Monday, April 04, 2005


All Hope Abandon, Ye Who Enter Here: 2005 Giants Bullpen

Okay, deep breath, folks. Mothers, take your children away. People with heart conditions, leave immediately. We’re about to enter a place that few live to tell about. It’s called the Giants bullpen. I’ve been putting this off long enough, but the time has finally come to discuss it. You know all about the Keystone Cops-like follies of the 2004 bullpen. You’ve heard the comparisons to the Hindenburg and the Titanic, so I don’t think I need to reiterate too much here. Let’s just say that if the story of the 2004 Giants team could be told using Peanuts characters, the bullpen would be Pigpen. Every time Matt Herges, Jason Christiansen, Wayne Franklin, etc. trotted out to the mound, stink lines could be seen wafting into the air. It was an odor so pungent that Oscar the Grouch would have been proud.

I’m happy to report that the 2005 incarnation of the Giants bullpen will be better than the 2004 version, but that’s really just saying Fever Pitch will be better than Gigli; once you’ve hit rock bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up. The signing of a solid closer in Armando Benitez should create a kind of domino effect on the entire bullpen, so instead of having Herges coming in for a key spot in the 8th inning, he should only have to be used during mop-up situations, and Jim Brower’s ample workload should be reduced.

But even with the improvements, I hate to say, this is still not a very solid pen. Benitez is stud material, but the rest of the guys are groundball/nibbler-types, and those are not the kind of pitchers you want making up a championship-caliber bullpen. The most effective kind of bullpen is a group of flamethrowers or high strikeout guys like the Giants had in 1998-2002. The bullpen is still a weakness, but as Joe Cabot would say in Reservoir Dogs, the only thing you can do in this situation is s*** your pants, dive in, and swim. So with clothespin fastened firmly to my nose, I’ll delve into each individual bullpen member. If I don’t return in 20 minutes, assume I’m dead and call William L. Petersen.

Armando Benitez I think I’ve already made clear my distaste for paying “Proven Closers” a lot of money. In my opinion, you can take any guy who throws hard and who can strike guys out, and he’ll be an effective closer. The whole “closer mentality” thing is nothing more than media-fed dreck that has somehow made its way into everyday baseball conversation. If you don’t have the mental toughness to get three outs in a pressure situation, how the hell did you even make it to the big leagues in the first place? There’s usually a more reasonable explanation for why some guys fail when they become closers, and usually that reason is that they suck (see Herges, Matt). So when some team shells out a lot of money to keep a Danys Baez on the basis of his 30 saves, it make me shake my head, because there’s probably some poor dope out there somewhere who can be had for nothing who is better.

But after seeing the Giants bullpen reenact Waterloo again and again last year, the 21.5 million for 3 years of Armando Benitez seems plenty reasonable. Yeah, it’s probably too much money, but if it means stability in the 8th and 9th innings, I’ll take it. Benitez has a reputation for coughing up big hits in big situations (J.T. Snow, anyone?), but his most egregious failings came when he was still a young hothead with the Orioles. It’s not like he’s Jose Mesa or anything. His strikeout rates fell last year and he certainly won’t post another ERA in the ones, but so what? He still throws hard as hell and has a nasty slider to back up the heat; opponents hit .152 against him last year for cryin’ out loud. Upgrading the bullpen was the most pressing offseason need for Brian Sabean and he got the best available reliever, and it should go a long way toward improving the Giants’ playoff chances.

Jim Brower It’s probably goofy to say that a middle reliever was one of the Giants’ most valuable players last season, but Brower might have been just that. His ability to throw multiple innings late in games and hold the fortress down while the offense did tis thing was a huge lift for the team, at least until the nitro-loaded Matt Herges train came barreling in to blow everything sky high. His 3.29 ERA was well below his career norms, and his WHIP was higher than you’d expect, so don’t look for a repeat, but there’s no reason Brower can’t at least be as effective as he was in 2003. Limiting his appearances would be nice also, since Brower led the league with 89 games pitched, and I can’t imagine his arm taking to well to that.

I love Brower and all, and I think he’s one hell of a gamer, but when you realize that he’s the team’s second-best reliever, it gives you a good idea of what we’re dealing with in this bullpen.

Scott Eyre Is there any job more cushy than generic LOOGY-dom? The pay is good, the benefits are great, you only have to face one or two batters per appearance, and if by chance you post a flukishly low ERA (see Cormier, Rheal), you can make a whole lot of money dished out by short-sighted front office people. Eyre is well aware of the perks of being a LOOGY, having been the recipient of a juicy 2 year/2.45 million deal before 2004. Of course, LOOGYs are a dime a dozen, but do you really think Eyre gives that a second thought as he cruises Lombard Street in his shiny Mercedes?

Eyre does what he does, getting lefties out by the bushel, holding them to a .608 OPS last year. I’m sure he’ll do the same thing again this year, but if he somehow cuts his ERA by two runs and Sabean is impressed enough to give him another raise, I’m going to hock a LOOGY on Sabean’s doorstep.

Matt Herges I’ve been dumping on poor Herges a lot in this post, so let me retract a little bit. Herges has been a very effective relief pitcher for the majority of his career, and he dealt in his half-season with the Giants in 2003. Last year, though, for whatever reason he was so unbelievably bad that Mark Dewey would have had a coronary at the sight of him. Instead of filling in nicely for Robb Nen and Tim Worrell, he conjured up memories of Tim Scott and Chris Hook. Maybe the whole closer mentality theory applies to Herges and he in fact doesn’t have to juice to close. Or maybe he’s just plain awful. I can’t see him being any worse than he was last year, and hopefully low-leverage innings will bring him back to the solid pitcher he was with the Dodgers and Padres. If he’s back in the closer role next season, though, one of two things is going on: A) The Giants are in last place, or B) Felipe Alou has lost his mind and has begun wearing ladies’ dresses in the dugout, prompting an unexpected clubhouse visit/beatdown by erstwhile crappy pitcher/homophobe Todd Jones.

Jason Christiansen The second LOOGY in the Giants' pen, though Christiansen makes Scott Eyre look like Willie Hernandez circa 1984. He walked more batters than he struck out last year and he hasn't been any good since Tommy John surgery in 2001, so I don't see what the Giants were thinking by bringing him back for a million bucks when any lefty off the scrap heap would have done just as good a job. When you're a one-dimensional lefty who can't get left-handed counterparts out, you cease to be a LOOGY and become cannon fodder.

Tyler Walker Taken off the dung heap last year, he provided 64 bland innings. Sometimes he looked great, sometimes he had no idea where the ball was going. He was much better on the road than at home for some reason, so look for his ERA to drop a little this season, but he's pretty much a sponge who shouldn't be used in high-leverage situations. His upside is Julian Tavarez's 1997, without the idiocy.

Jeff Fassero I guess it was only natural that this ancient fossil would find himself on the Giants' team of crotchety old curmudgeons. At first glance, it's easy to dismiss Fassero's 5.46 ERA as a Coors Field-aided aberration. His road ERA was a shiny 3.23. However, the guy is 43 years old and was horrid when pitching on Planet Earth in 2003. It's possible that he could defy the odds and give the Giants around 60-80 innings of solid relief with an ERA under 4. Of course, it's also possible that I might get a date with Jessica Alba. It's possible that Michael Bay's next movie might not suck. It's possible that George W. Bush could make an intelligent foreign policy decision. It just isn't likely. So let's temper our already low expectations and hope to see Jesse Foppert back on the major league roster by June, and Fassero cracking open a Corona in retirement somewhere.

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