D-backs need to “reload” bullpen, Hinch says

PHOENIX — It may be a matter of semantics at this point, but when I asked D-backs manager A.J. Hinch whether  he needed to “rebuild” the club’s bullpen for next season, he responded: “Rebuild may not be the right word for it, but maybe reload a little bit.”

During the course of what is now an 83-loss season, the Arizona bullpen has saved 32 games, the third lowest in the 16-team National League. As of this writing, 13 individual big-league closers have more than Arizona’s 32 combined saves. D-backs closer, Chad Qualls, out until next season after surgery to repair a torn knee ligament, is now 20th overall in the Majors with 24 saves.

To me, Qualls is a fine setup guy, but he’s not a closer, although there doesn’t seem to be agreement there from the manager. “I’m fine with Qualls as the closer,” Hinch said. “He does it in a different way. He’s not your typical 95-98 [mph] power closer.”

Neither is Trevor Hoffman, but somehow he’s the all-time leader with 587 saves.

Call me crazy, but the D-backs again need somebody like that. In my mind, you start with the closer and build the bullpen backwards to close the gap between the relievers and the starters. If it’s a solid bridge a team has a chance to win a lot of games. To wit, two years ago, the D-backs pen saved 51 games, 47 of them by Jose Valverde. They won the National League West by a game, which means Arizona needed every last one of those saves to make the playoffs. Add to the fact pile that the D-backs also scored 17 runs less runs that season than they scored.

The pen in 2007 was Tony Pena and Juan Cruz as the seventh-inning guys, Brandon Lyon as a lights-out eighth inning guy, who then handed the ball over to the often-emotional Valverde. They are all gone — Cruz and Lyon to free agency, Pena and Valverde via trades. Valverde was the first to go in the 2007 offseason. It was a financial move because the D-backs weren’t inclined to pay Pada Grande what he might have won through arbitration.

It had an immediate ripple affect. Lyon was moved up to close and didn’t last the season in that slot, giving way in September to Qualls, who the D-backs obtained from the Astros in the Valverde trade. Pena never seemed to develop. John Rauch was obatined from Washington and didn’t prove to be reliable. He’s also gone. The short of it is that the D-backs pen saved 39 games in ’08 and just missed winning the NL West title, finishing two games behind the Dodgers. One is left wondering what might have happened had they not traded Valverde, who is a free agent this offseason.

With Rauch traded and Qualls on the DL, the D-backs are left with a pen that includes Juan Gutirerrez, Blaine Boyer, Daniel Schlereth, Clay Zavada and Esmerling Vasquez. Not a lot of household names among the bunch. And Qualls must recover sufficiently from surgery to contribute.

“I think he can get the job done,” Hinch said about Qualls. “But more importantly is who surrounds him when he’s not available. As this season has evolved with Vasquez and Gutirerrez, their maturation will play a very important in how we put next year’s bullpen together.”

Rebuild or reload? The difference seems to be in the eye of the beholder.

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