Many of the names that served as relief specialists in Toledo in 2004, are the same names responsible for the all too often bullpen implosions at the major league level.
Matt Anderson, Steve Colyer, Craig Dingman, John Ennis, Franklyn German, Chris Mears, and Brian Schmack have all seen time in Detroit in the past two seasons. These seven pitchers combined for 207 of the 340 relief appearances by Mud Hen pitchers this season.
The most successful of the group was probably John Ennis, who after moving from the Toledo rotation, seemed to thrive in a relief role. That success was limited to AAA though, as he struggled immensely with a promotion to Detroit.
Colyer and German still have a slim chance to contribute in Detroit down the road, but both must find control of their power arsenals before they will become regularly effective.
Probably the most consistent arm out of the pen for Toledo was 28-year-old Jason Karnuth. Karnuth was solid, but certainly not spectacular, posting a 3.74 ERA in 55 innings, with low strikeout and walk rates. An inconsistent minor league track record leads to skepticism about his ability to perform in Detroit, but he may warrant a shot if nobody else stands out early in 2005.
Performing as the lefty-specialist prior to Steve Colyer's demotion, Eric Eckenstahler was his usual frustrating self. A 5.15 ERA with 30 walks in only 43 innings seems to be the norm for a pitcher many thought would be a dominant bullpen lefty. Eric was shipped off to the Cubs as the player to be named in the Jon Connolly for Felix Sanchez trade.
The Erie bullpen mixed a blend of unheralded late round picks with a couple of top relief prospects. Roberto Novoa came to Detroit via the Randall Simon trade with Pittsburgh, and since being moved from the rotation, has been a dominating reliever. Prior to his major league debut (6/29/04), Novoa was pitching very well in the Eastern League, posting a 7-0 record with a 2.96 ERA, 50 strikeouts, and only 63 hits in 79 innings. Novoa is a likely candidate for middle relief in Detroit in 2005, and based on his late season improvements, he could be a key contributor.
Joining Novoa on the top relief prospect list was the newly acquired Felix Sanchez. Despite an overpowering fastball, Sanchez struggled with control and arm soreness that eventually led to his mid-season shoulder surgery. Felix is not expected to be ready for spring training, but at age 22 there is certainly no rush.
Picking up the majority of the remaining relief innings were the recently released Jorge Cordova, the ineffective Alex Lontoya, and the underrated trio of Rick Palma, Lee Rodney, and Mark Woodyard. Cordova and Lontoya were largely unreliable and will be hard pressed to find work in the Tiger organization for 2005. After posting solid numbers throughout the summer, both Lee Rodney and Mark Woodyard have been sent to the Arizona Fall League to continue their improvements. Woodyard has subsequently picked up right where he left off, getting out and racking up innings, while Rodney has struggled against some of the top minor league competition around.
Two other relievers to keep an eye on with Erie are Kevin McDowell and John Birtwell. Both players are recovering from arm injuries, and pitched well in limited action at the end of the season. Look for both to make an impact heading into 2005.
The Lakeland Tigers relied on solid performances from a number of relief prospects in 2004. System veterans Ian Ostland, Mike Kobow, and Jason Moates, yet again turned in quality seasons. All three were slightly old for the Florida State League, and will have to prove their worth with Erie in 2005.
Corey Hamman started the year in the bullpen, pitching very effectively, but was moved to the rotation late in the year, and subsequently promoted to Erie with the rash of late season injuries. Also making a significant contribution to the Lakeland pen was 2004 draft choice Brian Hensen out of Elon College. The late round choice was moved from the Gulf Coast League to Lakeland for emergency duty, but pitched well enough to stick. After posting a 2.43 ERA in 20 relief appearances, look for the organization to challenge Brian with an assignment to Erie to start the 2005 campaign.
Ostland, Kowbow, Moates, and Hensen have a chance to step forward as potential relief help in Detroit with good 2005 seasons, while Hamman could get a legitimate shot at the Erie rotation.
Our very own Midwest League Champion Whitecaps had possibly the most consistent bullpen in the system this season. Led by co-closers Chris Homer and Eulogio DelaCruz, the West Michigan bullpen was outstanding in the season's second half, aiding in an amazing run to the title. Homer and de la Cruz combined for 29 saves, and seemed to alternate hot and cold streaks, offsetting each other quite well. De la Cruz is the more highly thought of prospect, with a blazing fastball, and the words "future closer" written all over him.
Taking the ball from the starters to the two closers, middle relievers Anthony Tomey, Brian Santo, Jermy Rodriguez, and Damien Myers all posted very good seasons with ERAs under 3.50. Santo and Tomey are underrated players who were dominating from mid-season on, and will look to continue this growth in the pitcher friendly Florida State League in 2005.
The last regular member of the West Michigan bullpen was Harvard graduate Kenon Ronz, who despite a poor ERA, displayed good peripheral numbers (13 walks and 58 strikeouts in 57 innings), and will look to bounce back in Lakeland.
While it is much more difficult to project relievers further down in the system, there was an impressive crop of hurlers toeing the rubber in Oneonta. 2004 draft picks, Ed Clelland and Tyler Jacobson, along with Tony Peralta and Ezequiel Perez debuted with a bang this summer. All four displayed exceptional stuff and the numbers indicate that they could experience success moving forward.
The big name and the big arm in the O-Tigers bullpen was Colin Mahoney. The former collegiate catcher has touched 100 mph with his fastball, and shows signs of some very good off-speed pitches. Like many newly converted pitchers, Mahoney struggles with his control, but with a cannon for an arm, he could become a dominating pitcher.
Possibly the most difficult group of relievers to assess, the Gulf Coast League bullpen didn't appear to have many top-end performances. Led by a phenomenal performance by Felipe Garcia, and solid seasons from Jose Fragoso and Randor Bierd, but the GCL bullpen did a reasonably good job of holding leads. Depending on the degree to which the organization wants to challenge these three, they could start the season with the Whitecaps, but the more likely destination would be the short season New York-Penn League.
Also contributing to the Tiger bullpen were right-handers Jesse Caraballo, Rhinel Cruz, Sendy Vasquez, Philip Wilkins, and lefty Dominic Carmosino. None of them put up terribly impressive numbers, but the organization feels that all 5 have the potential to make strides in 2005 with Oneonta.
Historically, minor league relievers are extremely unpredictable and have a propensity to come and go with the wind. There are several relievers bouncing around the Tiger's system who could make their way to Comerica Park, but none that appear to be a sure thing. The potential is there, but it is a risky business to begin counting on a minor league reliever to help your major league bullpen until they are actually there.