Frank Francisco of the Toronto Blue Jays celebrates 7-3 win against the Tampa Bay Rays during MLB action at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)
In 2010, the Arizona Diamondbacks had the second-worst bullpen in the National League. They registered a league-worst 48 holds, allowed 5.16 runs per nine innings, and some of them had ERAs of 5.20, 5.35 and 8.29 in not-insignificant numbers of innings, to go along with 24 blown saves. This poor performance was a big reason why the D'backs lost 97 games and finished last in the NL West in 2010.
So Kirk Gibson, Kevin Towers & Co. set about improving this obvious team flaw in the 2010-11 offseason. They succeeded, perhaps beyond what they might have imagined: Joe Paterson was snatched from the Giants in the Rule 5 draft and became a solid situational lefty and J.J. Putz became one of the league's best closers. The D'backs pen blew only 13 saves in 2011, second-best in the NL, and cut their runs-allowed average by more than a run, to 4.09. Sure, starting pitchers like Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson had fine seasons, but the pen locked things down.
Not coincidentally -- since their runs-scored total didn't change much (713 in 2010, 731 in 2011) -- pitching was viewed as the key factor in Arizona's improvement by 29 wins, giving them the NL West title in 2011.
This lesson has not been lost; at least one team has identified bullpen repair as something that could vault them into contention in 2012, or at least they hope so: the New York Mets. The 2011 Mets bullpen blew 24 saves, near the top of the NL list, and allowed the fourth-most runs per game. Further, their 32% inherited runners scoring rate was second-worst in the league. After the Mets essentially closed the door on 2011 by sending K-Rod to the Brewers, Mets pitchers registered just 18 saves the rest of the way, seven of them by the ancient Jason Isringhausen.
Tuesday, the Mets made a flurry of moves intended to solidify their pen for 2012. They signed Frank Francisco to a two-year, $12 million contract to be their closer, inked itinerant setup man Jon Rauch at a reasonable $3.5 million for one year, and swapped outfielders with the Giants (Angel Pagan for Andres Torres) while picking up Ramon Ramirez, a useful middle reliever, in the deal.
It's very fair to wonder whether Torres, while a defensive upgrade over Pagan, will hit enough to stay in the Mets' everyday lineup. We're talking about a guy with a career on-base percentage of .318 and a .403 slugging percentage.
Pagan's comparable numbers of .331 and .418, respectively, are better, but are they that much better? Pagan had a down offensive season in 2011; so did Torres. The teams are obviously hoping that the change of scenery will help both players.
As should the change of bullpen. The Mets, as Schoenfield wrote, have improved their pen "without blowing K-Rod money", and the Diamondbacks' improvement from 2010 to 2011 provides evidence that you can fix a lot of issues by doing that, even if your offense doesn't change much.
The Mets don't have as big a hole to climb out of as Arizona did; they won 12 more games in 2011 than the D'backs did in 2010. On the other hand, they are in a tougher division. The Diamondbacks, thanks in part to the bullpen improvements they made, exceeded expectations; perhaps the Mets can do the same, even if they miss the offensive contributions of the departed Jose Reyes.