As Mariano Rivera showed on Sunday, even the best closers suffer a blown save from time to time. While the two-run home run Adam Jones hit off Rivera resulted in Rivera's second blown save, the Yankees' closer is also allowing more than a hit per inning for the first season since his rookie year in 1995. While Mariano isn't quite the Mariano of years past, he's still pretty good and the New York Yankees are still comfortable with their late-inning bullpen duo of David Robertson and Rivera.
Elsewhere, however, many bullpen issues exist. While most teams would love to add a starting pitcher or a better bat at the trade deadline, the easiest area to acquire help is in the pen. Don't be disappointed or surprised if that's the only move your favorite team makes. Buyer beware though: Relief pitchers are notoriously volatile and trades for relief help can have immediate impact ... or dire consequences for the future.
The 2011 St. Louis Cardinals were a positive trade deadline bullpen story. They traded Colby Rasmus to the Toronto Blue Jays and acquired starter Edwin Jackson plus relievers Octavio Dotel and Marc Rzepczynski. A bullpen that had been a problem area suddenly had depth. When Jason Motte took over as closer in September, the pen got hot and helped carry the Cards to a World Series title.
The 2003 Marlins were another success story -- of sorts. They had a shaky closer in Braden Looper, so they traded for Ugueth Urbina, who posted a 1.41 ERA with six saves in 38.1 innings. They also signed Chad Fox in early August and he sported a 2.14 ERA in 25.1 innings down the stretch. The Marlins did go on to win the World Series, but Urbina cost them young first base prospect Adrian Gonzalez. Flags forever, though, right? Even in Miami.
But bullpen trades can also backfire. The Texas Rangers acquired Koji Uehara from the Baltimore Orioles to help their 2011 playoff run. After allowing five home runs in 18 innings, and then three more in the first two rounds of the playoffs, Uehara didn't even make the Rangers' World Series roster. Oh, and the price to get him: Chris Davis. (OK, maybe not Larry Andersen for Jeff Bagwell, but imagine the Rangers with Davis in their lineup right now.) Perhaps the most notorious relief deadline trade -- the Andersen/Bagwell deal actually happened in August -- occurred in 1997, when the Seattle Mariners acquired closer Heathcliff Slocumb (0-5 with a 5.79 ERA at the time of the trade) from the Boston Red Sox for Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe. The Mariners did win the division but lost in the first round of the playoffs. Do-over, please?
(And sometimes minor deals can take on larger ramifications the following season, such as the St. Louis Cardinals acquiring Edward Mujica last year or the Blue Jays getting Steve Delabar for Eric Thames.)
OK, all that said, here are 10 bullpen issues worth looking at between now and the July 31 trade deadline.
1. Do the Orioles stick with Jim Johnson as closer?
Two days after blowing his sixth save, Johnson followed Rivera's ninth inning with a 1-2-3 bottom of the ninth to record his MLB-leading 30th save. Of course, that "MLB-leading" part is misleading, as Johnson has those six blown saves and seven losses to go with a 3.92 ERA. Buck Showalter is obviously sticking with Johnson for now, but after losing just one game heading into the ninth inning last year, the Orioles already have lost seven. Some have called for Tommy Hunter to get a chance, but he has allowed seven home runs and a .511 slugging percentage to left-handed batters. Looks like the O's will live and die with Johnson.
2. Do the Tigers trade for Jonathan Papelbon?
Papelbon is the one top-tier closer who may be out there, but is he worth the prospect price tag and contract? I don't think so. He hasn't exactly been lights-out this year with four blown saves in 22 chances, despite good numbers otherwise. I understand the desire to believe Papelbon could be a difference-maker, but this could be the classic case of overstating the value of a closer. You know what Papelbon's save percentage is this year when entering with a one-run lead? Five for nine. Does that sound like a guy who is really any better of a bet than Joaquin Benoit or Drew Smyly?
3. Who makes the mistake of trading for Kevin Gregg?
Gregg blew his second save on Sunday but is 15-for-17 with a 1.78 ERA. The Cubs will trade him somewhere but Gregg looks like the classic example of the volatile reliever who probably won't help all that much. Is the veteran really a different pitcher from the guy who had a 4.12 ERA the past three seasons while averaging over five walks per nine innings? Maybe, but do you want to be the team to take the chance?
4. Should the Pirates trade for a reliever?
The Pittsburgh bullpen has been outstanding with a 2.91 ERA, second in the majors only to Atlanta's 2.72 mark. The Pirates, however, have also pitched the second-most relief innings. As good as Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, Justin Wilson and company have been, the Pirates should look to add some depth here. They wouldn't have to give up a top prospect to acquire somebody like Seattle's Oliver Perez (1.39 ERA, 46 K's in 32.1 innings).
5. Who ends up as Arizona's closer?
The depth in their pen was supposed to be a strength for the Arizona Diamondbacks, but instead J.J. Putz and Heath Bell have both blown up closing games and David Hernandez, so dominant a year ago, has struggled as the eighth-inning guy (4.70 ERA, seven home runs). Josh Collmenter has been extremely valuable as a long man (4-1, 2.42 ERA). Fine, use him as a -- get this! -- multi-inning closer. Remember them?
6. Which contending team should be most worried about its bullpen?
Well, the Los Angeles Dodgers did just actually trade for Carlos Marmol (although they sent him to the minors). I'd be a little worried about the Indians. The pen is 16-8 so far but with a 4.22 ERA that ranks 26th in the majors and has especially struggled against left-handed hitters (.781 OPS allowed). Perez would be a good fit here or maybe Matt Thornton of the Chicago White Sox.
7. Who is the best reliever who may be available?
Glen Perkins just made his first All-Star team and deservedly so with a 1.93 ERA and .159 average allowed. Perkins is signed to a very team-friendly deal through 2016 ($3.75 million in 2014 and 2015 with a $4.5 million team option in 2016), so he won't come cheap. I doubt the Twins trade him, but if they do, he's the guy I'd want if you're looking for a closer.
8. Which contending teams feel best about their bullpens?
I'd say the Cardinals and Rangers. The Rangers just got Joakim Soria back to an already deep pen and the Cardinals have the great 1-2 duo of Trevor Rosenthal and Mujica, who have combined for 94 strikeouts and 11 walks in 79.1 innings, and the third-best overall bullpen ERA in the majors.
9. What about the Red Sox?
If the Tigers have bullpen issues, then don't the Red Sox? They have a higher ERA, higher batting average and higher slugging percentage allowed than the Tigers. Buster Olney mentioned the possibility of Papelbon going back to Boston during the Sunday night game, although the price is extremely high right now. What do you think, Red Sox Nation?
10. Does Rivera pitch one more time in the postseason?
I'm going with no. But it won't be his fault the Yankees miss the playoffs for just the second time in his 19-year career.