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Rebuilding the bullpen

I was talking a few days ago to a scout who was assigned by his major league team to spend five days watching the Nationals. By the time we got to talking, this scout had watched four of those designated games, and he'd already concluded that the bullpen was this team's primary weakness.

"That has to be upgraded tremendously," he said. "Look at it like this: How many guys on that staff do I want pitching late in a game with a lead? I have a hard time identifying that."

He liked Joel Hanrahan.

And after that... nothing.

It just so happened that today, a few casual discussions with Manny Acta and Jim Bowden veered toward the bullpen. Clearly, based on what I heard from those two, the Nats have made a concerted commitment of late to rebuild their 'pen; they agree the Nats need to find some new, reliable arms. Especially with Chad Cordero injured, Jon Rauch and Luis Ayala traded. (Those three were the bullpen core at year's beginning.) That's why you're seeing guys like Garrett Mock and Marco Estrada now getting a look. The team isn't just thinking of those guys are starters for the rest of this year. Ideally, it wants to know if either can make a career as a reliever.

Later this season, Bowden hinted, a few other minor league starters will also be added to the bullpen.

All to recreate the one element of this team that, until 2008, had been the most constant strength.

"We're in a situation where we have to completely rebuild a bullpen from scratch, and that's what we're doing," Bowden said. "We'll start with Hanrahan on the back end, but with Estrada and Mock and there will be a couple more who come up here and do the same thing. So there are going to be growing pains with that. There's an adjustment period...

"We started with Cordero, Ayala, Rauch and Rivera, and as you know, those four are as solid as it comes. And now, the other three are gone by injury or trade."

One surprise player (and non-starter) who could be added to the bullpen come September? Mike Hinckley. Around 2003/2004, some regarded Hinckley as this organization's top prospect. But since then, he's fallen into an abyss; his velocity dropped, and his ERA, even in Potomac in 2006, soared to 5.52. But in 16 games with Class AAA Columbus this year, Hinckley has a 2.95 ERA. And his velocity is back.

"Since we've been here the last four years, he had no velocity, never got it to 90," Bowden said. "And now he's consistently back there. So it's a funny game."

By Chico Harlan  |  August 24, 2008; 2:09 PM ET
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That scout don't like me? I don't like him either.

Posted by: saul rivera | August 24, 2008 2:56 PM | Report abuse

"What if....Sori was in our 7 hole. He made a pretty crappy team damned decent in '06. Oh well, wish in one hand...."

(a) I don't bad 7th. I lead off. No exceptions.

(b) That pretty crappy team had a better record the year before AND the year after I was there. Boy, I really helped, didn't I?

Posted by: alfonso soriano | August 24, 2008 3:04 PM | Report abuse

I take rare solace from this in a very strange way. Everybody thought the bullpen was the team's strength going into the year. Regardless of what he had been before, Ayala stunk this year, and of course Cordero gave us nothing.

We shouldn't assume that we know the team will simply stink next year. Perhaps the team will have fewer than normal injuries, or more players will rebound like it seems maybe Hinckley has.

Humor me. I haven't seen a pinpoint of light for the Nats since they screwed up the Crow opportunity.

Posted by: Positively Half St. | August 24, 2008 3:20 PM | Report abuse

The Crow Opportunity ... starring Matt Damon. With Ben Affleck in leather pants (again, but not red ones this time).

Posted by: I got yer humor right here | August 24, 2008 3:43 PM | Report abuse

a reposting two-for-one:
Willie Harris grants wishes with one hand.

(I assume you mean left field, and not hitting 7th.)

What if....Sori was in our 7 hole. He made a pretty crappy team damned decent in '06. Oh well, wish in one hand....

Posted by: 6th and D | August 24, 2008 2:00 PM

Posted by: Sec. 3 MC | August 24, 2008 3:37 PM

Wow, that's gotta be, like, the easiest job in the world! Everybody is good, and they're all retired, anyway, so you won't waste picks.

Rizzo's dad is a HOF scout for the Cubs.
Posted by: Andrew Stebbins | August 24, 2008 1:50 PM

Posted by: E. Litella, Jr. | August 24, 2008 3:39 PM

Posted by: because it was such a quick newpost | August 24, 2008 3:44 PM | Report abuse

Sure, he's a major league scout, and I'm ... not. But still, he's the one who has to watch the Nationals--that can't be the plum assignment (no offense, Chico). And speaking of offense, since holding a lead is largely an academic concern with their hitting, I wonder where he sees the Nats' offense, which gets out there every other half-inning, as less of a problem than the bullpen, which only pitches four to six innings a game.

