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Kevin Towers and the Bullpen Redemption

Tonight the Arizona Diamondbacks stand on the brink of elimination. Their season is not yet over, though a comeback at this point would be surprising. The Brewers are the better team, and have shown it thus far. Even though their prospects of advancing are slim, their season should not be seen as a disappointment but rather quite an accomplishment.

Anyone that watched the D-Backs play in 2010 should be commended for their patience. That team won only 65 games, and a large part of their struggles has to be attributed to a young rotation and a disastrous bullpen. The Diamondbacks had by far the worst bullpen in baseball, with their relievers accumulating -2.1 WAR. The next closest team was the Mariners at -.4 WAR (also the only other team to have negative WAR). It is difficult to make a playoff run without a good bullpen, and nearly impossible with a bullpen that is below replacement level.

Kevin Towers went into this past offseason looking to improve his horrific bullpen. He began by shoring up the top of the bullpen by signing J.J. Putz to a two year, 10 million dollar contract. In addition to Putz, Towers traded Mark Reynolds away for David Hernandez to fill the setup role. At the trade deadline he added Brad Ziegler to an already solid relief corp (this proved valuable in the regular season, though costly in the playoffs) in hope of catching the Giants down the stretch. As important as Towers’ acquisitions were, who he left off the roster made an impact as well. In 2010, the Diamondbacks had ten relievers at one point or another at or below replacement level, most notably Bob Howry, Jordan Norberto, Carlos Rosa, Cesar Valdez, and Leo Rosales.

From 2010 to 2011 the Diamondbacks improved their relief WAR from -2.1 (worst in baseball) to 3.4 (9th best in baseball) for year to year improvement of 5.5 WAR (second best behind the Red Sox). A swing of 5.5 Wins Above Replacement is equal to about what the Phillies got by adding Cliff Lee as a free agent, only the Diamondbacks made a similar upgrade for a fraction of the cost.

If this quick bullpen turnaround sounds familiar, it should. From 2008 to 2010 the San Diego Padres went through a similar remodelling. In 2008 the Padres’ relievers posted a cumulative WAR of .01, in 2009 3.7, and by 2010 7.7, good for the best bullpen in the game. The Padres went from 63-99 in 2008 to 90-72 in 2010. The sample size for this is incredibly small, but that doesn’t mean that it should be overlooked. What is truly amazing is the fact that both teams were managed by the very same Kevin Towers in the front office, both teams completely revamped their bullpens, and both teams rebounded meteorically from sewer dwellers to legitimate contenders. The Diamondbacks’s success this year cannot solely be attributed to Towers; Jerry Dipoto and Josh Byrnes deserve credit too, just not for the bullpen. It is also interesting how cheaply and swiftly Towers was able to rebuild his respective bullpens. Even though Towers was not the GM for the 2010 padres, he built that bullpen, not Jed Hoyer.

Arizona stands tonight on the brink of elimination, but win or lose, their season should be seen a leap in the right direction. The Diamondbacks still have room to improve their bullpen, and if Towers stays the course, the D-Backs could prove to be perennial contenders.