01/11/2006 1:00 PM ET
Around the Horn: Bullpen
Reds likely to use three relievers in closer role
By Mark Sheldon / MLB.com
Following is the second in a series of weekly stories on MLB.com examining each Major League club, position-by-position. Each Wednesday until Spring Training camps open, we'll preview a different position. Today: the bullpen.
It's a three-word phrase that often leaves an unsettling feeling for those who hear it uttered.
Closer by committee.
Reds general manager Dan O'Brien didn't use the committee term, per se, when recently discussing his club's bullpen for the 2006 season. But nabbing a closer was an offseason need he was unable to check off the list.
"At this point, we haven't been able to find a bona fide and experienced closer," O'Brien said. "We'll continue to look."
In the meantime, look for manager Jerry Narron to mix it up and likely call on veterans David Weathers and Kent Mercker and young arm Todd Coffey for save opportunities.
"It's not the preferred setup," O'Brien said. "But we have to, and Jerry has to, utilize the individuals on our roster and their strengths. He did that last year with Mercker and Weathers."
A very respected setup man by trade, the right-handed Weathers notched 15 saves in 19 opportunities while working 73 games in 2005. Normally a middle reliever after he began his career as a starting pitcher, the left-handed Mercker recorded four saves in seven chances.
The organization's view is that both pitchers also bring some intangibles to the staff.
"They're both veterans," O'Brien said. "They've been in World Series games. They've both gone out of their way to teach, counsel and help pitchers in the bullpen. They're the unquestionable leaders of our bullpen.
"A lot of our success in the second half is not only attributed to their performance on the field, but off the field. The helped with the maturation process of our pitchers."
Neither Weathers nor Mercker throws very hard or strikes out many batters -- which are often, but not always, prerequisites for closers. On the other hand, Coffey is a hard-throwing right-hander with stuff more suited to closing games. In his rookie 2005 season, the 25-year-old was 4-1 with a 4.50 ERA and one save in 57 appearances.
"Coffey really made huge strides last year in the bullpen," O'Brien said. "We still think he has a future in that role. It may be a situation where we gradually give him opportunities instead of throwing him into the fire immediately."
With only one starter pitching 200 innings last season, the Cincinnati bullpen was used often and logged the third-most innings (514) in the National League. But its 4.75 bullpen ERA was fourth from the bottom in the league and opponents' .288 average against and 589 hits put Reds relievers at the very bottom.
One improvement made for the situational roles was adding free agent lefty Chris Hammond, who signed a one-year, $800,000 deal with a $2 million mutual 2007 option in December. Over the past four seasons with four different clubs, Hammond has posted a 2.47 ERA in 221 relief appearances while opposing lefty hitters batted .228. Last season, hitters batted .164 while he went 5-1 with a 3.84 ERA.
For the remainder of the bullpen roles, right-hander Ryan Wagner should be ready after missing the second half of last season with a shoulder injury. Wagner was the club's first-round pick in 2003 and expectations remain high in the organization.
A starter early on in 2005, right-hander Matt Belisle wound up making 55 relief appearances and posted a 4.09 ERA from the bullpen. Right-hander Josh Hancock posted decent numbers in limited appearances, but also spent a large chunk of time on the disabled list with a groin injury. Pitching in winter ball could put Hancock in better position to land a job. Brian Shackleford posted solid numbers after his promotion from Triple-A Louisville, and has a chance to be another left-handed specialist.
A long shot could be Luke Hudson, who missed much of the first half last year with shoulder inflammation. Hudson endured control problems as a starter last season and finished in the bullpen. Right-hander Jason Standridge, a right-hander that was picked up from Texas midway last season, is liked by the organization.
Allan Simpson is a hard-throwing righty but had some control issues. A waiver claim from Houston in November, right-hander Mike Burns split last season between the Majors and Triple-A.