I was talking a few days ago to a scout who was assigned by his major league team to spend five days watching the Nationals. By the time we got to talking, this scout had watched four of those designated games, and he'd already concluded that the bullpen was this team's primary weakness.

"That has to be upgraded tremendously," he said. "Look at it like this: How many guys on that staff do I want pitching late in a game with a lead? I have a hard time identifying that."

Posted by: CE | August 24, 2008 3:53 PM | Report abuse

Funny, isn't it, that we have been trading away our bullpen for about the last two seasons? Now its degraded to the point that we have a bunch of guys whose ERA's point to giving up a run every two innings. So with our starters averaging about 5 innings you have to figure the bullpen to add two more runs in a game--far more than our offense can keep up with.

Bergmann has every right to be disgusted with Manny taking him out in a game in which he was still making good pitches so that Shell can get the inherited runner home in a jiffy. Bye-bye "quality start".

Posted by: Dale | August 24, 2008 4:41 PM | Report abuse

I know it doesn't pay to get upset about losing now- we need to "earn" and sign (#&%$&@) the first pick of the draft next year.

Still, it is difficult to watch when Guzman earns a walk to drive in a run, and the umpire calls him out on a pitch that was not remotely near the strike zone. When you are hideously bad, the calls will go against you whenever possible.

Oh, and do fire Bowden, please.

Posted by: Positively Half St. | August 24, 2008 4:48 PM | Report abuse

To say the bullpen is this team's chief weakness is like saying a leaky faucet was the chief weakness on the Titanic.

Posted by: ohplease | August 24, 2008 4:57 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps especially so when Angel Hernandez is involved...

"When you are hideously bad, the calls will go against you whenever possible."

Posted by: natsfan1a | August 24, 2008 5:00 PM | Report abuse

The only word Angel Hernandez knows that begins with b-a-l is balk.

Posted by: just sayin' | August 24, 2008 5:11 PM | Report abuse

Hey, I hear that Zimmerman played both DB and TE today. Sign him up!

Oh, wait. That's Designated Bonifacio (4K) and Throwing Error? Never mind.

Posted by: zorn calling | August 24, 2008 5:18 PM | Report abuse

"We're in a situation where we have to completely rebuild a bullpen from scratch ..."

To be honest, they're in a situation where they have to rebuild pretty much everything from scratch. The ballpark is substantially complete (except for the parts that aren't), the front office is substantially complete (likewise), the scouting is substantially complete (although some parts in the DR will have to be replaced soon). Pretty soon, they should be able to get around to the actual players. Then maybe they can rebuild a little of that fan base.
Of course, you can't do any of that without the scratch.

Posted by: NR LAC (but I'm getting there) | August 24, 2008 5:45 PM | Report abuse

Sabermaticians will tell you the bullpen is the most fickle part of a team because the relievers don't log enough innings to be statistically relevant. So from year to year predicting the results of a bullpen is hard to do.

Posted by: Tom | August 24, 2008 5:50 PM | Report abuse

Who the hell did THIS guy piss off to be sent to watch the Nats for five games?
I was talking a few days ago to a scout who was assigned by his major league team to spend five days watching the Nationals.

Posted by: TimDz | August 24, 2008 6:08 PM | Report abuse

What team is this scout looking at? The bullpen has problems - plenty of teams have that situation and it's very fluid from year to year. The real problem is the whole makeup of this team, particularly on offense. There are no real core players to build around with the exceptions of Guzman and Zimmerman (although Zimm is going to have to prove himself soon). The rest is just a slapdash of mediocre, over the hill, never-was, and way too raw talent that has produced the mess this team is in. How does that scout feel about that?

Posted by: Not Much | August 24, 2008 6:09 PM | Report abuse

Cheer up, buckos. All bullpens suck, some just less than others. But, ask the Mets, Red Sox, Yanks,.... omg they're all gonna die. (Yep, Ayala pitched the 9th for the Mets before their 'pen blew it in extras). That guy yesterday? The Cubs called him "Dumpster" last year. Wanted a public execution or mass hara kiri would ensue. The Expos/Nats 'pen was a strength, but it wasn't going to continue. Nothing ever does. "We shoulda traded Cordero!" "We shoulda kept Rauch!" "Why are our ex-players better than they were for us?!?" It's what happens in baseball... And it only appears to happen only to us from the perspective of the one fishbowl. But it happens in the other 29 fishbowls, too.

