Think you can guess the youngest bullpen in the major leagues right now? Well ok, it is an easy one, since it is the evergreen Kansas City Royals, but how about the second?
You got it right, it is the Houston Astros.
Weren't expecting it? Neither was I until I went through the numbers, but there it is. With the youthful Enerio Del Rosario, Fernando Abad and Aneury Rodriguez winning spots, the age of the 'pen has been driven way down with only Brandon Lyon with a solid bank of continuous major league experience. The others are rookies, freshmen and Jeff Fulchino.
This may all change since it is possible a 35-year-old veteran could head to the DL anytime during the season and be replaced with a fresh-faced rookie. I have also rounded down to whole years, so the list I came up with may be very slightly out. Most of the oldest teams are there because they have one really old player in the bullpen, Boston is 30th mainly because of the mercurial Tim Wakefield. Also some teams have yet to name a fifth starter, running with eight in the bullpen, such as the Milwaukee Brewers, San Diego Padres and Texas Rangers.
The Astros' bullpen may also be the second least experienced in the majors too. Fulchino has 144 2/3 major league innings, and Lyon has years of experience, as for the rest, they make Wilton Lopez look like a veteran.
Gone are the days of Doug Brocail, Trever Miller, Russ Springer, and heck, even Tim Byrdak. I know Springer was looked up to a lot by the rest of the relief corps during his time in Houston. It helps if your veteran guy is not the closer so he has room to focus on helping other guy's performance. Lyon has enough to worry about on his own, without having to nanny the other six.
If the relative youth of the bullpen is a problem then whose fault is it? Drayton? Boffo? We knew the 2011 payroll was tight, but Ron Mahay or George Sherrill would hardly have bust the bank. Meanwhile Ed Wade traded away the bullpen depth we had in Matt Lindstrom and technically Felipe Paulino, who has started 2011 in the Colorado Rockies 'pen.
It would not have made much sense to spend big money on Jesse Crain or Joaquin Benoit or Rafael Soriano when they are in rebuilding mode, and according to all sources years away from properly contending.
Did Boffo ever ask McLane for a spare $1m to pick out a veteran guy, or did he know he was never going to get it?
People who gave Wade flak for over-paying for Lyon a winter ago can hardly criticize him for not splashing out this winter and instead trusting a bunch of rookies and sophomores. This is what your minor league system is supposed to do, churn out guys who can be slotted cheaply into the bullpen when they fail as starters. Attention to the bullpen should come after shoring up the rotation and lineup, but a good bullpen can separate playoff contenders from pennant winners.
None of this is aimed to knock the seven pitchers that make up the bullpen. There is not one I could single out and say he really should not be here. A few of them might be very valuable assets in a year or two. Mark Melancon, Abad and Lopez could comprise a very good trio, and keeping Rodriguez in the organisation is a smart move. But at the moment the sum seems less than the parts.
And it is very early in the season. For all we know the current corps might have a very solid season. If the rest of the team is in rebuilding mode, why should the bullpen be exempt from this?
But how confident will Brad Mills be when he has to routinely hand the ball to Del Rosario and Abad in the seventh inning with a slender lead? Even Phil Garner, who had an excellent bullpen at his disposal in 2004, started to get the yips when he reached the playoffs in 2004, routinely handing Lidge the ball earlier than the ninth inning.
Given Friday night's game, 2011 might see Astros' fans reduced to biting the stubs of their fingers. And those might be the rare joyous occasions when we actually have a lead.