The Volatility Of A Major League Bullpen

Last season the Orioles had the fifth best bullpen in the major leagues and it was a huge reason we won so many one run games and made our playoff run.

So it was no surprise that Dan Duquette decided to keep it relatively the same heading into the 2013 campaign. Seven out of the current eight man bullpen ended last season in the same role.

It should also be no surprise that both Orioles losses in the first week of the season were of the one run variety and came at the expense of our relievers. Such is the way of major league bullpens.

With pitching such limited innings per season luck can play a significant role in a relievers performance. A few seeing eye singles here and there can make your stat line look alot different over 50-60 innings as opposed to if those plays are made.

Also inherited runners are a big factor. If you’re pitching in front of Darren O’Day hes more likely to strand the runners you left on base than, say, Luis Ayala. Consistency barely exists in the bullpen world as it seems most relief pitchers alternate between up and down years.

Teams are better off signing relievers coming off down years on cheap contracts than signing guys coming off a great season to multi year contracts. The Tampa Bay Rays excel at this. This is also where Duquette is way better than Andy MacPhail was. How well did the Kevin Gregg signing work out? Jamie Walker? Chad Bradford?

Long term contracts for relievers almost never work out, which is why I’m against signing Jim Johnson to an extension. I think its smarter to play it year by year with him and either trade him in the last year of his team control or take the draft picks after he signs elsewhere.

Duquette has built a cheap, cost controlled bullpen that doesn’t have any guys he’d be unwilling to remove because of how much they’re making no matter how bad they’re performing. He did sign O’Day to an extension but for a very low base salary and a team option.

He’s also built a nice group of relievers at AAA Norfolk that can be called upon if necessary. Zach Braddock, Daniel Schlereth, Mike Belfiore, Jairo Ascencio, and Manny Delcarmen are all viable candidates to sub in for any hurt or under performing current bullpen member. Theres also a good chance somebody comes out of nowhere to help us in this area. Nobody saw Miguel Gonzalez coming last year.

The organization is currently built to keep producing a steady diet of bullpen candidates so there should never be a reason for Duquette to sign an expensive reliever. Alot of the guys currently succeeding as starters in the minors will eventually transition to the bullpen as they get closer to the majors. If Mike Wright doesn’t work out in the rotation, his stuff will play very well pitching in relief for example.

Its still very early and the bullpen could very well replicate last season’s success. I would just warn against expecting that. Guys like Ayala, Troy Patton, Tommy Hunter, and Pedro Strop could just as easily struggle mightily as much as they could look like long term cornerstones for our bullpen. Its not the end of the world if some of them don’t work out. There are always players available to step up in their place.

The real recipe to a strong bullpen is starting pitchers going deep in games. We haven’t seen much of that the first time through the rotation but they’re still building up arm strength coming out of spring training.

If our starters are still struggling to get through six innings going forward its going to be almost impossible for the bullpen to succeed on the same level as 2012. Only time will tell.

Bob Phelan is a contributor to BaltimoreSportsReport.com. You can follow him on Twitter@theoriolereport and check out his website TheOrioleReport.com.