The Arizona Diamondbacks 2013 season was doomed by one thing; a lack of pitching late in games. The playoffs have just begun and quality pitching has ruled the day so far. It is that quality at the back end of ball games which was missing from the Diamondbacks this season. It was a revolving door of closers which quickly turned into a house of horrors for manager Kirk Gibson and his team. In the end it was the lack of consistency at the back end which likely cost Arizona a spot in the playoffs.
The season began with David Hernandez as closer. Early season struggles then moved the job over to Heath Bell and then later to JJ Putz and Brad Ziegler. The four men combined for 56 save opportunities, converting on just 36 of those chances. 20 blown saves led the entire MLB in 2013 and it was no wonder that the Arizona slide from NL West contention coincided with the bulk of the struggles in early July through the end of the month.
Moving forward towards 2014, the closer picture doesn’t get much clearer. Hernandez was 2-8 in save opportunities this past season as he started the season a bit shaky and never seemed to find a comfort zone. Bell had the most opportunities during the season with 22 chances, converting on 15 of them. Those two men join Putz, 6-11 on save chances, as being signed through next season. Ziegler, who many would assume will be given the job to start the season, is eligible for arbitration this off season so his status is a bit uncertain.
The pecking order at the end of the season seemed to place Ziegler in the top spot followed by Putz, Bell, and finally Hernandez. The one thing going against Ziegler is his lack of a pitch to get left handed hitters out. On the season left handed hitters posted a .246 batting average, more than 30 points higher than posted by right handed batters.
Putz is an interesting case as he has the lengthier track record but missed a large part of the 2013 season with injury, making just 40 appearances on the year. When healthy Putz showed signs of the man who saved 77 games over 2011 and 2012. The long time closer could lay claim to the job if he can start the season healthy, something he has struggled with over the last few seasons.
Heath Bell is an interesting prospect at the closer position for Gibson and the Diamondbacks as he is an inexpensive option. Bell is due $9 million next season but only $5 million is paid by the Diamondbacks following his move from the Marlins. However, blowing 7 saves and posting a 4.11 ERA will not do much to calm the nerves. Bell also struggled late in the season in non-save positions as he found it difficult to get big outs late in ball games, often coming in with the Diamondbacks trailing slightly then leaving, having given up a few runs to blow the game open.
Hernandez is likely the odd man out. A solid 2012 assured the 28 year old a chance at the job in 2013, although early struggles and a demotion to Triple-A Reno quickly changed that. It was an inability to throw strikes which doomed Hernandez late in games. Even with a 3 to 1 strikeout ratio Hernandez often fell behind hitters, forcing the him to challenge hitters which more often than not resulted in runners on base. A 4.48 ERA and 6 blown saves show those struggles in glaring detail.
The off season may be a bit quiet in terms of bringing in bullpen help. Expect the team to sign at least two or three veterans to challenge the young arms during spring training. The team seem keen on keeping lefties Tony Sipp and Matt Reynolds, the latter of which finished the season on the 60-day disabled list. If Sipp and Reynolds can stay healthy and continue their progression they’d provide excellent options for Gibson alongside fellow lefty Joe Thatcher who was picked up from San Diego before the trade deadline.
The bullpen is a major concern for the organization moving forward into 2014 but is not something the team should throw money at in the hopes of fixing the issues. Patience and a bit of luck would best serve the Diamondbacks as money is needed to lock up the young core composed of Didi Gregorius, Matt Davidson, AJ Pollack, and others to long term deals. Perhaps a fresh start is just what the doctor ordered and Ziegler is able to right the ship that was the 2013 season for the Diamondbacks closers. If not, it could be another lost season season in the desert.