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Inside Baseball | Bill Shaikin / SUNDAY REPORT

Padres change it up in bullpen

June 10, 2007|Bill Shaikin

Vin Scully provided the perfect lyrical accompaniment to history, as always. As Trevor Hoffman floated changeups toward the Dodgers four days ago, daring them to take a mighty swing without taking a mighty fall, Scully empathized with the boys at bat.

"It's like swinging at a soap bubble," Scully said.

The Dodgers went quietly, and Petco Park went nuts. As Hoffman earned the 500th save of his career, fireworks exploded, fans roared and teammates carried him off the field on their shoulders.

No one else has 500 saves. Mariano Rivera could save 40 games this year and 40 more next year, and he'd still fall short of 500.

Rivera has a fastball, at least. Hoffman blows no one away. He dominates in his own way, making him the perfect anchor for the Padres' bullpen.

The Padres' bullpen dominates in its own way. This is the best bullpen in the major leagues, and it's not even close.

Through Friday, the earned-run average of the San Diego bullpen: 2.13. No other 'pen has an ERA under 3.00, but 15 teams have a relief ERA between 3.00 and 4.00.

Conventional wisdom has a high ERA this season. You're supposed to build a premium bullpen these days by spending millions on quality setup men, collecting power arms and a left-handed specialist or two along the way.

The Padres laugh at conventional wisdom. They couldn't afford to play along anyway, not on a $60-million payroll. So they ask one question: Can you get outs?

Is this by design or by financial necessity?

"Both," General Manager Kevin Towers said.

Under the modern theory of cost efficiency, closers are overvalued. No sense paying an ordinary closer extraordinary wages, when a guy who can get you three outs in the eighth probably can get you three outs in the ninth too.

Hoffman is an extraordinary closer, and a civic institution too. So he stays around, but the setup men do not. No sense paying a setup man a closer's wage, when a guy who can get you three outs in triple A might get you three outs in the majors.

The Angels committed four years and $18 million to Justin Speier, then to Scot Shields. The Orioles spent $19 million for three years of Danys Baez, $12 million for three years of Jamie Walker, $11 million for three years of Chad Bradford. The Mets guaranteed Scott Schoeneweis three years at $11 million.

"I don't think," Hoffman says with a grin, "that's going to happen here."

Said Towers: "It's an important piece. It's also very volatile. A lot of clubs have done long-term deals with guys and it's tied their hands."

If the setup men fail, so do the Padres. The seventh inning is not a luxury on this team.

Greg Maddux and David Wells generally pitch five or six innings. Hoffman does not pitch in the eighth, even for an out. The innings in between could decide the pennant.

So far, so good. So excellent, in fact.

"A lot of it goes to Kevin Towers," Hoffman said. "He's able to find diamonds in the rough."

Scott Linebrink, the Padres' answer to Shields, came on a waiver claim. Cla Meredith, the Padres' answer to Speier, came in a trade for backup catcher Doug Mirabelli and brought along a 5.27 ERA in triple A.

Doug Brocail came back to San Diego as a free agent, after stops in Houston, Detroit and Texas. Heath Bell came in a trade for a minor league outfielder. Kevin Cameron came in the Rule 5 draft. Justin Hampson, the lone left-hander, came on a waiver claim.

"I think it's identifying guys who have not gotten to be great yet," Towers said. "It's guys who have upside but aren't on everybody's radar screen, 4-A type guys who have been up and down or fifth starters who could blossom in the 'pen, guys who could still be very affordable."

Linebrink, the only reliever besides Hoffman on last season's opening-day roster, is making $1.4 million this season. The rest are at $500,000 or less.

The on-base plus slugging percentage against San Diego relievers is .540; no other bullpen is under .600. The Padres' bullpen has the best ratio of walks to innings in the National League, but the ratio of strikeouts to innings ranks 14th.

Bell throws in the high 90s, Linebrink in the mid-90s. The rest thrive without velocity.

"I like guys who pound the strike zone," Towers said. "Pound may be 86, 87, but they get outs and don't walk people. A lot of times, with power arms come walks, and free passes in this park come back to haunt you."

Said Linebrink: "The message that's preached here is to be aggressive. We hear a lot of people talking about how the park we pitch in is very favorable to pitchers. Our attitude doesn't change whether we're in Colorado or Petco."

The Padres' bullpen ERA through Friday: 1.69 at home, 2.55 on the road. The Padres' starters: 2.50 at home, 4.41 on the road.

Soon enough, these relievers will hit the road. Hoffman, 39, will retire -- won't he? -- and the rest will pitch too poorly for the Padres to keep, or too well for them to afford. They'll always have this summer. At this rate, they'll have October too.


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