Tell the scout, chomping the cigar in the sweaty undershirt, to bite me. Here's a hint; these are the same guys that pick the can't miss prospects to draft, be they Crow, Strasburg, whoever. And their success rate is about the same as our Face of the Franchise was today... Nothing is ever guaranteed, anything can happen, and everything will change.

Posted by: cat daddy | August 24, 2008 6:53 PM | Report abuse

Hey, Chico - When Barry sees the tape of that 47-3 Redskins stinker, which emits a stench that lasts at least 7 days and likely during the time of year when we are losing our light, well, he'll want to trade jobs - right away. Don't do it, Chico! You'll cover more victories with the Nats!

Posted by: flynnie | August 24, 2008 8:34 PM | Report abuse

Methinks Acta gets a free ride from everyone. The season is in the toilet and not just from the bullpen. Check the logs and see how many games have been blown after late inning pitching changes for no reason.
Starter goes 6 or 7 and gets pulled. Reliever comes in next inning and blows away 3 hitters. Then what? Acta takes him out for another the next inning. It's like he is searching to find someone who is not on that day. If that pitcher does well he sends someone else in for the 9th.
....Go figure....

Posted by: Jerry | August 24, 2008 9:20 PM | Report abuse

Jerry, the current thinking is pitchers do better with having roles. They can expect to pitch a certain inning or in a certain order. Pitch one inning and they can pitch again the next day; pitch two and they cannot. I tend to think they lose their edge or adrenaline when going back out.

Posted by: cat daddy | August 24, 2008 10:13 PM | Report abuse

Half St. and natsfan1a, I swear Flores needs to pull back his mitt and let Angel get drilled in the neck protector next time he's behind the plate.

Ladson: "The replay showed that the ball was inside.

"It was way inside," Acta said... I saw the video after the game and it wasn't even close."

Home-plate umpire Angel Hernandez was not available for comment after the game."

Posted by: cat daddy | August 24, 2008 10:17 PM | Report abuse

Are umpires up for review? If an umpire consistently shows bias during the course of a season don't you think that the head of the umpires would get involved or is it a case of protecting their own? Does a manager have any recourse?

Posted by: Dale | August 24, 2008 10:51 PM | Report abuse

Dale, I think nothing really happens no matter what the complaint about an umpire. One files a protest and then nothing. Angel Hernandez is notorious for being a bad ump and having it in for certain players.

Posted by: cat daddy | August 24, 2008 11:50 PM | Report abuse

“Bowden was made aware before the draft, prior to picking Aaron, that it would take a Major League contract and premium dollars to sign Aaron,” said Hendricks via e-mail. “He was told to please not pick Aaron when [Bowden] said he would pay $2.1 million.”

In Bowden’s account, the Nationals were only told Crow wanted a “Major League contract and an out-of-the-box deal.” This is definitely a large discrepancy in the two accounts.

“What was there to talk about after hearing the same old rhetoric about ‘the system’?” defended Hendricks. “What we needed was an offer in line with what we expected. Slot deals are not relevant to us and we do not have to justify ourselves to anyone but Aaron Crow and his family.”

As far as the delay in negotiations until four days before the deadline, a lot can happen in a negotiation in four days. According to Hendricks there was contact between the two sides prior to August 12 but not about money.

“The Nationals asked for Aaron to come into D.C. for a recruiting trip,” said Hendricks when asked about the Major League contract issue and team’s need for a physical. “The time was not convenient to our side.” There was an attempt on the part of Crow and Hendricks to make the recruiting trip happen, though. “We proposed a different date which did not work for them. But all of that is beside the point. A recruiting trip is not necessary.”

Of the demand for a physical by the club to get a Major League contract done, Hendricks said, “It is our policy to not give a physical without an agreement in place.” It is doubtful the Nationals are unfamiliar with the business practices of Hendricks. This is especially true for Bowden who was general manager of the Reds when they drafted Austin Kearns, another Hendricks client.

In a July 29, 1998 Cincinnati Enquirer article, it was reported Hendricks and Bowden failed to make headway during the Kearns negotiation, also. It took Reds’ Managing Executive John Allen stepping in to progress that deal along.

