Maybe we should have seen last season’s bullpen woes coming. Yes, the bullpen had a fair amount of depth, with players like Carlos Villanueva and Todd Coffey and Chris Narveson available in middle inning roles. However, it’s exceedingly clear now that the bullpen just wasn’t adequate at the top. Not only was Trevor Hoffman just too old to maintain his success, but LaTroy Hawkins isn’t setup man material. It’s not that Hawkins hadn’t been a good reliever prior to 2010 – from 2007 to 2009, Hawkins posted 1.7 WAR, which isn’t bad for a relief pitcher. The problem is that there are holes in Hawkins game – a lack of elite control and big-time strikeout stuff combines for a roughly average relief pitcher. There are uses for such players, but ideally not in the high-leverage situations the 2010 Brewers needed him in, at least before his injury.
This year, Hawkins figures to fall a good bit lower on the bullpen depth chart. John Axford will close, and Takashi Saito will set him up. Zach Braddock figures to take care of all the higher leverage situations which demand a left-handed touch. Kameron Loe established himself as a solid reliever in 2010, leaving LaTroy Hawkins somewhere around 4th or 5th on the bullpen depth chart, instead of second. What does that mean? Instead of seeing leverage indices of 1 or higher, on average, Hawkins will probably see situations closer to a leverage index of 0.8 or 0.9. That’s perfect for a guy projected by Marcel to post a 4.15 ERA and projected by ZiPS for a 3.95 ERA. Those numbers aren’t good, but they’re not bad, either, and most teams could stand to take that out of their sixth or seventh inning guys.
Yes, the multi-million dollar deal that Melvin signed Hawkins to probably will and probably should go down as a mistake. However, it clearly wasn’t as catastrophic as the David Riske deal, and Hawkins should be able to contribute in 2011. His struggles in 2010 are exacerbated by some bad defense (I remember one ground ball in particular against the Chicago Cubs which any non-Prince Fielder first baseman probably would have had) and the tiny sample size of 16 innings. Hawkins isn’t anything special, but you don’t need special in the seventh inning. He’ll be just fine in this year’s bullpen.