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Building Diamondbacks through bullpen is a flawed philosophy

December 6, 2010.

Three months into his new job, Arizona General Manager Kevin Towers traded Mark Reynolds to Baltimore for pitchers David Hernandez and Kam Mickolio.

Baltimore and Arizona have each made one playoff appearance since the trade. Hernandez was certainly more consistent than Reynolds during his first two seasons in a new uniform, but Reynolds did belt 37 home runs for the Orioles in 2011 and, despite posting lackluster numbers in 2012, caught fire during the team’s playoff chase (11 HR and 17 RBI over the final 30 games) to help push Baltimore to their first postseason appearance since 1997.

This season, both Hernandez and Reynolds have hit hard times. Hernandez has struggled in the D-backs’ pen, while Reynolds was cut by his new team in Cleveland Thursday. So, since the “David the Diamondback” book is still being written, I suppose the slight nod goes to Arizona for the trade, although I’d call it a wash.

But Reynolds-for-Hernandez was much more than a player trade; the deal symbolized what Diamondback fans could expect from their new general manager for the coming years.

A good bullpen and lots of grit, that’s what Towers is banking on to turn the Diamondbacks into champions. And the philosophy is decidedly flawed.

Towers took over following Arizona’s second-worst season in franchise history. After 97 losses, a team that led history in strikeouts, the league in blown saves and endured the painful Bob Melvin out/AJ Hinch in managerial decision was in desperate need of a makeover.

Like Ty Pennington knocking out a retaining wall, Towers improved the bullpen while removing the king of strikeouts and face of a loose clubhouse in one swift hammer strike. Reynolds, a man who’d previously crushed 44 home runs in a single Diamondback season, was gone. In return, the D-backs added a failing starter with the potential for being a legit eighth or ninth inning guy. It was a sign of things to come.

In came the gritty…

Aaron Hill instead of Kelly Johnson
Cody Ross instead of Chris Young
Martin Prado instead of Justin Upton

In came the relievers…

David Hernandez instead of Mark Reynolds
Joe Thatcher instead of Ian Kennedy
Heath Bell instead of any other free agent in the league making $10 million per year

Admittedly, some of these moves worked. So, why is the philosophy flawed?

Because although we admire grit — and every team needs grit — talent still beats grit seven times out of ten.

And because bullpen, although incredibly valuable in today’s game, is the most volatile position on the field.

Need proof?

– Of the 30 pitchers named closers to start the 2012 season, only five are still closing. You think there are 25 different starting shortstops since 2012?

– The Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland Athletics are the standards by which all other small-to-mid-market clubs should measure themselves against, and the Rays and A’s NEVER spend considerable money on bullpen.

– Meanwhile, the Diamondbacks have $25 million of their $85 million payroll invested in relief pitching (Bell $10 million, J.J. Putz $7 million, Brad Ziegler $3 million, Hernandez $1.5 million, and so on).

– The three best bullpens in MLB in 2013 are Atlanta, Kansas City and Pittsburgh, and none of the three are spending more than $2.5 million this season on any one reliever.

– The St. Louis Cardinals have baseball’s model franchise, yet they’re on their fourth closer this year. He (Edward Mujica) was named an All-Star, and the Cardinals are heading to the playoffs again.

So, yes, relief pitchers are risky financial investments. And yes, the Towers philosophy is flawed.

You can’t win leading the league in strikeouts?

Wrong. Atlanta is on a record pace for team strikeouts this year, but they’ve also won 13 straight games, have the second-best record in baseball and are 15.5 games better than the second place team in the NL East.

You can’t without a great clubhouse?

Wrong. The Diamondbacks currently trail the Yasiel Puig-Hanley Ramirez led Dodgers by 5.5 games.

You can’t consistently win spending 30 percent of your team’s payroll on the most volatile position in baseball?


You can’t consistently win with the philosophy that it’s OK to trade away 40 homer guys, former Cy Young candidates and 25-year-old MVP candidates in exchange for grit and bullpen help?