In the end, the deal never happened. By the end of the negotiations, Crow’s representatives dropped their asking price to $4 million. From Hendricks point of view, it was an offer between two other deadline deals done earlier that day. The seventh pick, Yonder Alonso, received a $4.55-million signing bonus and the 11th pick, Justin Smoak, received a $3.5-million signing bonus. In their eyes, this is where the deal needed to be. They weren’t interested in what the eighth and 10th selections signed for because those were players willing to accept close to the slotted values arbitrarily designated by Major League Baseball.

Crow was even willing to accept an offer without the Major League contract. According to Team President Stan Kasten, the last offer the team received from Hendricks was a $4-million signing bonus and a Minor League contract. He also confirmed that the club’s last offer was $3.3 million not the $3.5 million that Bowden mentioned in his interviews.

“I think the most accurate thing to say is that at the deadline we offered $3.3 [million] and they were unwilling to accept less than $4 million,” said Kasten. “In the brief period of time while paperwork and e-mails were being cleared up and finalized, there was an indication we could try to get to $3.5. They remained unwilling to go below $4.” (Coincidentally, Kasten chose to discuss the matter with me via e-mail not by telephone.)

When we talk about baseball, there is a penchant for us to discuss it in terms of it being a game. It’s hard to remember that the game we played as a kid is a multi-million dollar business. The Nationals are statistically the worst team in baseball in 2008. Last year, they were 16 games below .500 but they also had the highest operating income of any team in baseball, proof the team is equipped with shrewd business minds. On the flip side, the Hendricks are no slouches when it comes to negotiations. Roger Clemens, a Hendricks client, was the highest paid pitcher six times and highest paid player four times in his career. Peter Gammons referred to the agents as “one of the most powerful and respected brokers.” It’s hard to imagine either side did anything out of line in these negotiations. They just didn’t get a deal done.

Posted by: | August 25, 2008 3:45 AM | Report abuse

Cat Daddy,
That may be the thinking but it doesn't seem to be working very well.
My feeling is that the pitcher makes big bucks to pitch and the manager makes big bucks to win. They are doinng neither. I don't take a pitcher out if he is cruising.

Posted by: Jerry Soriano | August 25, 2008 6:46 AM | Report abuse

"This is especially true for Bowden who was general manager of the Reds when they drafted Austin Kearns, another Hendricks client."

This alone is enough to make me glad Crow didn't sign here.

Posted by: fool me once, shame on me. fool me twice, shame on you! | August 25, 2008 7:34 AM | Report abuse

Takeaway: the whole "negotiation" was a farce.

“He was told to please not pick Aaron when [Bowden] said he would pay $2.1 million.”

Posted by: natsfan1a | August 25, 2008 7:52 AM | Report abuse

In that Crow never wanted to be a Nat.

Posted by: natsfan1a | August 25, 2008 7:53 AM | Report abuse

The problem with the decimation of the bullpen is the question of what the Nats got in return. OK -- we got Bonifacio. Anything else of value? I'm not saying that Ayala was tradeable, given the numbers he put up for the Nats. But, when you see how he's pitched for the Mets, ya gotta wonder about what's happening in the Nationals' organization...

Posted by: Fisch Fry | August 25, 2008 8:46 AM | Report abuse

"ya gotta wonder about what's happening in the Nationals' organization..."

I've read more and more comments like this, and it's interesting to think back a year ago when no one would have been suggesting (not that I can remember, anyway) that Acta was part of the Nats huge problems. Au contraire.

Now it does seem as though the keen baseball minds who comment here have identified deeper problems than were evident a year ago. If they are right, the way out of the basement could be a long, hard slog. Or the climb out of the cellar may never happen and the Nats will become the perennial cellar-dwellers so beloved of long-time DC baseball afficionados.

Certainly there is no visible evidence the Nats are capable of being anything but losers in the next few years.

Posted by: JohnR(VA) | August 25, 2008 9:15 AM | Report abuse

Now it does seem as though the keen baseball minds who comment here

Posted by: say what now? | August 25, 2008 9:26 AM | Report abuse

Since this seems to be a good "bullpen" thread, I'll post this here rather than on the new thread.

The idea of trading away relievers over the past year was based on trading from strength. The belief (I will not use The Plan) was that Cordero at his peak value and Rauch this year could get back some quality players who could contribute longer and more predictably than this year's model of a hot reliever. I think people also saw an organization stocked a bit with minor league arms and figured some would be converted to relievers (Brian will occasionally pipe in here on questions about conversion candidates).

