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Cheap relief (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday November 13, 2007 11:55AM; Updated: Tuesday November 13, 2007 12:44PM
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Cla Meredith, a former Red Sox prospect, is a solid part of the Padres setup corps thanks to his odd delivery.
Cla Meredith, a former Red Sox prospect, is a solid part of the Padres setup corps thanks to his odd delivery.
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How does he do it? Here are the Towers Rules for finding value relievers:

1. Look for failing starters in other organizations, especially strike-throwers. "We always try to identify starters with someone else's system we think could be relievers with us," Towers says. "We look for guys who pound the strike zone with good mechanics. That's how we got Linebrink." Linebrink had brief trials as a starter in the San Francisco and Houston systems before San Diego acquired him at 26.

"It's no different than catchers who can't hit," Towers says. "You put them on the mound because they have a good arm. A lot of times guys get caught up in being labeled. 'Oh, he's a starter.' But maybe because of attention span or stuff or whatever it is, he's better cut out to be a reliever. Heath Bell is like that. Some guys are much better when they can just go out there and air it out for one inning."

Hampson, 27, was 51-56 primarily as a starter in the Colorado system, but allowed few home runs and struck out more than 11 batters per nine innings. The Padres claimed him on waivers after the 2006 season. He gave San Diego a 2.70 ERA out of the bullpen this year.

2. Don't just drop somebody into the eighth inning. "The first time you get here you may get the fifth or sixth," Towers says. "If you handle that you graduate to the seventh. And if you show you've got [guts] you'll graduate to the eighth."

Last December the Padres took Cameron in the Rule 5 draft out of the Minnesota system, where he had posted a 1.28 WHIP in the minors. Cameron, 27, pitched in every inning for the Padres from the third on, though he wound up facing more batters in the eighth than in any other inning. He posted a 2.79 ERA and held opposing hitters to an .094 average with two outs and runners in scoring position (three hits, all singles, in 32 at-bats) and a .000 average with the bases loaded (0 for 15, including nine strikeouts).

3. Look for pitchers with deception in their delivery or repertoire. Most relievers never face the same hitter a second time in a game. Unusual deliveries and trick pitches can maintain their effectiveness longer than they might for a starting pitcher, who sees the lineup turn over multiple times.

"I like relievers with deception," Towers says. "I think that helped make [Hideki] Okajima so tough. With us, look at Meredith and Thatcher. Some quirk in the delivery can be effective."

4. Stay away from the top end of the reliever free-agent market.

"It's tough to put a bullpen together through free agency, " Towers says. "A, it's going to cost you a ton, and B, I think there are [other] good relievers out there."

The Orioles tried to buy a bullpen last November, when in a span of nine days they coughed up $42.4 million for Baez, Walker, Chad Bradford and Scott Williamson. The result? Baltimore's bullpen led the majors in losses (35) and ranked 29th in ERA (5.71; only Tampa Bay's bullpen was worse).

Meanwhile, the Rockies' bullpen was the winningest in the big leagues, with value relievers such as LaTroy Hawkins, Matt Herges and Jeremy Affeldt coming through for them. Those three are all free agents this winter, so we'll see how much Colorado values them now.

You can expect to see more Romero-like signings this winter. Relievers Luis Vizcaino, David Riske and Linebrink can compare their numbers to those of Romero, putting them in line for something in the range of $4 million a year:

Player W-L ERA IP BB SO WHIP
Romero 28-24 4.30 512.2 277 409 1.50
Vizcaino 33-25 4.25 485.1 206 431 1.33
Riske 19-18 3.40 431 179 398 1.27
Linebrink 30-16 3.21 442.2 159 378 1.27

Like Romero, Vizcaino, 33, has averaged 73 games over the past six years. Does that make him durable and valuable, or due for a regression and overpriced? Can you count on Linebrink to keep providing 70-game seasons at peak efficiency? Is Riske one of the sleeper signings of the offseason? The Romero deal indicates that there is plenty of money out there for set-up relievers, though it likely won't be coming from the San Diego Padres.

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