I thought it'd be worth going over all the different names of 2009's various reliever candidates, just to see if our bullpen really was as gutted by last week's trade as some people will have you believe. My initial guess is that, no, it wasn't (and it's worth pointing out that last year's bullpen was below-average anyway), but we might as well take a look. Assumptions: Brandon Morrow will be in the rotation, and we will not have gotten rid of Jarrod Washburn by the start of the year. Obviously things could be different, but stay with me.
Aaron Heilman: you know the story by now - a solid reliever for three years, Heilman took a big step back in 2008, as his walk rate shot through the roof. When he's going good, he throws a hard fastball that bores in on righties and a killer changeup that misses bats and keeps lefties honest, and last year he added a slider that got a lot of swinging strikes for a new pitch. Heilman has the best pure stuff of anyone in the bullpen, slider or no slider, and the only question is whether or not he can figure out what went wrong.
Roy Corcoran: 2008's unsung hero, I keep calling Roy Corcoran Sean-Green-before-the-sidearming, and I think it fits, because while Corcoran tosses the occasional changeup or breaking ball, he makes a living on his low-90s sinker that causes people to hit the ball into the ground. He doesn't have great command and his lack of a secondary pitch makes him vulnerable against lefties, but he's a useful asset when you need to retire a righty or get a double play. Even assuming a little regression in 2009, Corcoran isn't likely to get throttled.
Miguel Batista: Batista was a pile of crap last year in every way possible, but if he can get over some of the aches and pains that crippled his 2008, he's not the worst bet in the world to contribute a little something. At this point he basically only throws one pitch, but he throws it with enough variation in movement and speed to have some potential out of the bullpen. It's not that hard to relieve. If Batista can just find the zone 5% more often, then his fastball/cut fastball combination should be enough to keep him from humiliating himself again.
Mark Lowe: Still armed with the ~same mid-90s fastball, dynamite change, and hard slider that helped him burst onto the scene in 2006, it's both encouraging that Lowe could stay healthy in 2008 and frustrating that he couldn't be better. The potential for Lowe to do big things is clearly there - his swinging strike rate last year equaled those of both Mariano Rivera and Francisco Rodriguez. He just needs to improve his location a little bit. Lowe's never going to have perfect command, but like Heilman, he's got a good chance of breaking out and turning into an asset in the later innings. Like with Heilman, though, that's also far from a guarantee.
Ryan Rowland-Smith: RRS belongs in the rotation, but in relief, he throws two above-average breaking balls to lefties, and a solid changeup to righties. The new outfield defense should help track down some of the fly balls he allows. While he doesn't miss enough bats or throw enough strikes to make sense as an 8th/9th inning guy, he's a good middle reliever who can play the part of either lefty specialist or 1+ inning long man. He's a pretty well-known entity.
Cesar Jimenez: As we've talked about before, Jimenez will never be a good LOOGY, because his best and only ML-caliber pitch is his excellent change. As a long man, though, he works perfectly fine, provided you don't expect too much. He was an above-average reliever a year ago, and he actually missed a surprising number of bats. Only 24, he's entirely helpful.
Justin Thomas: Thomas never developed a good change, so he appears to be finished as a starter, but he's always been solid against lefties, and now that ability stands a chance of helping him land a job in the Major Leagues. He's your standard fastball/slider lefty reliever who throws so many sliders it's hard to believe his arm's still attached, and that's the sort of thing that makes him a dark horse to win out as a LOOGY. There's really not all that much separating guys like Justin Thomas from guys like George Sherrill. Learning to retire same-handed ML hitters isn't the hardest skill to learn.
Jason Vargas: Vargas came over in the Putz trade. He lost all of 2008 after hip surgery, and he's lost some miles and sharpness since debuting with the Marlins, but if he shows he's recovered and ready to get back on the mound, he could sit at 89-91 with his fastball with a reasonable change and a slider with late break. I don't think he has the same pure LOOGY stuff that Thomas does, but he has potential at the back of the bullpen.
Jose Lugo: Rule 5 grab. Lugo basically only throws a sinking fastball in the low-90s, and said sinking fastball either misses the zone, misses a bat, or ends up on the ground. He's never faced good competition, but the Mariners grabbed him because they like his repertoire, and someone's repertoire looks the same no matter who it's being thrown against. While Lugo's offspeed stuff isn't nearly polished enough yet to be of much help in the Majors, he's still young enough to develop, and even if that never fully happens, he can still be a lefty groundball/occasional-strikeout guy in a big league bullpen. Sort of like a reverse Roy Corcoran, really, only with a livelier fastball.
There you go. While Zduriencik may yet go outside the organization to add some help, those are the nine guys in-house from whom we'd be selecting a bullpen were the roster to be filled out today. And honestly, it's not that bad. There are candidates to fill every role, and if one of either Heilman or Lowe is able to harness his stuff and take a step forward, then we'll have our high-leverage guy who can retire both lefties and righties, which is currently our biggest need in relief. The rest can work itself out. There are guys who can miss bats, guys who can put the ball on the ground, and guys who can sustain a ~league-average performance while taking advantage of an improved team defense. What's the big problem? Just because we don't have anyone with JJ's name value or mound presence doesn't mean this group can't be effective.
What I like about this bullpen is that, aside from Batista, it's cheap and riddled with guys who may be able to help us down the road, nevermind 2009. It's important to remember that we're not really building for next season. We're building for all the seasons after that. And the Lugos and Lowes and Vargases and everybody elses of the world...they could be cheap and effective now, but they could also be cheap and effective in a year or three, which is kind of what we're going for. Even Heilman plays a part in this team's future, despite the fact that he's only under team control for two years. Who knows where we'll stand in 2010? He's a good reclamation project, because if he succeeds, he can either help us win or help us acquire value in a trade. That's big.
We don't have a terrific bullpen, but even with the loss of both JJ and Sean Green, we're not starved for useful relievers. We have plenty of guys who could help us now, and among them (and among others not listed), plenty of guys who could help us down the road. So I don't see why some people are complaining. Yeah, we'll blow some games next year, but (A) every team blows games, and (B) it's all part of a larger process. Is it really worth complaining about the bullpen on a team that doesn't plan to compete? Or, to take it from another angle, what does it tell you when all you can complain about is the bullpen of a team coming off a 101-loss season?
Bullpens are volatile and often unpredictable, so the best thing you can do is stock yours with talent. And in that regard, it looks to me like we're okay. This team has much, much bigger issues to work out than who's going to take the ball in the 8th.