Spring Training weeding out the bullpen

With the news today that former closer Mike MacDougal was released, Marlins fans can breathe a sigh of relief; MacDougal’s potentially wild innings are going out the door. As the bullpen comes more into focus, we can actually see what our team’s late innings are going to look like. Here are the roles that the pen will likely serve up.

Long Reliever/Spot Starter: Burke Badenhop
7th inning: Jose Veras
7th inning/Set-up: Brian Sanches
7th inning/Set-Up: Renyel Pinto
Set-Up: Dan Meyer
Closer: Leo Nunez

How confident do you feel about this bullpen? My thoughts exactly. There are a few positives, I suppose.

– Between Nunez, Meyer, Sanches, and Veras, we could reasonably expect a lot of strikeouts, something we will definitely need given our team defense.

– Badenhop is a decent worm-killer, and that’s never a bad thing to have in higher leverage situations.

– Similarly, Pinto seems to allow weak contact all the time, one of his only major advantages.

At the same time, well, there’s a lot of potential downside.

– Nunez, Meyer, Sanches, and Veras all allow a lot of fly balls, and not all of them will stay in the park. At the amount of innings that the bullpen will pitch, this will all even out. However, not all innings are created equal, and if one pitcher in a high-leverage role (like Nunez last season) goes awry, it won’t matter that another guy who allowed fewer home runs than you’d expect (like Sanches last season) “evened out” the HR/FB%, because that guy pitched less important innings.

– More to that point, while the team has a lot of fly ball pitchers, it’s one primary ground baller, Badenhop, is currently stuck in the role of long relief. Especially troubling is that not only is the guy who allows the most ground balls will be facing the lowest average leverage, he also has the worst platoon splits on the team. To better use Badenhop, perhaps the club should consider moving him into a higher leverage situation where they can make sure he faces righties more consistently. As a long reliever, he is likely forced to pitch a certain number of innings, and as a result will have to face hitters of both sides of the plate.

– The walks may end up killing us. Veras and Pinto allow very large walk rates (though I don’t think anyone compares to Pinto), and the other guys aren’t great in that department either. With the expected regression to the mean with regards to stranding runners, expect more runs to come through.

As you can see, there are plenty of question marks remaining. The last spot in the bullpen will be decided in the next week or two, with the Marlins apparently leaning towards someone with “swingman” capabilities. This is a good sign for a few reasons.

– Badenhop may be moved to the sort of role I just mentioned. If the Hopper gets moved into a seventh or eighth inning role with the ability to spot start or long relieve on some days, we will actually be better utilizing one of our top relievers.

– It means Rick VandenHurk may yet make the Opening Day roster. I think most of us Marlins fans are a little optimistic about Hurk, but I think we can all agree that his changes made in 2009 deserve more of a look at the major league level. Starting him off in the bullpen is also a solid move, because it will allow him to go all out and utilize his excellent strikeout stuff to its fullest potential. Putting him in a swingman role also alleviates pressure, as those innings will be generally lower leverage. Basically, this sort of role is perfect for easing a young player like VandenHurk into a starting role, something he is sure to take on at some point this season.

Now, Hayden Penn is still in the running for that role, and he has an advantage over VandenHurk: Penn has no options left and would have to pass through waivers for the Marlins to send him down to Triple-A. If the Marlins don’t want to risk losing Penn, they may simply opt to send VandenHurk, who has one option remaining, down to the minors instead. Why the team would be concerned with losing Penn is beyond my knowledge. He is still young (25 years old this season), but has shown nothing of interest in his major league time. He walks a lot of people, something of which the Marlins could do without. He is apparently working on a sinker which would help him with his weird extreme home run problems, but if he cannot control the strike zone, I’m not sure how much help he will be.

The last few weeks leading up to Opening Day should decide this final spot between these two pitchers. I want to say VandenHurk has the edge, but neither him (8 2/3 IP, 6.23 ERA, 5 K, 4 BB) nor Penn (10 IP, 6.30 ERA, 3 K, 3 BB) have done much to seperate themselves. The team should probably go with the upside pick of VandenHurk, but don’t be surprised if Penn makes it. With Veras already locked into a relief spot, I doubt there is room for short relievers like Seth McClung or Tim Wood.

Tags: Brian Sanches Burke Badenhop Dan Meyer Hayden Penn Jose Veras Leo Nunez Miami Marlins Rick VandenHurk

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