Diamondbacks confident running back bullpen from World Series run

Mar 19, 2024, 7:02 PM

Andrew Saalfrank...

Andrew Saalfrank of the Arizona Diamondbacks during spring training at Salt River Fields. (Arizona Sports Photo/Alex Weiner)

(Arizona Sports Photo/Alex Weiner)

SCOTTSDALE — Unsettling was the word Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Mike Hazen used about handling the bullpen this offseason, and not in a negative connotation.

The D-backs addressed the outfield, infield and rotation but left the bullpen largely untouched, an oddity under Hazen and compliment to a crew essential to Arizona’s October run.

Confidence in the clubhouse is high that the unit can hit opponents with different looks and close out games.

“There’s a lot of guys who can come in and do different things,” Kevin Ginkel said. “I’ve mentioned that before where, I think with our lefties and then our righties, everybody kind of mixes and matches and does something a little different. I think it gives Torey (Lovullo) a lot of opportunities to get guys out in critical spots, whether it’s the fifth (inning) or the ninth. I feel like we’re in a good spot. I love our bullpen.”

“We’re strong and we’re not only strong, we’re deep,” Ryan Thompson told Arizona Sports’ Wolf & Luke, calling Arizona the best bullpen in the league.

Arizona’s bullpen is not coming in with a crew of fireballers, relying on other ways to keep hitters off-balanced.

Games down the stretch involved lefty Andrew Saalfrank entering with sinkers from a three-quarter angle followed by Thompson’s submarine style, Ginkel’s mid-90s fastball and slider combination finished off with Sewald’s rising fastball and sweeper from sidearm. The quartet had a 1.52 ERA in September.

Sewald is developing a changeup this spring with sights set on taking a leap toward becoming a first-time All-Star.

“I think it’s unique, right? Like you’re not gonna get the same look twice,” Saalfrank told Arizona Sports. “We’re gonna play the Dodgers X amount of times, right? So you’re gonna see blank so many times but if instead of having two or three lefties who throw the same, you have three different slots come out. It’s a different look when the guy faces me and then he goes and faces Paul. You’re seeing sink and then carry so I think it just adds diversity.”

Diamondbacks find their bullpen

Bullpen performance across the league can vary from year to year or month to month, and the D-backs were a steward of the latter point. It’s why Hazen has called building a bullpen the toughest part of the job, a complicated ecosystem that may need complete revamping.

Arizona’s reliever ERA in the first half of 2023 was 4.00 with a 4.08 FIP, right in the middle of the MLB pack. The ERAs ballooned to 6.04 in July and 5.61 in August before Arizona boasted a top-tier bullpen at 2.31 over the final month of the season.

Early successes from the likes of Scott McGough, Miguel Castro and Kyle Nelson started to waver in the second half as workloads piled up with a starting rotation in flux behind Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly. Closer by committee was a dubious endeavour.

Fixed roles from the trade deadline addition of Sewald and diamond in the rough signing of Thompson created stability, everyone knew when they would enter a game which made a noted difference.

“It sounded like all they said was, ‘We needed somebody in the back end.’ I’m decent at that. Hopefully, I could help the team and and everyone clicked right when it mattered most,” Sewald told Arizona Sports’ Burns & Gambo.

Ginkel broke out into the setup man role (2.31 ERA), Joe Mantiply got healthy and back on track after a turbulent first half and younger arms Luis Frias and Saalfrank emerged to build out depth. The April bullpen and September bullpen were different entities.

“We were able to finish the season as a group pitching really well,” Mantiply said. “We’ve added some good depth and got most of the guys back, so I think it can get better.”

Building out depth

Bullpen games were an uncomfortable necessity for Lovullo, as were the workloads of his relievers early on. He doesn’t anticipate having to use bullpen games with Eduardo Rodriguez entering the rotation and younger starters competing for innings.

“I’ve always believed in six-plus innings, I came here talking about 21 outs and it’s so important that the starters handle that workload so the bullpen doesn’t get worn down by the end of the year,” Lovullo said this spring. “Last year, in June, we were on paced for I think five relievers at 70-plus games. That to me is unacceptable.”

Considerations have been underway regarding a long reliever, especially early in the season when guys are building up.

That’s where young starters who won’t make the Opening Day rotation will be considered, think Drey Jameson at the start of last season and Bryce Jarvis down the stretch. Ryne Nelson, Tommy Henry and Jarvis remain in the fifth starter battle after Slade Cecconi was optioned.

The Diamondbacks have been clear about not wanting to move someone from a starter to a relief role and stretch them back out in the same season. Lovullo said he feels the organization bears some responsibility for Jameson’s UCL injury that led to Tommy John surgery with the way he was handled.

“What happens if you have somebody get knocked around and you need some legs? We’re gonna finalize that, but it’s been in our discussions,” Lovullo said.

Competition remains ongoing late in camp for spots in the Opening Day bullpen.

The D-backs will take eight from a group that includes righties Sewald, Ginkel, Thompson, Castro, McGough (injured during postseason) and Frias; lefties Nelson, Mantiply and Saalfrank and fifth starter runners up. Corbin Martin will start in Triple-A Reno as he builds reps after missing 2023 (torn lat), as will 22-year-old fireballer Justin Martinez.

Lovullo said carrying an extra lefty starter (Henry) would not impact how many southpaws will be in the bullpen.

D-backs rebuild a bullpen timeline

June 27: Diamondbacks recall Kevin Ginkel.
July 31: Mariners trade Paul Sewald to Diamondbacks for Josh Rojas, Dominic Canzone and Ryan Bliss.
August 1: Diamondbacks recall Joe Mantiply.
August 19: Diamondbacks sign Ryan Thompson to a minor league contract.
August 27: Diamondbacks select the contract of Ryan Thompson.
September 1: Diamondbacks recall Luis Frías.
September 4: Diamondbacks select the contract of Andrew Saalfrank.

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