PHOENIX — Kevin Towers is an outspoken proponent of a strong bullpen, and on Monday he once again put his money where his mouth is.
The Diamondbacks announced the signing of closer J.J. Putz to a $7 million contract extension through 2014, a source with knowledge of the deal said, a move that means all three of the D-backs’ late-inning specialists — Putz, David Hernandez and Heath Bell — are under contract for the next two seasons.
Putz is due $13.5 million, Bell $13 million and Hernandez $3.25 million through 2014. To put that in perspective, the D-backs’ three most expensive starting pitchers — Ian Kennedy, Trevor Cahill and Brandon McCarthy — will make only slightly more than that the next two seasons, depending on how Kennedy’s first two arbitration years play out.
Putz, Bell and Hernandez have closed for playoff teams in pennant races, and the lessons Towers learned with a strong bullpen in San Diego, led by Hall of Famer-in-waiting Trevor Hoffman, were not lost. Towers believes a strong ‘pen not only shortens the game but also makes it easier on the starting pitchers in general and on young starters in particular. The D-backs are likely to have at least two young pitchers in the rotation this season from among Wade Miley, Patrick Corbin and Tyler Skaggs.
The additions of Putz and Hernandez were the first moves Towers made at the 2010 winter meetings, signaling the direction in which he would lead the D-backs. The addition of Bell and the retention of Putz, first by picking up his $6.5 million option for 2013 and then with the extension, only amplify his resolve.
“J.J. has provided much-needed leadership and stability for our bullpen the last two years. He has been an integral piece and helped set the foundation for our bullpen’s turnaround, so we are excited to have him in place the next two seasons,” Towers said in a prepared statement.
Putz, who turns 36 in February, had a career-high 45 saves in his first season with the D-backs in 2011 and added 32 in 2012, becoming the first pitcher in franchise history with back-to-back 30-save seasons. After junking a cut fastball that he played with the first six weeks of the season, Putz had a 1.42 ERA from May 15 onward, when he also had a stretch of 19 consecutive save conversions.
The D-backs had a franchise-best 3.28 bullpen ERA in 2012, which ranked 10th in the majors. In the year before Towers took over, the bullpen ERA was 5.74, one of the worst in modern major league history.
Hernandez has totaled 15 saves in a part-time role while filling in for Putz the last two years, and Bell had three straight 40-save seasons in San Diego from 2009-11 before an ill-fated move to Miami as a free agent last winter. The D-backs acquired Bell and shortstop Cliff Pennington in the three-team deal that sent Chris Young to Oakland. They freed $10 million in salary by trading Young, almost enough to cover their investment in Bell, who had the first of his 40-save seasons with Towers in San Diego. Miami is paying the other $8 million of Bell’s remaining salary.
The D-backs have said they intend to start the season with Bell as the primary seventh-inning reliever and Hernandez as the primary option in the eighth, but that could change depending on availability and performance.
Submariner Brad Ziegler worked his way into the seventh-inning role last season and had arguably his best year, when he made appreciable improvement against left-handed hitters.
New left-handers Tony Sipp and Matt Reynolds will compete for bullpen positions in spring training, and Josh Collmenter is the favorite for the long-relief role going in, although there remains a possibility he could be used as a fifth starter.