2004 Giants Preview: The Bullpen is Up in the Air

Questions answered on the Giants Bullpen situation. Like the rotation, it appears that success will revolve around a key pitcher's health and, unfortunately, he has had continual setbacks. But until his situation is determined, the bullpen, like his health, is also up in the air.

The Giants are facing a huge loss of talent in the bullpen. The core group has been pretty steady the past few years but the Giants have lost two key relievers in Tim Worrell and Joe Nathan, both of whom had great seasons last year, during the off-season. What are the Giants management thinking, many Giants fans have been asking.

But what are the facts of the situation? Are the Giants truly much worse off in their new configuration than their old? Are Giants fans judging players by their covers, i.e. superficially? In this article, I will review the changes in the Giants bullpen in an effort to cut through the passion of fans to see what's really happening, at least from my viewpoint.

Bullpen Review

2003: Worrell (closer), F-Rod, Nathan, Herges, Eyre, Christensen, Brower
2004: Nen (would be closer?), Herges (closer for the moment), F-Rod, Brower, Eyre, Christensen, Walker, Estrella, Aardsma.

Robb Nen - It is pretty simple: if he is back, the Giants bullpen look even better than last year, and if he is not, the bullpen will need a reliever to have a breakout year.

Matt Herges - While no one would ever mistake him for Nen, he looks to be able to at least channel Tim Worrell and do as well as Worrell did in the closer role last season. Herges was great for the Giants last season and was one of the bright spots in an otherwise dreary 2003 playoffs. He sounds ready to take on the role that ate him up mentally previously but he also sounds ready to take a set-up position if Nen came back.

He sounds like the perfect team player and today fans have to admire players like that. But, like Worrell last year, he has not done well in the closer role previously, and so would be a big question mark if he does end up being the closer for the season. However, he seems ready to do well no matter what his role is this year, and that will be good no matter what happens.

Felix Rodriguez - F-Rod is F-Rod, one blazing pitch, one frustrating pitcher for fans. However, if you weigh his performances on a balance, one must admit that he is a damn good pitcher when he is on and we are lucky to have him on our team (though not $3.05M lucky). The encouraging news from this spring training is that Felix was experimenting with actually adding another pitch to his limited repertoire but unfortunately he did not pitch very well this spring, with a high ERA. Looks to be another good year for him, albeit with just his one pitch again. However, if he can just perfect another pitch, he could bring the bullpen up a notch just by himself.

Scott Eyre - Injured his back in spring training and will be out longer than Schmidt probably, as he is expected to be out for all of April. He had a great season in 2003, one of the best of his career, and the Giants were expecting him to be their lefty killer for the season again. If it wasn't for his injury, I would have been expecting another great season, but now I would be happy if he is back healthy and did what he did before, which was still good. Since it does not seem serious, I don't think it would be much of a stretch to say that he should be able to do what he had done before, just not as good as last year.

Jason Christiansen - He was suppose to be our lefty killer when we signed him but his Tommy John arm surgery opened the door for Eyre to take on that role for the team. He came back last season from his injury but he was still recovering so it is not fair to judge him by last season. However, while his stats don't look great in 2003 overall, he did well again against lefthanders. This year he should be fully healthy and be filthy on left-handers again plus handle right-handers OK. He should be much better but how much is the question mark.

Jim Brower - Jim had a breakout year in 2003 and look to at least duplicate his success from last season. And that is reasonable to expect because previous to joining the Giants, while his overall stats were not great, if you looked at his relief appearances, one would have seen that he was about a 4.00 ERA pitcher as a reliever, not great but good and was very versatile, both starting and relieving, set-up and long. He should do about the same as last year.

Kevin Walker - Walker had a nice season three seasons ago but he hasn't had it since then because of arm surgery and recovery from his arm surgery. He has great K-rates but also walks a ton too. Picked up from San Diego in a waiver wire deal, he is keeping Eyre's place warm and snuggly, unless he shows more than what he showed this spring, which caused San Diego to release him. He is most probably going down once Eyre is back healthy and be part of the hired guns the Giants put in Fresno to win some games there.

Leo Estrella - Estrella had a nice season last year, but will he be that good again? The Brewers basically thought he wasn't worth keeping, giving him up in a trade for low-minors players. I do not have high hopes for him given that the Brewers gave up on him, but he did have a good year last year and the Giants could use a performance like that from him, especially if Nen is out or not up to Nen's past standards. I think he will be the Brower of 2004 and be the pleasant surprise.

David Aardsma - He passes Hank Aaron before Barry Bonds might: Aardsma is now the first name in any player encyclopedia for baseball. He has limited experience, in just A-ball to boot, but he was killer in the Cape Cod league, he was killer for the College World Series Champs, Rice University, he was killer in A-ball, pitching for the San Jose Giants, and he was killer this spring training with with big club. I am very encouraged by what he has done so far in his short professional career, but the question is, will he still continue to do so well jumping up so high in competition?

Aardsma is probably just keeping Nen's spot warm for him until Nen comes back but if he continues pitching as well as he had in spring training, Estrella could be joining Fresno before Walker does. Or perhaps the F-Rod trade rumors that percolate from time to time might finally come true - this in order to free up some budget, since technically the Giants are above where they publicly stated that they wanted to be, which was around $75-77M in payroll and recent news reports it at $80M.

Bullpen Comparison - By Win Shares

Like the Lineup and Starting Rotation, the 2004 Giants Bullpen is close to what we had in 2003 but is a little short. Last year's bullpen amassed 51 win shares collectively. This is not much more than the win shares that this year's group looks to get, around 46 win shares, assuming that Nen does not come back full strength. However, if Nen is back to his old standards, the bullpen should be comfortable above last year's figure of 51.

Bullpen Overall

As I noted above, it all revolves around how far back Robb Nen has come in his recovery from his surgeries. The reports sound very positive in that he has been able to throw in the 90 MPH range and it sounds like it is just a matter of time before he will be relieving for the Giants once again. The question is whether he will throw like the Robb Nen of old or like an old Robb Nen.

The bullpen without him looks to be a notch below the bullpen of last year, but Sabean, like a good squirrel, has squirreled away a few relievers - Kevin Walker, Dave Veres, and Mike Crudale - who has had success relieving earlier in their careers but not lately, though Veres appears to have recovered from the injury that caused his career to pause and reportedly only needs time to build up his strength again.

And at worse, Sabean will pull some more deals for relievers mid-season if the bullpen needs another pick-me-up, as he has shown that he believes in a strong bullpen, which Diamond Mind Baseball's research has shown that playoff teams need to have strong bullpens to expect to go far in the playoffs and that success in the playoffs is tied to not just a good lineup and starting rotation, but also to a good bullpen as well.

The Giants bullpen, while not elite looking right now, appears to be good enough for now as the Giants assess how far back Robb Nen is. It is the obvious assumption that if he is not back, Sabean will act quickly to bring up the quality of the bullpen to his usual standards of expectations. Otherwise, if Nen is back to the Nen of old, this bullpen will be much better than last year's edition and will be among the best in the NL.



Martin Lee writes 'A Biased Giant's Fanatic's View' for SFDugout.com when the mood and muse strikes him. He wants to teach and share his love of baseball and, in particular, his love for the San Francisco Giants. He will believe to his dying days that Bobby Bonds was robbed of being the first 40-40 player and should be in Cooperstown. Please feel free to e-mail him at BiasedGiantsFanatic@nospam.yahoo.com (remove the "nospam." if you wish to e-mail me) if you have a question or comment.

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