March 18, 2010
Hot Spots: Relief Pitchers
The Orioles signed Mike Gonzalez during the off-season to be their stopper and his job is safe. However, with his history of elbow problems and his recent back stiffness, it is prudent to keep an eye on potential replacements. Possible alternatives include Jim Johnson, Kam Mickolio, and Koji Uehara.
Johnson has accumulated 33 saves as a closer over the past two seasons but does not have the stuff to dominate in that role. He’s been a worm killer with a 60% ground-ball rate in the last two seasons but has had a K/9 rate of only 5.6. The physically imposing and hard throwing Mickolio could have a future as a closer but his control is still a concern and PECOTA projects a 4.6 BB/9 rate.
Formerly of the Yomiuri Giants of the Japanese Central League, Uehara displayed uncanny control as a starter for the Orioles last year walking just 12 batters in 66 2/3 innings. However, injuries to his leg and elbow and general concerns about his future durability have pushed the Orioles to move him back to the bullpen. Uehara posted a 1.74 ERA and a fantastic 66/4 K/BB ratio as a reliever in Japan in 2007. So, look for him to outperform his PECOTA ERA in relief.
Heater’s Oriole writer Brian Joseph says that Uehara has been sharp this spring and has emerged as the favorite to win the set-up role. However, both Johnson and Uehara are potential candidates to close if Gonzalez has any further health problems.
Unable to resign closer Jose Valverde, the Astros grabbed free agent Brandon Lyon and acquired Matt Lindstrom in a trade with the Marlins during the off-season. After losing the Tiger closer role to Fernando Rodney last spring, Lyon is now in danger of losing the same role as an Astro. The veteran right-hander has been sidelined with a sore shoulder after having a cyst drained in January. Lindstrom is now making a push for the job.
Lyon’s 2.86 ERA last year was aided by a very low .226 BABIP. His 3.59 PECOTA ERA is more in line with his ability. His uncharacteristically high 3.6 BB/9 rate last year is not a concern as his lifetime 2.7 rate shows that he generally has good control.
Once regarded as a future stopper by the Marlins, Lindstrom’s 2009 season was marred by a strained rotator cuff and sprained elbow and he finished with a 5.89 ERA and 1.65 WHIP. His 3.96 SIERA over 2007-2008 gives a more reasonable projection of his future performance. Converted starter Jeff Fulchino posted a 3.40 ERA in 82 innings in his first full season as a reliever last year. His above average peripherals in 2009 (7.8 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, and 53% GB%) indicate that he can do better than his PECOTA line suggests.
Lyon is scheduled to pitch versus the Tigers today. If he passes that test and stays healthy for the remainder of the spring, then he should retain the ninth inning job. However, any setbacks this late in March would likely mean that Lindstrom would open the season as the closer. If Lyon is out for any length of time, Fulchino would probably set up Lindstrom.
The surprising release of Eddie Guardado means that the Nationals have one less mediocre late inning reliever. It leaves Brian Bruney, Sean Burnett, and Matt Capps as the most likely candidates to handle the eighth and ninth innings.
Free agent acquisition Matt Capps is penciled in as the closer but is not a lock. After two strong seasons as the Pirates closer in 2007-2008, Capps saw his ERA balloon to 5.80 last year. A .360 BABIP contributed to his misery but the bigger culprits were 10 home runs in 54 innings and a -1.33 WXRL. His shoulder and elbow woes of the past two seasons also leave doubts about his future durability. If Capps fails to hold onto his closer job, Brian Bruney would likely take his place. Bruney has a solid 7.9 K/9 rate over the last three seasons and is tough on right-handed batters.
Heater Nationals writer Paul Bugala thinks that the left-handed Burnett will get more opportunities in high leverage situations with Guardado out of the picture. Burnett’s 55% ground ball rate since 2007 helps offset his poor 4.9 BB/9 rate. His .570 OPS versus left-handed batters makes him a good situational option. However, he is less effective versus right-handed batters making him less suitable for a regular set-up or closer role.
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