High-priced 'pen can struggle, too

The Baltimore Sun

The Orioles had a plan this offseason: Spend money to revamp an embarrassing bullpen that finished 29th out of 30 major league clubs.

They paid a total of $42 million to four veteran relievers - three signing for three years each - a risky proposition since bullpen help is the sport's most difficult commodity to predict from season to season. But, despite critical whispers from around the majors, the Orioles were undaunted, and refreshingly aggressive.

Now, with only a month remaining in the season and after the worst relief-pitching week in club history, the Orioles' bullpen is exactly where it was at the end of last year: holding the second-worst ERA in the majors.

Stunningly, this renovated bullpen is probably in worse shape than last year's now that closer Chris Ray will miss 2008 because of recent elbow surgery. The Orioles ended last season with a 5.25 bullpen ERA, ahead of only the Kansas City Royals. Heading into their Aug. 22 doubleheader, the Orioles owned a mediocre - but improved - 4.89 mark.

In baseball's version of Hell Week, though, the Orioles' bullpen leaked an incomprehensible 52 runs in 21 innings during the first seven games of this losing streak, plunging it to 29th in the majors before last night's game. That span included the infamous 30-3 defeat to the Texas Rangers that featured three relievers surrendering 24 runs.

In those seven consecutive losses, the bullpen ERA rose nearly a full point, from 4.89 to 5.85. The club's overall ERA went from 4.39 to 4.79.

"A huge anomaly, a blip, an awful week," executive vice president Mike Flanagan said. "The overall numbers do not look good, but a week ago we were in the middle of the pack."

Up and down

The Orioles might have been alone in their offseason free-agent reliever plunge and in their nightmare of the past week, but they have plenty of company when it comes to misjudging or overrating their relief corps.

Simply put, it's nearly impossible to know how a relief pitcher, and consequently a bullpen, will fare from one year to the next. So even the most prepared - or wealthiest - teams have trouble getting consistency in the bullpen.

Case in point: In the past five full seasons, only the Los Angeles Angels have finished in the top 10 in bullpen ERA every year. Conversely, only two teams, the Colorado Rockies and Royals, finished in the bottom 10 in each of those five seasons.

"This is obviously the greatest area of volatility in baseball," said Cleveland general manager Mark Shapiro, whose Indians finished 26th overall in bullpen ERA in 2004, first in 2005 and then 24th in 2006.

"I can't give definitive reasons why," Shapiro said. "Some potential reasons are that bullpen guys are usually bullpen guys for a reason; that they have some flaw that did not allow them to be starters. And the best bullpen guys get overused by everybody."

Nate Silver, who created Baseball Prospectus' player projection system, said it's rare to find middle relievers who remain effective for consecutive years, so most teams don't have deep units from season to season.

"I think it gets back to the fact you're talking about guys who only throw 50 or 60 innings, and it's hard to learn a lot from that," he said. "You're also talking about guys ... preselected for their jobs because of a lack of durability."

San Diego success

Silver said teams would benefit from looking past saves and ERAs and instead focusing on strikeout rates and ground ball-to-fly ball ratios. But he said luck is a huge part of assembling a good bullpen. So he wouldn't sink a lot of money or contract years into relievers - other than elite closers.

That is the blueprint for San Diego Padres general manager Kevin Towers, who has built a reputation for finding quality relievers at a discounted price. All-Star closer Trevor Hoffman is in the second season of a two-year, $13.5 million extension. No other Padres reliever makes more than $500,000. Yet the Padres are second in the majors in bullpen ERA.

"You can build a bullpen for the price of a No. 1 starter," Towers said. "And that bullpen will win you a hell of a lot more games over the course of a season than a No. 1 starter."

Towers said part of the credit for his successful bullpen is the Padres' spacious ballpark. But he said the club begins scouring for next year's relievers during the current season, attempting to find strike-throwers who need opportunities.

"It is a key part of building a competitive club," Towers said. "If you have no 'pen, it's very difficult to contend."

Shapiro signed his current closer, Joe Borowski, to a one-year, $4.25 million deal this offseason. He's leading the AL in saves despite an ERA well over 5.00.

"My philosophy is do as much as possible from within," Shapiro said. "But without that it would be to look for flexibility and alternatives, because you are going to have to adjust on the fly."

The Orioles felt they developed their most important bullpen cog when they put Ray in the closer's role last season and watched him save 33 games at age 24. Flanagan said Ray's seamless transition from setup man to closer allowed the club to sign Danys Baez (three years, $19 million), Jamie Walker (three years, $12 million), Chad Bradford (three years, $10.5 million) and Scott Williamson (one year, $900,000).

"Part of the reason we spent money on the bullpen is the rest of the bullpen was inexpensive, especially the closer [who is making $420,000 in 2007]," Flanagan said. "We looked at what is the overall cost of a bullpen relative to other bullpens, and costs were not out of line."

And for a month, the plan worked: The bullpen's ERA was 3.81 in April. But it began to unravel as starters failed to pitch deeper into games. A bad May (5.42 ERA) was followed by a worse June (6.81), but after a respite in July (3.51) came the ignominy of August (9.48 through last night).

One of the biggest reasons for the sharp decline between July and August is the absence of Ray. His injury forced Walker and Bradford, solid situational pitchers, into eighth- and often ninth-inning spots, and pushed others, such as Jim Hoey and Rob Bell, into more prominent roles.

"It's a vacancy that's hard to fill," Orioles manager Dave Trembley said. "I told you earlier this year, 'We're going to get by in the short term, but in the long run, it's going to catch up to us.' And it caught up to us. It's that simple. ... We're paying for it."

Disappointments

While Bradford and Walker have met expectations, Williamson was released earlier this year and Baez probably has been the club's biggest disappointment.

Considered insurance for Ray when he signed, Baez, 29, is 0-5 with a 6.20 ERA in 48 appearances. A forearm strain forced him to the disabled list in June.

Industrywide, Baez's contract may have been the one most criticized - for its length and value. One American League scout said he recommended his club stay away from Baez this past offseason because he believed the right-hander no longer had the command or the confidence to pitch in the late innings.

But Flanagan said the Orioles still have faith in Baez, who has become the club's de facto closer.

Although Baez has been the club's symbol of ineffective relief, he didn't appear in either the 30-3 loss to the Rangers or Tuesday's 15-8 loss to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in which the Orioles gave up a club-record-tying 11 runs in an inning.

But Baez, like many of his teammates, is still promising improvement.

"We're trying to do the best we can right now," Baez said. "I can't explain exactly what's happening now, but we've got to keep working hard and try to be better. We've got to try to finish strong in September."

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

Sun reporters Childs Walker, Jeff Zrebiec and Roch Kubatko contributed to this article.

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