The Arizona Diamondbacks have lost a grip on first place in the National League West. The D-Backs have slipped a half-game behind the hard charging Los Angeles Dodgers coming into Tuesday night’s games. While the primary reason for this is how well Los Angeles is playing, we can’t overlook a big flaw Arizona has, and that’s the bullpen.
It shouldn’t be this way, because Arizona’s relievers rank 4th in the National League in composite ERA. But when it comes to taking these quality innings and translating them into victories, the Diamondbacks have been less successful. This is a team that has closed out just 59.6% of its save opportunities this year, a figure worst in the division.
Nor is this something that can be laid all at the feet of one pitcher. While Heath Bell has been a big disappointment in the closer’s role, blowing five of his 20 chances with a 4.34 ERA, he’s not the only one. J.J. Putz has been even worse in save situations, blowing five of ten. Then factor in that David Hernandez, an up-and-coming setup guy has been a disappointment with a 4.34 ERA.
Manager Kirk Gibson hasn’t sat idly by. He gave both Bell and Putz, veterans with solid resumes for ninth-inning work a fair chance to establish themselves. Now Gibson is pushing another new button, turning the gig over to Brad Ziegler. So far Ziegler has closed all four of his save chances and his ERA is a sparkling 2.38.
The question then becomes whether moving Ziegler into the ninth-inning role is going to cost the bullpen necessary depth. Will Harris and Josh Collmenter have each pitched well and could be given an expanded role. Tony Sipp has been a mild disappointment, with a 3.90 ERA after doing better in Cleveland against DH-stacked lineups, but Sipp hasn’t been so bad that he can’t kick it up a notch.
Arizona has two possibilities for strengthening the pen, and it would be via trade or a return from injury. It’s not relievers per se that are injured. But when starting pitchers Trevor Cahill and Brandon McCarthy come back from the disabled list by early August, it opens the door to move someone into the bullpen. Randall Delgado would seem the most likely candidate, and with a 3.43 ERA he would give Gibson a lot of flexibility.
The other possibility is the looming July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. The Arizona farm system is loaded and they have the assets to make a deal. The Diamondbacks would make a good trading partner for Philadelphia if the Phils want to deal Jonathan Papelbon, or Arizona could opt for a less extreme path and just look to pick up a veteran arm or two to provide depth.
I picked Arizona to win the NL West at the start of the year, have stood by that pick during All-Star week MLB coverage and am not backing down now. But there’s no denying that this bullpen must do an about-face when it comes to their most basic task of closing out wins.
NL WEST COMPARISON
A brief look at the bullpen numbers for the four other NL West teams, to give better context on Arizona. Listed is the team’s rank in relievers’ ERA and then their save percentage…
Los Angeles: 12th, 62.8%
Colorado: 11th, 66.7%
San Francisco: 5th, 72.7%
San Diego: 6th, 69.7%
As you can see, if Arizona can close up their problems at the back end, they can get a big edge on the Dodgers.
THE STATE OF THE RACE
Colorado might be 48-52, but they’re still lingering at four games out. When you look at the week ahead, you see the Rockies playing the lowly Marlins and a Milwaukee Brewer team that can’ t pitch on a good day, and now is reeling from the Ryan Braun suspension.
San Francisco remains in striking distance at six games back, while San Diego is eight off the pace. The Padres play Arizona this weekend, so if there are any San Diego believers out there (and I can’t imagine who they might be), they need wins right now.