Joe Girardi drew deserved praise last year for some deft bullpen management that resulted in the unexpected development of late-inning arms. That is something Joe Torre was rarely able to accomplish after doing it with Mariano Rivera.
But Girardi this year is mystifying me. The past two games days have been particularly vexing. Why risk injury by putting your most valuable early-season hitter, Nick Swisher, on the mound yesterday? And what the heck was going on Sunday in Kansas City, a game Girardi just gave away with some really bizarre end-game moves?
The Swisher-to-the-mound gambit was just begging for an elbow injury, a la Jose Canseco in 1993. I understand Girardi wanted to rest his 'pen. But put a relative scrub out there instead like Ramiro Pena, not a guy with a bat you will likely continue to badly need.
But that at least that set of circumstances is unlikely to be repeated. Not so of Sunday afternoon at Kauffman Stadium.
What is Girardi's bullpen pecking order? I thought this was sorted out in 2008. Get to the seventh or eighth inning with your starters (ultimately, if not in April) and then have Edwar Ramirez and Damaso Marte be the bridge to Rivera. Also keep the options open for the occasional four-out save when Rivera is appropriately rested, given how efficiently he tends to work.
So what was Phil Coke doing out there with the game on the line with four outs left on Sunday and Rivera's having pitched two innings the first week and not since Friday?
I like Coke as a long/swing man, but not so much in these high-leverage situations. I like Ramirez at any time because of his great change. Yes, he's had some shoulder issues this spring, but he's apparently healthy and now relegated to mop-up man. Ramirez struck out 63 in 55 innings last year. What earned him this demotion? On Monday he labored for 51 pitches in a hopelessly lost game, making him unavailable Tuesday, too.
Clearly, Brian Bruney is the new setup guy. He plausibly earned that last year, but his hit rate on balls in play of 20 percent is not remotely sustainable (average is 30 percent) and the sample size was cut in half due to injury. Ramirez to me is the better guy because he has a dominant pitch (his change) and there's really no luck in his stats except bad luck in the second half when 16 percent of the fly balls he allowed became homers (average is 10-11 percent). Note also Ramirez's 11-plus strikeouts per nine innings after the 2008 All-Star break.
Ramirez is also behind Jose Veras in the pecking order. On Sunday, for example, Marte got the first two out and then was lifted for Veras to face Billy Butler. That's taking platoon advantages to an extreme, even given how well Butler has hit lefties in his career. Marte is a lefty who has proven he can get righties out (.196 average allowed vs. them last year in 158 ABs). So why not defer to his splits?
Maybe Girardi was too successful in developing relievers last year and has been left with a statistically amorphous bullpen. All the righties can seem interchangeable. I don't trust Veras similar and I don't trust Bruney, but it's for a different reason: Veras has significant control issues, something I can't tolerate in a middle reliever; not even one who like Veras flashes decent dominance.
Bruney's control gains last year may be a mirage, too. Although all three have a power arsenal, my pecking order would be Veras earliest, Bruney later and Ramirez latest (closest to Rivera in a tandem with Marte). I will stipulate that it's possible that Ramirez's health is an issue right now, as is the Spring Training time he missed. But if that's the case, let him work his way into shape by pitching in Triple-A. By default, I assume rostered big-league relievers who are allowed to toss 51 pitches are healthy. One more small step up in control from last year and Ramirez will be utterly dominant.
That leaves Jonathan Albaladejo and Coke for long relief and it gives the option to Girardi to use Coke as a LOOGY. That's assuming he wants to go platoon crazy, as it seems like he's wont to do this year.
The crisis brewing is that failure to find a bridge to Mariano will result in clarion calls for Joba Chamberlain to return to the bullpen. And that's a waste of the prodigious promise he holds as a starter. The math is simple here, people: You want your best pitchers throwing as many innings as they are capable of throwing.