The Wingnuts have often been a step ahead of the volatile nature of bullpens.
It has frequently taken them two or three tries within a season, but the Wingnuts have built successful relief corps by liberally shuffling pitchers in and out.
That formula hasn’t done much for the career stability of those pitchers, though, and none of them have made it through two full seasons in Wichita as full-time relievers. Josh Dew and Jared Simon, right-handers both entering their second years in the Wingnuts bullpen, have a chance to break that trend.
Dew was one of the American Association’s most dominant closers before and while laboring late in the season with a hip injury. Simon led Wichita in appearances and filled several roles as Wichita attempted to stabilize the bullpen.
"It’s an accomplishment just because (manager Kevin Hooper) has confidence in us to get the job done," Simon said. “I just really think, from a consistency standpoint when you’re a reliever, going through two seasons is tough.”
Last year Wichita used 17 relievers, struggling to find an effective mix and to match pitchers to late-inning roles.
An inconsistent bullpen contributed to a season of ups and downs, and Hooper was forced to make quick decisions regarding personnel. As the Wingnuts tried to secure a playoff spot, Hooper was often unable to exhibit patience when relievers produced rough outings.
A 100-game season necessitates such trigger-pulling, as did difficulty finding starters at the back end of the rotation who could eat innings and take pressure off the relievers. Hooper was sometimes forced to give longer leashes to struggling relievers when no obvious upgrades were available.
"I would say that’s one of the tougher spots of my job," Hooper said. "I’ll tell them from the get-go — the bullpen is tough sometimes. There’s always going to be some guys that feel like they aren’t throwing as much as they should be, and that’s kind of how it is."
Dew and Simon largely avoided the bad stretches most relievers endure and that some can’t emerge from. Dew was overpowering from the start, and he finished with 20 saves and a 1.12 ERA while striking out 62 in 40 innings and not allowing a home run.
The hip injury slowed Dew in the postseason, and he allowed three runs in his first playoff appearance against Grand Prairie, which beat Wichita in the first round.
Dew said he has most of his strength back after undergoing surgery during the offseason.
"I messed it up pretty good in July, and that’s when all the pain started," Dew said. "I still had a couple months to kind of gut it out. Toward the end of the year it got pretty bad. That’s not the reason I blew a game or anything like that. I was still giving it everything I had, I was just slowly losing everything I had."
Simon, a former Wichita State pitcher, faced multiple batters in all but one of his appearances in 2011.
He pitched more than one inning in 19 of his 47 games and often worked out of trouble — Simon surrendered 86 baserunners in 55 1/3 innings but had a 2.93 ERA.
"I love it, because I can be in there any given night," Simon said. "Going back-to-back days or whatever."
A deeper bullpen with more experienced pitchers could move Simon to a matchup role this season. Dew will remain closer with Edgar Martinez and Matt Nevarez, pitchers who are familiar with late-inning pressure, setting him up.
It looks good on paper, but bullpens usually do. Pitching to just a few batters at a time keeps results unpredictable and roster changes practically inevitable. Dew and Simon could make team history by doing something that doesn’t seem uncommon.
"It’s a revolving door, I would say, a bullpen," Hooper said. "At this level, you’ve got to win. It s a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business. Whether fair or unfair, that’s what it is. You’ve got to try to get the guys in there that are going to help you."