March 25, 2010
Hot Spots: Relief Pitchers
Now that Joe Nathan has decided to undergo Tommy John surgery and is officially out for the season, the Twins need to find a replacement for one of the game’s most dominant closers. Many analysts, including Heater Twins writer Nick Nelson, believe that Jon Rauch has the inside track. Rauch had no trouble with the switch to the American League compiling a 1.72 ERA in 17 appearances after being acquired from Arizona for the stretch drive last year. The towering right-hander has closing experience in his favor having saved 24 games for the Diamondbacks and Nationals from 2007-2009.
The durable Matt Guerrier, who led the league in appearances in 2008 and 2009, is another ninth- inning option. The veteran right-hander has no closing experience but pitched well in high leverage situations as a set-up man in 2009 posting a 3.51 WXRL. Guerrier has been his usual steady self this spring allowing no walks and no runs in seven innings.
Another possible stopper candidate is right-hander Jesse Crain. After struggling with shoulder problems early last year, Crain recovered in the second half posting a 2.91 ERA and .616 OPS in 34 innings. However, his .840 OPS versus left-handed batters since 2007 suggests that he might not be suitable as a full-time closer.
Despite some rumors to the contrary, two pitchers who are not likely to inherit Nathan’s job are Francisco Liriano and Pat Neshek. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire confirmed that Liriano is competing for a starting job rather than a bullpen role. While he may be a future closer, Neshek missed all of 2009 after undergoing Tommy John surgery and is still building arm strength.
Successfully rehabilitated from surgery for a dislocated knee cap, Diamondbacks closer Chad Qualls is expected to be in good shape by opening day. Should anything happen to Qualls, manager A.J. Hinch could turn to right-hander Juan Gutierrez. The converted starter allowed just two home runs in 71 innings and had an 8.0 K/9 rate in his first season as a reliever in 2009. He impressed enough to inherit the closer role when Qualls went down with the knee injury in September. Gutierrez has allowed no runs or hits in six appearances this spring.
Another possible closer-in-waiting is free agent acquisition Bob Howry, a control artist with a 2.3 BB/9 rate since 2007. The veteran Howry has proven to be quite durable with five consecutive years of 60 or more appearances. For now, Gutierrez and Howry are competing for the set-up role.
Other pitchers who could see time in late innings include southpaw Clay Zavada and right-hander Aaron Heilman. Heater Diamondbacks writer Michael Street originally had Zavada pegged as the left-handed set-up man but he has had control troubles this spring (7 walks in 7 innings) and has dropped in the depth chart. Hinch suggested that Heilman could see late inning duty but he has not helped himself with a 10.29 ERA this spring.
Huston Street is likely to start the season on the disabled list due to shoulder soreness. Despite a less than stellar spring, Franklin Morales will get the first opportunity to fill the closer role in Street’s absence. After missing time early last season with a strained shoulder, the left-handed fire baller returned as a reliever in the second half and thrived in that role whiffing 41 batters in 40 innings. He finished the season as a stopper after Street was shelved with biceps tendinitis in September.
If Morales is unable to handle the temporary closer role, then Manny Corpas is next in line. Corpas saved 19 games and boasted a 2.08 ERA as the Rockies closer in 2007 but has not been as effective since then. He has also not been especially sharp this spring as evidenced by his 6.48 ERA. His good control and ability to induce ground balls does make him a viable candidate however.
Set-up man Rafael Betancourt has battled shoulder inflammation this spring and is still questionable for opening day. Manager Jim Tracy would prefer to leave Betancourt in the eighth inning role when healthy but he could get a chance to close if all else fails. The good news is that Street’s MRI came back negative and he’s not expected to be out for more than a month. He will surely regain his closer role upon his return.
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