What happened is that Cordero was not moved, the return on Rauch was far less than anyone would have expected, Ayala ended up destroying his trade value after a pretty good post-surgery year (2007). Rivera performed at the same level, and Hanrahan is basically doing what people predicted Schroder could do (around K an inning with decent peripherals). So the bullpen is down 3 assets with little in return.

We'll never know how seriously they pursued other trade options for Rauch or Cordero. We know they had an obsession with Boni for years, and pulled the trigger when AZ finally said yes. If the Boston papers are to be believed, they were reportedly asked for an "incredible" (as in "not to be believed") amount for Rauch from other contenders. Perhaps to be charitable they were so close to resigning Guz and getting Boni they never realistically entertained other offers.

The curious part of the AG deal was moving a well-regarded bullpen asset when the team has a clear bullpen depth issue. By itself, the deal was not so bad because AG is a major league asset in the field and could be a #8 hitting regular in a team with other hitting assets. I probably like him more than the other two non-hitting middle infielders they picked up, and more than the non-hitting guys in the organization like Desmond. But cornering the market on this type of asset seems to demonstrate - what is the phrase - a lack of a plan.

Posted by: PTBNL | August 25, 2008 9:58 AM | Report abuse

PTBNL, good post. The injuries, the big picture, and this season really affected the timing of the trades. Rauch is 30, and probably not going to be around or effective in the long range plans. I expected Cordero to be our Mariano Rivera, but he was showing signs of not being that, and they didn't trade him when his return would be high. It wouldn't have pleased the fans then, just as the Rauch decision doesn't now. It's a damned if you do, or damned if you don't gamble every time. Will the MI guys turn out to be stars? Will Rauch, Ayala, and Cordero keep it going for other teams? Only time gets to make that determination.
The Nats are pitcher rich and MI poor in the minors. Now it's a bit more balanced, despite the sacrifices in the present.

Posted by: cat daddy | August 25, 2008 1:31 PM | Report abuse

Cat Daddy - thanks. I never was quite so high on Chad last year, and frankly thought a Chad for WMP at the start of 2007 would have made sense. That led me to be impressed when JimBo waited out Theo until he could ge WMP for Fruto (Carter).

Can you think of recent closer deadline trades? Carlos Lee for F. Cordero and Kevin Mench. Wickman for a good 21 year old low A catching prospect (Max Ramirez)who has done well in AAA. Both I think were in 2006. I'd imagine Chad last year could have gotten us someone closer to the majors due to his age.

I think there might have been some flak if the player back wasn't an instant major leaguer, but I think a Chad trade would have been seen as a deal from strength and received well, especially because it would have meant we still had Rauch, last year's Ayala, Rivera, and Schroder.

I still have a problem with thinking he was serious if he asked for Lowire plus Boston's top high minors starting pithcing prospect, Michael Bowden. I am still not sure Rauch and Guzman would have gotten Theo to part with Lowrie, but if JimBo and Rizzo seriously thought they did better with the Boni deal and resigning Guzman, then they are destined to go through a cycle where trading with the Nats is looked on like Tampa Bay used to be.

Posted by: PTBNL | August 25, 2008 5:08 PM | Report abuse

I recall a huge amount of discussion about Chad; the handful of blown saves, usually due to giving up homers, and homers even in the saves he got. "Cardiac" Cordero, right? Still, I believe they felt he was here long term, although I've always been concerned about overuse leading to injury with all the relievers having to throw 5 or 6 innings a night. Rauch may have that in his future. Chad's was this year.
Hard to tell about Theo, but I think Lowrie showed his value too early this year to be traded, due to Lugo and Lowell being old and now being hurt.

A story on CBS is about Francisco Rodriguez. He's about to break the saves record, is going to be a FA at 26 years old, and scouts are already worried he's going downhill with 3-4 mph off his fastball. The Angels may not even re-sign him and he's about to take them to the WS.
Thigpen at 27 faded out after his record year, so they may be right in their evaluation.

So, maybe it's always wise to trade your good guys for the future, unless you're contending for the playoffs. And then you trade them before you have to pay them.
Tough business...

Posted by: cat daddy | August 25, 2008 11:08 PM | Report abuse

We'll just use him lefty lefty? He seems awfully skinny to me at 6'3", 170. I'm going to recommend to Manny that we reweigh him.

estoy firmado! Segue to Segway! Go away FBI!

Your General Manager and YMOS James Gordon Bowden III

Posted by: Jim B | August 26, 2008 12:32 PM | Report abuse

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