What the bullpen might look like:
Closer: Brian Wilson
Setup (R): Sergio Romo
Setup (L): Javier Lopez
Middle: Santiago Casilla
Middle: Jeremy Affeldt
That guy: Ramon Ramirez
Long man: Mota/Suppan/Vogelsong/Runzler/Kroon!/Zito (with Clayton Tanner moving into the rotation)
Pretty much the same bullpen that won the World Series1 last year. But allow me to reveal The Greater Bullpen Theory that I’ve been working on for several years now:
Mariano Rivera is a robot.
Every other reliever is a volatile pile of unpredictable. Sure, you have a pretty good idea with a guy like Brian Wilson, a top-tier closer who has steadily improved, but forget about even trying to predict him with certainty. Even with Wilson, you have to acknowledge that he falls into the non-robot category, which means he can get injured with the rest of the mortals. He’s been shut down for the spring because of a freak tweak of his oblique -- a reminder that bullpens aren’t exactly static, predictable things.
Take Sergio Romo, for example. Throughout his entire professional career, he’s been a high-strikeout, low-walk guy -- that is, exactly what you want a reliever to be. With the exception of a few poorly timed hiccups, he’s been fantastic as a Giant. Last September, he didn’t allow an earned run or inherited runner to score, striking out 14 and only walking one. He was, in a small sample, as good as a reliever can be. Then when the playoffs rolled around, he hung a slider to Eric Hinske. Just like that, he was an unreliable reliever.
Well, not really, but a lot of folks sure thought so. That’s how quickly it can happen. And the difference between the reliable Romo we’re all expecting and a reliever having a down year is three or four Hinske-style implosions out of 60 or 70 games. Maybe two implosions and five more "off games." There are a lot of permutations that could add up to a down year, and all it takes is a) bad luck in a small sample, or b) an arm that’s tired about 11% more of the time compared to last year.
Javier Lopez’s ERA before last season was 4.62. He was paid just a little over the MLB minimum when he made the Pirates as a non-roster invitee. Then he came to the Giants and was some sort of warlock. He faced 87 batters for the Giants in 2010; only one runner scored while he was on the mound. All four of his earned runs scored after another reliever came into the game, and he only allowed one of 22 inherited runners to score. That’s beyond dominant, and just a little fluky. Which is exactly how bullpens work. It wouldn’t have been a surprise if the exact same pitcher was completely awful in the exact same sample with the exact same arm.
So forget trying to predict a bullpen with any sort of accuracy. All you have is a pretty good hunch that a bullpen will fall into one of these rough categories:
Good to great, with substantial depth
This was the Giants over the past two seasons -- even when the Giants would throw less-than-impressive arms like Brandon Medders out there, they would get nothing worse than average performances from the back end of the bullpen. And the front of the bullpen was pretty impressive, with Wilson morphing into one of the better closers in the game.
This is a bullpen with just a couple of reliable relievers followed by a miasma of yuck. The manager will swap arms in and out of the late-inning rotation, trying to find a fit, but nothing will work, and he’ll lean heavily on the one or two relievers he does trust. This was a common bullpen of the Dusty Baker era, with Roberto Hernandez, Rod Beck, or Robb Nen and one setup man doing well at any given time, which led to them getting pitched hard. Most bullpens are like this, actually.
"Hi. Someone thinks I’m the best pitcher in your bullpen, which is why I’m the one getting the saves. Remember, season tickets are on sale right now."
For two straight seasons, the Giants’ bullpen has been very, very good and quite deep. I don’t see why that should change this year. But most teams fall into the "top heavy" category -- a category with its own gravity, constantly trying to suck good bullpens out of orbit.
Comment starter: Pick a category. The Wilson injury gives "Kaboom" more of a chance than it would have had last month, but it's still pretty unlikely.