D-backs enter spring training with open mind about closer role

Feb 18, 2023, 7:40 AM
Mark Melancon #34 of the Arizona Diamondbacks looks on for the sign while pitching in the bottom of...
Mark Melancon #34 of the Arizona Diamondbacks looks on for the sign while pitching in the bottom of the ninth inning against the New York Mets at Citi Field on April 16, 2022 in the Queens borough of New York City. The Diamondbacks defeated the Mets 3-2. (Photo by Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images)

The Arizona Diamondbacks have had a different saves leader in five of manager Torey Lovullo’s six seasons, and that trend may continue.

Lovullo said on Wednesday the situation with the back end of the bullpen is undecided entering spring training, but it is possible Arizona goes with a closer-by-committee route based on matchups.

Last year, free agent acquisition Mark Melancon started the season with the job, but Arizona gave opportunities to much of its bullpen by the end of the season and nothing particularly stuck. It blew 27 saves, eighth-most in MLB.

“What I’ve done for the past six years is I’ve always had a closer and work the game backwards, just how my mind works,” Lovullo said. “But I’ve got to evolve a little bit in that area. … For right now, it’s very fluid. I haven’t yet made up my mind about naming somebody as our ninth inning guy.”

The D-backs have a lot of new blood in the pen this year after adding 23-year-old Carlos Vargas, veteran Miguel Castro, accomplished closer in Japan Scott McGough and by bringing back southpaw Andrew Chafin after he was traded in 2020. All-Star Joe Mantiply remains in the mix, as does Melancon and lefty Kyle Nelson.

Lovullo said pitching coach Brent Strom lobbied for more power out of the bullpen, and the additions largely address the need. Arizona’s average fastball velocity of 92.3 mph ranked No. 28 in the major leagues last year, while it allowed the second-highest hard contact percentage at 32.8%, according to FanGraphs.

“Everybody knows what happened last year,” Lovullo said. “We didn’t lose games just in the eighth, ninth inning, we lost some games in the first inning. But you can’t win every game 7-1, you’ve got to win those 2-1 games. So those will be my expectations that we’re going to find a way to win baseball games late.

“You can see we’ve added some real interesting pieces, some that have done a great job on the back end of really good bullpens and some guys we’re going to count on from within our system.”

General manager Mike Hazen said in December after adding McGough — who picked up 38 saves last year for the Yakult Swallows — that he would be a back-end option.

Lovullo has experience playing in Japan after spending the 2000 season with Yakult and relates to McGough’s experience. The manager said he’d be foolish not to use McGough in that role if the 33-year-old proves he can translate his NBPL success to MLB against lefties and righties, but he needs to see it first.

Chafin was a workhorse for the D-backs in his first stint with the team, pitching in 225 games from 2017-19. The lefty expects to have the same role in 2023.

“He’s gonna call about everyday down there, and I’m gonna get up and pitch about every day,” Chafin said. “We haven’t really had a chance to talk details yet. But I’d be willing to bet it’s gonna be very similar to how it was when I was here last.”

Lovullo said he doesn’t intend to break the appearances record with Chafin but will lean on him a lot.

Pitchers and catchers reported on Wednesday, starting Arizona’s process of evaluation ahead of Opening Day. There is a lot to figure out on the pitching side, as the D-backs are holding a competition for the No. 5 starter, as well.

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