This is the second in a series of articles that aim to compare the four teams that have been assembled to compete for the 2010 title of AL West Champion. The first article revealed that the Mariners and Rangers have done the best work in preparing starting rotations for 2010, with the Mariners having more impressive starters at the top of their starting rotation and the Rangers having greater depth.
Although not quite as critical as starting pitching to the overall success of a team, relief pitching can be the difference in a tight playoff race. With that in mind, I've used CHONE projections to compare and contrast the pitchers who are likely to accumulate a reasonable number of innings pitching out of the bullpens of the Angels, Athletics, Mariners and Rangers. I use CHONE because Sean Smith does a nice job of weighting past performances and age to project future production without introducing his own team or player biases.
Worth noting in this exercise is that year-to-year variation in relief pitcher performance makes it very difficult to accurately predict how a given team's bullpen will perform. For that reason, this analysis is intended more to identify potential strengths and weaknesses for the four relief corps rather than to predict which team will have the most effective bullpen in 2010. The tables used for each team list the ages and projected innings pitched, ERAs, and runs above replacement (RAR) for the ten pitchers who appear most likely to pitch significant innings out of the bullpen in 2010. For pitchers who appear likely to pitch primarily as relievers even though CHONE projected numbers based on them starting, I've adjusted IP and RAR projections and noted the changes in the comments for each team.
Is there a team in baseball that had a worse off-season than the Angels? CHONE expects one of the team's two big offseason acquisitions, Fernando Rodney, to pitch at replacement level in 2010. Fuentes should be a league-average closer and only Jason Bulger projects to give the team above-average relief. Kevin Jepsen was occasionally dominant in 2009 and could provide a boost to the Angels' bullpen. Trevor Bell is young. And beyond that, there's not a lot to get excited about in SoCal. It's hard to believe that until recently, the Halos' relief corps was considered to be a team strength.
Say what you will about Billy Beane, but the man seems to have figured out the art of assembling a bullpen. The Athletics' bullpens have finished among the top four in the American League in four of the last five years, posting ERAs of 3.54 in 2009 (ranked No. 1), 3.50 in 2008 (No. 2), 3.62 in 2006 (No. 3) and 3.43 in 2005 (No. 4). And CHONE projects another great year for the relievers from Oakland.
Andrew Bailey is unlikely to repeat his stellar 2009 season, where he benefited from a .234 BABIP, 5.6 percent HR/FB rate and an 85 percent strand rate, but Ziegler and Wuertz are back and there is quality depth in case injuries or ineffectiveness become a problem. Of course, with youth (Anderson, Gonzalez, Cahill, Mazzaro) and injury risks (Sheets and Duchscherer) dominating the Athletics' starting rotation, the team is likely to need its stellar bullpen depth to get through the season.
Aardsma and League had breakout seasons in 2009. CHONE seems cautiously optimistic that the breakouts were real and sustainable. With a big fastball, the relatively youthful Mark Lowe appears most likely to post better than expected numbers in 2010. CHONE treated Garrett Olson, Jason Vargas, Luke French, and Doug Fister as starters, so the IP and RAR projections used in the table were converted to bullpen projections. With a lot of recently converted starters in the mix, it seems likely that the Mariners will have a durable, but ultimately uninspiring bullpen in 2010.
CHONE likes the Rangers' top four relievers and Willie Eyre. Willie Eyre? Really!? If the Rangers decide to supplement the bullpen with a young pitcher or three, then Neftali Feliz, Derek Holland, Guillermo Moscoso and/or Matt Harrison could push a few of the pitchers off of the bottom of this list and make this a group that would rival the Athletics for the best in the division.
As I did to compare the starting rotations in the AL West, I used CHONE's IP and RAR projections to compare the four team's bullpens. I assumed that each bullpen would pitch 486 innings in 2010 (three innings per game times 162 games), and then used as many pitchers as needed to fill those innings going from the most to least effective pitchers for each team. If everyone is healthy and pitches to expectations, then the Athletics will likely have the best bullpen in the division and the Angels will likely have the worst. Of course, the separation between the two bullpens is expected to produce only an approximate three-game swing in the standings.