Right near the top of Jerry Dipoto's off-season shopping list has to be bullpen help. It is probably listed right underneath rotation help and maybe milk and eggs. Regardless, getting some better, more reliable relievers is a major priority for the Halos after their 2012 season was largely torpedoed by the Bullpen of Perpetual Sorrow.
This glaring need has become somewhat mutated though in recent weeks. No longer is it a need for better relievers in general, but specifically a need for a "proven closer." This seems to be what fans want and what the media deduces as their true target. Neither seems to take into account the actual works that Jerry Dipoto has been saying on the topic though. By that I mean the very specific quotes he has given about "never" looking to spend big money on a reliever, which usually goes hand-in-hand with a "proven closer," or how he thinks bullpens can be built with lower cost, middle relief options. Nope, everyone ignores that and assumes the Halos will, nay, MUST sign a Closer with a capital-C.
The thing about that is that those Closers tend to be expensive and, quite frankly, wildly overrated. You don't have to look very far back in Angels' history to understand that concept or have you already forgotten about how well the Fernando Rodney and Brian Fuentes signings worked out for the Halos?
If you are really married to the idea of having one true closer (which I am not, but Scioscia is), then I must ask what is so wrong with Ernesto Frieri?
Just because the Angels' bullpen is broken doesn't mean that it is Frieri's fault. In fact, the stats suggest he is much more a part of the solution than the problem. Though he only was the Angels closer for about half the season, he performed well, converting 23 of 26 saves. For the more sabermetrically inclined, he also delivered 26 shutdowns versus 5 meltdowns (excluding his time with the Padres). In high leverage situations, he had just three meltdowns in 21 opportunities. Mariano Rivera he is not, but he isn't exactly taking a gas can out to the mound with him either. In fact, the likely reason that some are calling for Frieri to be demoted is recency bias. If you asked most Angels fans what they remember about Frieri isn't his ridiculous dominance when he was first acquired by the Halos, it is probably the soul-crushing back-to-back losses he took in September against Kansas City and Texas. Those accounted for two of his five meltdowns as an Angel, they just seem so much worse because of the horrible timing. Sorry, but that just isn't enough reason to demote the guy.
If there is a real problem with Frieri, it is that he didn't get enough opportunities to pitch in high leverage situations. That would be the same problem for whoever serves as the Angels closer, which sort of defeats the purpose of finding a better closer, no?. The fact of the matter is that the middle relief was the Achilles heel of the bullpen. As a whole, the bullpen blew 23 saves, which tied them for the most blown saves in the American League. As I mentioned before, only three of those blown saves were by Frieri. Like I said, he isn't the problem. Just to hammer the point home, the rest of the Angels bullpen also contributed 58 meltdowns, excluding the five Ernesto contributed. That was a middle of the pack total, but the damning stats are that their WPA/LI was just 0.20, the second-worst mark in the AL, and delivered just 94 shutdowns (26 of which were Frieri), which was easily the lowest total in the AL. What that basically means is that the bullpen didn't pitch in all that many high leverage situations compared to the rest of the league, but they also didn't get the job done in those lower leverage situations. That's not good. That's not good at all.
With all that being said, it is pretty clear that the Angels don't need a new closer. They just need better relief in general. Granted, acquiring an upgrade at closer can accomplish that goal because it means moving Frieri down the ladder to pitch in middle relief and generally increasing the bullpen's talent level, but it probably isn't the most efficient use of resources since those proven closers are so hard to find. And as we saw with Fuentes and Rodney, those closers sometimes aren't even good relievers.
Jerry Dipoto is probably better served from an ROI standpoint to just try and turnover the middle relievers. Swapping out Hawkins, Williams and Isringhausen for younger arms with either a better recent track record or more upside should give the Angels the depth they need. Then again, reliever performance is so volatile that it is really just a roll of the dice, but one would hope Dipoto can load the dice a bit by using his experience as a player and the knowledge he gained from learning at the feet of bullpen building master Kevin Towers.
Even if JeDi's perceived expertise is overrated, going the middle relief route simply provides a better chance of hitting on at least one new arm becoming an asset since the Angels could likely sign three solid veteran middle relievers for the same amount that they could land Rafael Soriano for. Sure, Soriano is better than any of those hypothetical three players, but if he goes off the rails or his elbow blows up, the Angels are dead in the water with a thin bullpen and no money to find a replacement. Whereas if he signed something like Matt Lindstrom, Jon Rauch and J.P. Howell, he still has two other viable arms if one of those three goes wrong. Of course, he could always split the baby, sign Fujikawa and add a cheap veteran. It really all depends on just how risk averse he is and his own comments seems to strong suggest that he is very risk averse when it comes to building a bullpen.
In other words, Frieri will be just fine thank you. Let Jerry fix the middle relief first and if Ernie ends up becoming the problem that he isn't but some seem to think he is, he can deal with it when that day comes, if it ever does.
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