Towers wants more from D-backs' bullpen
What was supposed to be a strength for Arizona has been a weakness
SAN DIEGO -- There may come a time when D-backs general manager Kevin Towers becomes sick and tired watching the work of his bullpen, but he's not there yet.
Suffice to say, Towers isn't enamored that the relief staff he created has blown a Major League-high 10 saves in its first 18 opportunities. When will he have seen enough?
"You just don't know," Towers said before his club dropped its fourth game in row on Friday night, this time 7-6 to the Padres. "That's the problem. You can't put a timeframe on that."
One thing is certain, though: Cut that blown saves figure in half and the D-backs would have gone into the game at Petco Park with a 20-8 record and a three-game lead over the Rockies in the National League West.
There's no making up those games, and one month into the season it isn't time to panic. D-backs manager Kirk Gibson said he's going to try to space 36-year-old closer J.J. Putz a little more, hoping to improve his timing and velocity. Putz has saved five and blown four.
"We've seen in the past, that one year we put him on the disabled list and J.J. came back and had three or four pretty good months for us," Towers said. "All those guys just have to be very honest with Gibby and [pitching coach] Charlie [Nagy] about where they're at. They ask them every day how they're feeling."
Towers then used gestures to describe their conditions. "If you're feeling this," Towers said offering a thumb down, "don't give him this," Towers added using a thumb up. "That way he can back a guy off for a day or be a little more cautious."
The problem is, the alternatives -- David Hernandez and Heath Bell -- haven't been very consistent, either. Hernandez, once a reliable setup man and sometime closer, has just gone through his worst two-week period since Towers acquired him from the Orioles for Mark Reynolds prior to the 2011 season.
In his last five appearances, four of them against the defending World Series champion Giants, Hernandez has allowed six runs on eight hits in 5 2/3 innings, blowing three saves in the process.
If rest is the question, that didn't seem to be the answer on Friday night. Gibson used Josh Collmenter for the first time in eight days and Brad Ziegler for the first time since Monday. It wasn't a blown save, but the Padres added on three runs against the pair, and it cost Arizona when Gerardo Parra hit a three-run homer in the ninth.
When Towers, a former pitcher, was the general manager in San Diego from 1996-2009, he developed the reputation of a man who could build a 'pen. To be sure, for 13 of those years he had the luxury of constructing it behind Trevor Hoffman, one of the all-time great closers who had 601 saves overall, 552 for the Padres.
Upon signing a contract to run the D-backs near the end of the 2010 season, Towers vowed to rebuild what had become a moribund Arizona bullpen. That he has done. His seven current relievers cost $23.3 million of the club's current $86.3 million player payroll.
Bell and catcher Miguel Montero are the highest paid players on the team at $10 million each, although the Marlins sent along enough money to pay almost half of Bell's contract when they traded the right-hander to the D-backs this past offseason. Putz, whom Towers signed as a free agent over the fading-and-now-retired Hoffman prior to the 2011 season, was re-signed and extended this past winter and is earning $6.5 million.
In Bell, that's a lot of money for a quasi setup man and insurance policy against injury or poor performance. And for the club, the amount of money spent on the 'pen may seem disproportionate to the rest of the team, especially when what was supposed to be a strength has suddenly emerged as a weakness.
"Early in the season with that kind of workload those guys have had, it took its toll on us," Towers said. "I still have plenty of faith. Just looking at these guys, historically they've all been good. I think physically and mentally they've just been drained. It's like being held under water and then coming back up and getting a quick breath again. Maybe they just need about five or 10 minutes above water that gives them a chance to recuperate."
The last two weeks, D-backs relievers haven't had 30 seconds above water to catch their collective breath. During six games against the Giants, Hernandez and Putz blew five of them. Going into the game at San Francisco on April 22, Brandon Belt was a .183 hitter and fastened to the bench. He pinch-hit in the ninth and hit a walk-off single against Tony Sipp. The next night, Belt hit a game-tying ninth-inning homer off Putz.
For the series this week at Chase Field, Belt started at first base, but was relegated by manager Bruce Bochy to the eighth spot in the lineup. On Monday night, Belt grounded a game-winning two-run single up the middle off Ziegler in the eighth inning, and on Wednesday, he blasted the decisive three-run homer off Hernandez. Pablo Sandoval hit the game-deciding two-run shot off Putz on Tuesday night.
By the time the ninth inning on Tuesday rolled around, Putz looked fidgety and tentative. He was consistently behind on the count and was paying too much attention to Angel Pagan on second when Sandoval crushed the home run. His confidence looked shot. No wonder.
"They're humans. When you're not pitching the ball well, your confidence isn't up here," Towers said, gesturing again, this time toward the top of his forehead. "You need a couple of good outings to get that confidence back."
Towers reiterated that he still has all the confidence in the world in his assembled relievers. There's no timetable at this point for how long that will last.
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow@boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.