed a series of one year contracts, 1995-2000. At age 31 in 2001, Rivera signed a 4 year deal; in 2005 the 35 year old Rivera signed a 2 year contract; in 2008, at 38, Rivera signed a 3 year deal for $45 million (or $15 million a year).
In 2010, 40 year old Mariano Rivera had a tremendous season: 33 saves, 1.80 ERA, .83 WHIP. Rivera's current contract ended this month. Brian Wilson, who had 48 saves and a 1.81 ERA, will be 30 years old when his current Giants contract ends.
Sergio Romo-- signed a 1 year contract for $416,500 in March 2010. His 2010 numbers were excellent: 2.18 ERA, 70 strikeouts, and 46 hits in 62 innings pitched. The 6 home runs were a bit high, but that's the nature of his breaking ball, off-speed pitching style. Led the team with 22 holds. Should be time for a raise and a multi-year deal.
Ramon Ramirez-- only had time to pitch 27 innings during the regular season but put up a nasty 0.67 ERA and .89 WHIP. Had a tough post season at 0-1, 4 innings pitched, 6 earned runs. His 2010 $1.15 million Boston contract will not be the preferred starting point for Giants GM Brian Sabean.
Javier Lopez-- his tremendous success as a lefty specialist is illustrated by Lopez's regular season numbers: 77 games, 57.2 innings pitched-- or about 2/3 of an inning per appearance, and a great 2.34 ERA. But it was in the post season that Lopez became a lefty legend: 5.2 innings pitched, 1 hit allowed, 6 strikeouts, a 1.59 ERA, and a 1-0 record.
Came to the Giants with a 1 year $775,000 contract from Pittsburgh, via the Red Sox and Colorado. Absolute gold for San Francisco's bullpen, and at 33 Lopez should be a shut-down machine against the the National League's elite left-handed hitters for the next five years.
Jeremy Affeldt-- in the middle of a 2 year $9.5 million deal, with a club option in 2012. Injuries made 2010 forgettable, with a 4.14 ERA and 24 walks in 50 innings. Look for a solid bounce back year in 2011.
Santiago Casilla-- another one year contract at $420,000. The good news for the Giants is that 2011 will be Casilla's second arbitration year and he will not become a free agent until 2013. Provided serious heat from the bullpen all year and posted a 1.93 ERA in four 2010 post season games. Will likely get another single year deal.
Guillermo Mota-- the big dog contract-wise with a $750,000 2010 deal. Hardly used in the post season (2.1 innings) and a so-so 2010: 1.31 WHIP, 4.33 ERA. What Mota brings to the party is the ability to jump into games gone bad and horse out three innings. If someone goes missing from last season's bullpen, it will be Mota.
Chris Ray-- coming over from Texas in the Bengie Molina deal, Ray brought a $975,000 contract. Good sinkerball specialist who can induce doubleplays when needed, but if Ray remains on the staff his role will likely dictate a pay cut.
Dan Runzler-- making the MLB minimum and under the Giants' control for a long time; not arbitration-eligible until 2013, no potential free agency until 2016. Runzler has the potential to be a dominant pitcher in the National League-- either as a closer or starter (depending on which way the team goes with him). One way or another, Runzler will be a major factor in this team's future, possibly as a valuable trade chip.
Giants' management has all the puzzle pieces here to create a powerhouse 2011 bullpen and continue the high performance standards set by the 2009 and 2010 San Francisco bullpens.