‘Looseness to this group’: Arizona Diamondbacks bullpen enters 2024 Spring Training with sense of relief

Ryan Thompson says he’s open to stepping into any bullpen role for the Arizona Diamondbacks during the 2024 season. (Photo by Joe Eigo/Cronkite News)

SCOTTSDALE – Around this time last year, it was evident that the Arizona Diamondbacks had a bullpen problem. Now, the bullpen would seem to be the least of the team’s worries.

Last season, a set strategy appeared non-existent after the team finished with the league’s sixth-highest bullpen ERA (4.58) in 2022. The club ultimately went the closer-by-committee route, only for that strategy to occasionally break down in high-pressure situations.

By July, the Diamondbacks posted a record of 49-34 and sat in the middle of a postseason race, but the bullpen was still struggling. To solve this lingering issue, the team traded for Seattle Mariners closer Paul Sewald at the trade deadline, filling the closer hole and bringing a sense of ease in tight games.

Sewald posted a 3.57 ERA in 20 regular season games while tallying 13 saves in 15 save opportunities. He also had six saves in seven opportunities during the postseason.

The team also signed free agent reliever Ryan Thompson in August and called up prospect Andrew Saalfrank. Add Kevin Ginkel to the mix, and a once-struggling bullpen pulled enough pieces together to make a postseason push that landed them in the World Series.

A key component of the Arizona Diamondbacks' bullpen, Kevin Ginkel looks to replicate his success from last season when he posted a 2.48 ERA. (Photo by Joe Eigo/Cronkite News)

A key component of the Arizona Diamondbacks’ bullpen, Kevin Ginkel looks to replicate his success from last season when he posted a 2.48 ERA. (Photo by Joe Eigo/Cronkite News)

“It’s easy to win the games when you get to throw in your best guys and you’re winning by three in the late innings,” Sewald said. “So, the key is just depth, where anybody who we throw out there is going to be able to throw up a zero.”

A foundation was set: Thompson would pitch the seventh, Ginkel in the eighth and Sewald to close out the ninth. Entering September, Arizona’s bullpen ranked 25th in the majors with a 4.69 ERA. After this trio came to fruition, Arizona’s bullpen pitched to a 2.31 ERA for the rest of the regular season and proved vital in the postseason.

Now, nearly a week into spring training, not much has changed. The Diamondbacks’ current bullpen is nearly a replica of the 2023 group, generating confidence among not just the relievers, but the entire pitching staff.

“I think there is a looseness to this group. … We’ve got some good arms on this count,” Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo said. “They understand who they are, and they feel comfortable with where their feet are. That’s the sense I’m getting after two days.”

Last August, Thompson was designated for assignment by Tampa Bay after allowing 12 earned runs in 17.2 innings. Upon signing with the Diamondbacks, he pitched to a 0.69 ERA in 13 innings.

His immediate success propelled him into that seventh-inning set-up role.

“What was unique with my time here was the first time in my career where I had a set role,” Thompson said. “I knew I was going to be the guy that was going to pass the baton to Ginkel. That was something that helped me be better in my preparation.”

Prized Arizona Diamondbacks acquisition Paul Sewald points to "depth" as being the bullpen's key to success during the 2024 season. (Photo by Joe Eigo/Cronkite News)

Prized Arizona Diamondbacks acquisition Paul Sewald points to “depth” as being the bullpen’s key to success during the 2024 season. (Photo by Joe Eigo/Cronkite News)

As for Ginkel, the 29-year-old experienced elbow soreness near the start of spring training. To Ginkel’s delight, imaging showed everything was fine. He threw a bullpen session on Tuesday where everything seemed OK in the eyes of Lovullo, but the set-up man will still be used carefully throughout spring. Ginkel recorded a 2.48 ERA in 65.1 innings in 2023.

The Thompson-Ginkel-Sewald trio worked well in the long run, but with a plethora of arms ready to go at any given moment, a few early hiccups could have the coaching staff playing it by ear.

“It always depends on performance,” Thompson said. “That might be their idea now, but it depends on how spring training goes and it depends how the first week of the season goes. I anticipate them just being open with me on what role they want me to do, and I’m going to do my best to be the best I can be for them.”

Rounding out the bullpen are relievers Joe Mantiply, Miguel Castro, Luis Frias and Kyle Nelson, all who had durable seasons in 2023. Castro, Nelson and Frias combined for a 4.18 ERA in 151 2/3 innings. However, while his stats seemed solid in terms of MLB talent, Mantiply’s season was a different story.

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After an All-Star season in 2022, where he recorded a 2.85 ERA in 60 innings, Mantiply entered 2023 with high expectations. Instead, he dealt with multiple injuries, affecting his performance and leading to multiple trips to Triple-A Reno.

He ended 2023 with a 4.62 ERA in 69 innings. It was the first time in his career that he’d dealt with such adversity.

“For the most part, I felt my year was pretty unsuccessful,” Mantiply said. “Even though they weren’t major injuries, I think they definitely had an effect on my performance. I’m trying to just avoid that and just get better every single day, and be a guy that can help this team win games and hopefully get back to the postseason.”

Regardless of past success or abnormalities, a new season awaits. The Diamondbacks are looking to get back to the postseason, working to prove that their World Series run was not a fluke. But for now, it begins in the clubhouse, getting to know new faces and creating an inseparable bond.

“I know we’ve got six weeks to train and get ready for Opening Day, and it’ll be up to me and the rest of the staff to push them in the right direction,” Lovullo said. “But for right now, I want them to feel that looseness, and create that bond and get their feet under that.”

Aaron Schmidt EH-run shmit
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Aaron Schmidt expects to graduate in spring 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in film and media production. In addition to the Phoenix Sports Bureau, Schmidt reports for The Arizona Republic and The State Press. He has also interned with Arizona’s Family and Arizona Sports 98.7.

Joe Eigo joe EYE-go (he/him)
Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Joe Eigo expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Eigo is in his third semester at Cronkite News. He has previously worked with Inferno Intel, WCSN, The State Press and The Racing Experts.