If you're anything like a lot of baseball fans, you've spent the offseason doing two things. One, you've been tracking the hot stove rumors like you're a Major League GM, and two, you've sat wallowing in the defeat your fantasy team suffered this past season. You've checked and double-checked the lineup. There's no way you should have lost, right? When you go back over your pitching and your hitting, you have an All-Star cast, but yet you didn't win your league. And that's in a league with, what, maybe nine other teams you're competing against? So what's my point?
No, it's not that you suck at fantasy baseball. Because truth be told, I am horrible at fantasy sports. My point is simply that big names don't win games (even fantasy games). An All-Star roster on paper does not necessarily mean a division championship or World Series crown. We watch the stars come off the trading block and free agent boards with wonder and excitement, and there's nothing wrong with that. This is one of the reasons baseball is so amazing. The offseason can be just as exciting as the regular season. But don't get too lost in it. Don't buy into the hype machine that is blockbuster deals. Something as minor and seemingly insignificant as a contract extension for a 32-year old reliever can mean the difference between a mediocre season and a deep run in the playoffs.
The San Francisco Giants gave veteran reliever, Santiago Casilla, a three-year contract extension Monday. The deal signified the Giants' continued commitment to their bullpen. It also signified their confidence that Casilla's injury in 2012 is nothing that would carry over into 2013. And by signing the extension, the Giants reinforced their place at the top of the National League West - as the team to be beat.
Casilla started the season as the Giants' closer when Brian Wilson suffered his second torn UCL and had to undergo his second Tommy John procedure. Casilla flourished early-on. However, he suffered a knee injury in June of this past season. He twisted his knee and walked gingerly off the field. At the time, it wasn't clear how bad the injury was, but Casilla managed to avoid the disabled list. Perhaps he felt lingering affects from the injury, though, because his season took a turn in June.
After posting an ERA of 1.04 in April and an ERA of 1.26 in May, Casilla blew up in June with an ERA of 7.71. He continued to struggle in July with an ERA of 6.23. Finally, in August, he was removed from the closer's role. The job was given to Sergio Romo who performed exceptionally well. Casilla was relegated to a set-up role going forward, and he regained much of the dominance he exhibited earlier in the season. In August, Casilla's ERA was 0.84. In September, it was 2.08. He was back on track.
Now, with Brian Wilson a free agent and the Giants likely keeping Romo as their full-time closer, Casilla should settle in nicely as the team's set-up man. As specialized as pitching has become over the years, it's important for a team to not only have a closer they trust, but an eighth inning specialist who can slam the door. The Giants have that. They will have that for the next few years now.
Successful teams rely on pitching to win. Often times, they rely on relief pitching. Most starting pitchers can hang in there long enough to keep a team in the game for at least five innings. If the team has a dominant bullpen, that's all they need. In the Giants' case, they have stars in their starting rotation, AND they have a shut-down 'pen. Consider this:
The Giants had the eighth-best bullpen ERA in the league last year. Every team ahead of them was competitive at some point in the season, and four out of the top eight (including the Giants) made the postseason. Here's the list:
Cincinnati - 2.65 (2nd best record in baseball)
Atlanta - 2.76
Washington - 3.23 (Best record in baseball)
Los Angeles - 3.23
San Diego - 3.24 (47-36 after June)
Arizona - 3.28
Pittsburgh - 3.36 (One of the better teams in the first half)
San Francisco - 3.56 (Won the World Series)
It's not a secret that a good bullpen can help a team win games that they would otherwise have no business winning. The Nationals and the Orioles made a living out of it in 2012 (Baltimore more than Washington of course). In fact, the last four World Series champions have ranked in the top-11 in bullpen ERA. The outlier keeping that stats from being top-five was the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011 who ranked 11th in the NL in bullpen ERA.
Back to Santiago Casilla and what his contract means to the Giants. Casilla is 32. In baseball, players who are 30+ are expected to see a free-fall in production. However, relievers are generally exempt from this statement. Many reliever don't hit their prime until their 30's. In fact, some of the better relievers in the game didn't even come to the Majors from Japanese League until their 30's. So Casilla's age is not a real concern. He will be 35 when his contract expires.
Still not convinced that Casilla's age should not be a factor. Of the relievers in Major League Baseball aged 32 or older with at least 40 innings-pitched, there were 27 who posted an ERA of 3.60 or better. There were 16 who posted an ERA under 3.00. And there were 10 who posted an ERA of 2.70 or better. That's pretty impressive. Casilla was part of that crew.
Casilla's knee injury would have been more concerning had he not rebounded in the second-half of last season. Knee and leg injuries in pitchers can be just as devastating as elbows and shoulders. However, Casilla managed to shine even after the injury. While he may be more susceptible to injury because of his age, he will not be called on to pitch a heavy workload. The Giants had the fifth-most innings-pitched by their starters in 2012.
The Giants may not have gone out and spent their money on the bling, but they did safely invest it in a high-yield CD. They made the smart move rather than the emotional move. The Casilla extension will help them maintain their position as one of the best in the west. Just because the Dodgers spent a lot of money doesn't mean they will have a lot of success. Any fantasy baseball player will tell you, baseball is a game of strategy. Buying up the best players in the game is not always the best strategy.
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