How do you, in a year and a half, transform one of the worst bullpens in major league history into one of baseball's best? If you're Kevin Towers, the Arizona Diamondbacks' general manager, you think Da Vinci.
Specifically, you are inspired by the Vitruvian Man, the master's famous 1487 sketch that depicts a figure with superimposed appendages extending out from him at different angles -- only with more arms, on both sides. That is what Towers would want a composite image of the members of his bullpen to resemble, if they were to line up single file and simultaneously execute their deliveries.
"To me, character and makeup is paramount, and so is fastball command," Towers explains. "But I hate cookie cutter bullpens. I like bullpens that have different arm slots, different repertoires of pitches. Getting big league hitters out is all about throwing off their timing and their eyesight. If the starter comes out in the sixth, you've got a chance for the opposing lineup to see four or five guys that are all completely different."
Towers earned his degree in bullpen architecture as the GM of the low-budget San Diego Padres, from 1995 to 2009. "It was always an area of focus just because I was always in a market where it was something I could afford," he says. "I couldn't chase the top of the rotation starters or everyday stars. It was something I had to hone my skills at." Towers' relief corps ranked among the top 10 in ERA in eight of his 14 seasons in San Diego, including in five of his final six years.
When he arrived in Arizona two Septembers ago, though, Towers was presented with a formidable task. The Diamondbacks' bullpen in 2010 was, simply put, awful. The cumulative 5.74 ERA was not only the majors' worst by more than a full run, but the seventh-worst in the history of the game. It was a central reason why the D-backs, despite a roster that included four regulars who hit 25 or more home runs and a rotation that featured, at various points, former or future All-Stars like Dan Haren, Ian Kennedy and Joe Saunders, finished 65-97.
Towers' bullpen overhaul began in earnest on Dec. 6, 2010, a day on which he acquired closer J.J. Putz (via a two-year free agent deal) and setup man David Hernandez (via a trade with the Orioles for third baseman Mark Reynolds). Three days later, he made lefty specialist Joe Paterson the third overall pick in the Rule 5 draft. In June, he called up minor league righty Bryan Shaw, and a month later he traded for right-handed sidearmer Brad Ziegler. Each of those players had an ERA of 3.38 or better for Arizona. Putz, who had struggled some since his All-Star days with the Mariners, posted a career-high 45 saves with an ERA of 2.17 and the club's cumulative ERA improved by more than two runs, to 3.71. What had been atrocious was, all of a sudden, at least average -- it ranked 14th overall -- and the Diamondbacks, not entirely coincidentally, won 29 more games than the season before, and came within one win of the NLCS.
This season, Towers' goal is for the bullpen to be not just average, but elite. To that end, he added two more arms to his suddenly sturdy nucleus of five. On Dec. 9, he acquired left-hander Craig Breslow, who has made more appearances over the past three seasons that all but three other pitchers, from the Oakland A's in a trade that also brought him starter Trevor Cahill. Four days later he signed veteran righty Takashi Saito, who has never had an ERA higher than 2.83 in his six seasons in the majors, to a one-year, $1.75 million deal. Towers brought aboard the 42-year-old Saito without bothering to have him subjected to a standard medical exam. "We knew he would probably have failed his physical based on everything that we've heard over the last four or five years," says Towers, as elbow troubles have long plagued Saito, and that type of malady generally does not improve in a 42-year-old man.
The tendons of Saito's right elbow could snap like guitar strings at any time, but neither he nor his new bullpenmates think much about that possibility, nor about anything larger than the immediate task at hand, a mindset befitting of effective relievers. "We're just worried about getting out there and making pitches and being efficient and getting quick outs," says Putz. "You don't put too much thought into anything else."
But if Saito stays healthy, he is in position to be the final piece of a bullpen that represents Towers' Vitruvian ideal, and includes no players who were with the team during that disastrous 2010 season. It will likely feature five right-handers and two southpaws, and they will throw a variety of pitches from all angles, from the submarining, opposite-throwing Ziegler and Paterson to the over-the-top, fireballing Putz. The Diamondbacks have a powerful lineup, led by young superstar Justin Upton, and a deep rotation, topped by Kennedy, baseball's only 20-game-winner last season besides Cy Young winners Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw. Appropriately, however, it could be their bullpen, assembled by Towers seemingly out of thin air, that could elevate a work of fine art into a masterpiece.