No Cure For the Bullpen Blues
Never as an Angel fan did I expect to find the team in this situation. The Angels boasting a lights out bullpen was as certain as death and taxes.
Yet here we sit with the Angels bullpen in shambles, sporting the worst bullpen ERA in the free world. 7.66, almost a full run higher than the next worst bullpen (Yankees at 6.69). This was the one area of the team that was supposed to be the team's saving grace as they efforted to weather a storm of injuries to their starting rotation. Instead the bullpen is the team's Achilles heel and never was that more evident than in the punch-to-the-gut loss when the bullpen blew a 9-4 lead in the 8th inning to the Yankees. Only the second time THIS CENTURY that they'd lost a game after leading by so much so late.
Ironically, the injury-ravaged starting pitcher corps has hardly felt the effects of being severely short-handed as they currently sit with the second-best ERA for starters in the American League (3.76 ERA, trailing Seattle who is at 3.75). They've gotten great and unexpected contributions from the likes of Dustin Moseley, Shane Loux, Darren Oliver, Anthony Ortega and Matt Palmer. Half of those players were thought to have no business starting a big league ball game for a contender, much less pitching well for them. Everywhere you look, the Angels are finding people to step up and help the team in their time of need.
That is until you look at the bullpen. For the most part, the Angels bullpen has been healthy. Darren Oliver is the only key figure in the bullpen to suffer an injury, and that was only because he was pressed into action as a starter. Kevin Jepsen, too, has gone to the disabled list, but he was the last man in the bullpen at the time anyway, so hardly a great loss. The only off-season change the bullpen saw was the downgrade from K-Rod to Brian Fuentes, one most would consider a minor drop off in terms of effectiveness. Yet, somehow those minor challenges have turned the Angel relief corps from an advantage opponents feared to see employed to a flaw opponents yearn to exploit.
The hardest aspect of this unexpected change in fortune is that there is no explanation for how things got so bad so quickly. The Angels have been forced to call upon a number of minor leaguers to fill out the back of the bullpen and that has certainly inflated that bullpen ERA, but the veteran relievers shoulder a great deal of that burden as well.
Do you know which active reliever leads the Angels bullpen in ERA? Rafael Rodriguez at 4.91. He and the much-maligned Justin Speier are the only Angel relievers with an ERA under 6.35. Jose Arredondo currently sits at 6.35, Scot Shields at 7.71 and Brian Fuentes at 7.88. The Angels have used the bullpen in every game this season, and in only six of those games has the bullpen not allowed a run. That is everyone's fault.
The problem that this creates is more than just the obvious losses the Angels have suffered as a result of the bullpen's ineptitude, but the losses it will create down the line. When the relievers cannot be trusted, it puts pressure on the starters to go as deep into games as they possibly can. The starters are under pressure enough trying to hold down the fort until Lackey and Santana come back, any more pressure and they are bound to crack. It is asking too much of these young stand-ins to not only pitch well enough to give the Angels a chance to win but to try and win the games themselves.
The rotation is taxed to its limit, but at least for them, a reprieve is in sight with Lackey and Santana due back from rehab assignments in the next few weeks. For the bullpen, however, there is little help on the horizon. Darren Oliver should be actived from the DL soon, but he is not a player often asked to pitch in the eighth and ninth inning of close games. Somehow they need to get get jumpstarted again.
Management could try and send a wake-up call by demoting or releasing a player like Jason Bulger, to show that poor performance will no longer be tolerated. But would that really motivate Shields, Arredondo or Fuentes. The team could sign a veteran free agent like Luis Vizcaino, but that kind of player would still be too low on the depth chart to make a difference in close games. Pitching coach Mike Butcher can study game tape until the cows come home, but mechanic modifications will only go so far. Really the only course of action is just to sit back and hope the key relievers start pitching as well as they normally do.
That could be a hard pill for Angel fans to swallow, but they must realize that they need Arredondo, Shields and Fuentes pitching at full capacity for this team to succeed. Too much of what Mike Scioscia likes to do is predicated on having a lockdown bullpen. That means everyone is just going to put on a brave face and hope the recent positive signs Shields and Arredondo have shown lately are a preview of things to come and not false glimmer of hope.