Eight Man (Bullpen) Out

On July 29, the Royals traded Scott Podsednik to the Dodgers.  To fill his spot on the active roster, relief pitcher Greg Holland was called up from Omaha, leaving the Royals with twelve position players as the eight man bullpen reared its head again (you’ll remember, back in April, when the bullpen was blowing up more frequently than one of the mythbusters, Trey Hillman went with an extra reliever to sort through the carnage).

It wasn’t a huge issue at the time since Robinson Tejeda was dealing with some health issues, so the extra arm in the ‘pen helped fill that gap while he the Royals decided if he needed a DL stint to deal with it.  It turned out that Tejeda needed time off, so he hit the disabled list with biceps tendinitis and Kila Ka’aihue took his place on the roster and order was restored.  But when Jose Guillen was designated for assignment on Thursday, the Royals didn’t promote a hitter from Omaha to replace him, rather, they sent Philip Humber to Kansas City, another reliever.  It’s like a second sequel to a bad horror movie, only this eight man bullpen creates more problems than it solves and needs to go.

First, I have to acknowledge that pitchers get injured more often and for longer periods of time than hitters generally. The human arm isn’t meant to withstand the thousands of pitches that a major league pitcher will put it through in a season and injuries are inevitable at some point. To accommodate that fact, over the years, pitching staffs have grown to add a fifth starter and gain an additional day of rest for the others. Bullpens have become more specialized, which requires more pitchers for differing roles, and because of that, they’ll usually pitch less per appearance, which means more pitchers are necessary. Baseball has settled into a pretty standard seven man bullpen.

Seven seems to be the right number for the way the game is played. For one, you have those extra arms ready if you need them. If someone doesn’t have it that night, a manager has the luxury of more options. If it’s a prolonged stretch of futility, though, (as it was in April) why add an arm when you can just replace it?

See, because when you add a reliever to your staff, you take it away from your bench, and that can be difficult to work around when you only have a few players who can play more than one position. This problem almost came into play over the past two games.

On Sunday, the Royals trailed the Mariners 3-1 going into the top of the ninth. After Mitch Maier got out, Alex Gordon pinch hit for Willie Bloomquist and homered to make it 3-2. Chris Getz followed with a lineout to third and Gregor Blanco went to bat while Kila Ka’aihue came out of the dugout, seemingly to pinch hit for Jason Kendall. Blanco grounded out to end the inning and the game, but suppose he hadn’t.

What if Blanco reaches base and Ka’aihue officially enters the game as a pinch-hitter? And let’s say he hits a double and Blanco scores to tie it up. Or homers to take the lead. In either case, the Royals have to go to the bottom of the ninth, but here’s the problem – Brayan Pena was DHing on Sunday and the Royals have no other backup catcher. So what would they have done on defense? Remember, Yuniesky Betancourt was still with his family in Florida celebrating the birth of his first-born, so the Royals were operating with an eight man bullpen, but a two man bench.

Now, Mitch Maier was drafted as a catcher before being converted to third base and finally outfield, but he’s been the emergency catcher the past two seasons (though never called into duty in that capacity). So he could catch, but then you have a hole in left field – and Kila Ka’aihue may be able to cure lepers in Omaha, but he can’t play left field in Safeco Field. Billy Butler debuted in Kansas City as a left fielder, but there’s a reason he’s at first base now and may be a lifetime DH. So you’re stuck with the only remaining option that doesn’t place half your team in positions they haven’t played in years – surrender the DH and put Pena behind the plate. Sure it’s a moot point now, since the Royals lost, but had the game gone to extra innings, the already struggling Royals offense would have had a relief pitcher batting in front of Billy Butler.

(I suppose you could have tried something really crazy like Brian Bannisterwho’s being skipped in the rotation already anyway – at third base and let him hit since he has a reputation of being a decent hitting pitcher, and moved Wilson Betemit to the outfield.)

Then last night, as the Royals scratched their way back into it, they had the tying runs on base and nobody out against left hander Brian Fuentes after Willie Bloomquist‘s pinch hit single in Mitch Maier‘s lineup spot. I won’t touch on the awful sacrifice bunt (other than to say it’s awful), but with runners on second and third and one out, Yost pinch hit Mike Aviles for Chris Getz to get a right handed bat up against the Angels closer. Aviles flew out to center, so with two outs, Brayan Pena pinch hit for Gregor Blanco and flew out to right to end the game. But what if he singles in two runs and ties it up?

In the bottom of the ninth, Yost would have emptied his bench and pulled his rangy centerfielder. Assume Aviles plays second for Getz, and Bloomquist moves into centerfield. Then you’re left with no option but to put Pena somewhere. He played three innings at third base for the Braves in 2006 and nine games in the outfield in 2009 for Omaha. So it’s not a stretch to put him somewhere besides catcher, but it’s not a comfortable move to make. If he plays third, Betemit moves to the outfield, which puts him mostly out of position, too, so rather than put two players out of line, Pena plays left and Alex Gordon moves over to right.

Then again, it’s a moot point because, again, the Royals didn’t tie the score.

But these decisions matter. If the Royals call up Greg Holland to get a look at him against major league hitters, that’s great. He’s been an above average pitcher in Triple A, and had fantastic July for Omaha. Except he’s made one appearance since coming up on July 29. Humber came up last Thursday and we’ve yet to see him on the mound. So it seems they have all these relievers just to…have them. With eight men in the bullpen, there are too many options, and you limit the amount of work some young pitchers need while also limiting the ability to see if Greg Holland or any other newly-arrived reliever can get batters out day to day out of the bullpen. One appearance a week isn’t going to accomplish anything.

When you combine that issue with the problems it creates for the lineup and your defense, it just doesn’t make sense, in the short-term or the long-term.

Sure, right now Brian Bannister is being held back, so the Royals needed Humber to take some innings while Bryan Bullington covers Bannister’s spot in the rotation. The Royals are operating one arm short out there, but Bannister’s anticipated return to the rotation is August 15, and would anybody be surprised if they kept 13 pitchers after that? They can’t get by with six relievers while another position player comes up to give the bench some flexibility?

I just don’t get it.

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Tags: AL Central Baseball Brian Bannister Greg Holland Jose Guillen Kansas City Royals KC MLB Ned Yost Philip Humber Royals Scott Podsednik

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