To say the Angels bullpen is in disarray is like saying that Japan has a little bit of water damage to tend to. Last year, I thought the relievers were so bad I dubbed the bullpen the "Bullpen of Doom." Somehow this year's bullpen is shaping up to be even worse, so I have no choice to name them the "Bullpen of Despair." Will there ever be any escape from this endless torture or are the Halos doomed to see their season die at the hands of the Bullpen of Despair?
Don't I feel like the perfect sucker. After all the Angels' failings this off-season, the one thing I thought they had taken care of was their leaky bullpen. Ummm, oops! My bad.
In my defense, my logic seemed pretty sound before the season began:
- The 2010 relievers (except for Rodney) all finished strong, suggesting they would carry over that improvement into 2011.
- Brian Fuentes was effectively replaced by Scott Downs, who does a lot of the same things, but is much more reliable.
- Hisanori Takahashi will give the pen a different look and lots of different matchup flexibility that Scioscia hasn't had in ages
- A full season of Jordan Walden could be give the relief corps a huge boost
- The backend of the pen would be filled out by a bountiful collection of young, talented power arms (Kohn, Thompson, Rodriguez, etc.), surely one or two of them would develop into real assets.
Well, one out of five ain't bad, right?
I really truly believed that the only problem the Angel bullpen would face would be figuring out how to handle the ninth inning, a large but solveable problem. What I didn't anticipate was the entire relief corps bursting into flames once the season started.
Three losses, two blown saves (and one narrowly avoided one), countless free passes issued and two soul-crushing walk-off homers later and I'm still not convinced that my original thoughts about the relievers were wrong. All they really need to do to relieve (pun intended) us from this despair is make a few minor changes. Or at least I hope so.
Kevin Jepsen was rough in his first two outings, but settled down in his third. But what we are forgetting is that Jepsen was dealing with some injury issues late in spring and probably still had some rust to work off. He also made some very good points about needing to adjust his approach now that the league has seen him so much. I still think his stuff is good, the problem though is that when his stuff isn't good, he is very hittable, as we've seen. A little more work on repeating pitches and maintaining his delivery should get him straightened out and keep him firmly entrenched in the setup role.
Michael Kohn was absolutely lights out this spring, but has hit a rough patch thus far. The good news is that he hasn't gotten shelled, he just has given up big hits at the wrong time. This problem is easy to solve though. Kohn can and will be very good if Scioscia uses him correctly. Namely, he limits Kohn's exposure to lefties (small sample size, but Kohn appears pretty vulnerable to them) and he not use Kohn in mid-inning emergencies like he did on Sunday. Mike is just one of those guys that needs a little bit of a margin for error. His control is spotty at best, so he needs to have the wiggle room of being able to issue a walk (or three) so that when he does give up a hit, which isn't all that often, that those walks don't kill him. Having him start an appearance with the bases already occupied is a recipe for disaster.
I'm not totally sure yet what to do with Hisanori Takahashi. He could be a long man, but that hasn't exactly worked out. He obviously isn't on his game right now, so Sosh should limit his exposure by using him as a LOOGY until Taka gets into a groove.
Forgive me if I draw conclusions from one appearance, but Rich Thompson needs to get more of a shot. He has put up some sneaky good numbers since 2010 when he developed a cut fastball and deserves a shot at proving that he is finally for real. At a minimum, Thompson will be one of the few right-handed arms in the pen that won't shoot himself in the foot with too many walks. That has to be worth something right about now.
Next, in what seems like all too obvious a move, Jordan Walden needs to be promoted to closer. This may seem like a knee-jerk reaction, but, let's be honest, nobody ever had much faith in Rodney anyway. I don't know if the pressure of closing is getting to Fernando or if his mechanics really just are that bad, but he has no business shutting down games and, much like Kohn, needs to be used in a role more commensurate of his current abilities and limitations. As for Walden, I actually almost hesitate to use him as a closer because it seems like such a waste. He has shown flashes of dominance so far this year, so I would hate to see him pigeon-holed into the ninth inning when he could be used earlier in games to bail out other relievers from the messes they get into, but something has to be done about the end of games. I don't even want to hear anything about him not being ready. Walden looks the most poised out of anyone on the mound right now (especially with Jason Bulger practically pleading with himself to throw strikes in his appearance yesterday) and the rest of the team needs to boost of confidence that comes with seeing a closer who is eager for the save opportunities and not just praying that they get through it.
Finally, and I know I have said this a lot lately, Scott Downs will bring stability and flexibility to the bullpen when he gets 100% healthy. Downs is another battle-tested guy who can handle high leverage innings, or maybe even the only such guy on the Angel roster. When he brings that leadership-by-example to the mound, it can only help the floundering relief staff, as should his actual style of pitching. One major mistake I believe the Angels have made in constructing this bullpen the last few years is that it is almost entirely composed of right-handed power arms with a premium on strikeouts and ignorance of walks. They basically trotted out the same kind of guy for every situation. Not only does that not force hitters to adjust to a new style of pitching, but it basically dictates that those kind of relievers are going to be forced into action in situations they are not suited for. I think the Halos realized that too, which is why Downs, and to a lesser extent Takahashi, were signed. We just haven't gotten to see it play out since Downs is on the DL.
But Scott Downs is not a panacea. Mike Scioscia and Mike Butcher need to do whatever is within their power to get the other relievers on the right path before Downs even rejoins the team. For Scioscia, that is going to mean juggling bullpen roles, even if he hurts feelings in the process. For Butcher, I suggest he spend the next eternity watching video of his relievers to try and find a cure for their allergy to the strike zone. And both of them better work fast, because the longer the Bullpen of Despair reeks its unholy powers over the team, the more and more likely it is the lineup and rotation become infected as they both start to press in order to overcompensate for the relief corps' failings. And if that happens this early in the season, the Halos could be effectively out of the playoff race before the All-Star break.