April 1, 2010
Hot Spots: Relief Pitchers
With Kerry Wood out for six to eight weeks due to a strained muscle in his back, Chris Perez is the new Indians closer. The rest of the bullpen will also take on a new shape from the set-up man down. Jensen Lewis is a fly ball pitcher with a 1.2 HR/9 rate since 2007. However, he also owns an 8.2 K/9 rate and has experience in high leverage situations having been the Indians closer in 2008. Heater Indians writer Brian La Shier believes that Lewis will be the set-up man in Wood’s absence.
Joe Smith has a 67% ground ball rate and 8.1 strikeouts per nine innings since 2007. However, he gets hit hard by left-handed batters making him unsuitable for a full-time set-up role. Southpaw Tony Sipp boasted a 2.92 ERA and struck out 48 batters in 40 innings as a rookie reliever for the Indians in 2009. Sipp pitches equally well versus left-handed and right-handed batters but has struggled this spring as evidenced by his 2.29 WHIP. Smith and Sipp will pitch in high impact situations versus right-handed and left-handed batters respectively when Lewis is unavailable.
After posting a 2.78 SIERA and 10.2 K/9 rate in 2008, Rafael Perez fell off a cliff in 2009 compiling a 4.80 SIERA and 6.0 K/9 rate. He has had an encouraging spring with a 1.93 ERA and an 8/2 K/BB ratio in 9 1/3 innings. Perez will likely start the season as a middle reliever pitching in low leverage situations but can move up the depth chart quickly with a strong start.
Rays setup man J.P. Howell will begin the season on the disabled list with a sore shoulder, so the Rays need a replacement while he is out. Grant Balfour’s K/BB ratio dropped from 3.4 in 2008 to 2.1 in 2009 and his ERA soared from 1.54 to 4.81 as a result. However, his high 9.2 k rate and 3.79 SIERA in 2009 suggest that he’ll do better this year. He will likely be the primary set up man for closer Rafael Soriano until Howell returns.
Another late inning option is Dan Wheeler whose 4.53 WXRL since 2008 illustrates his ability to handle tight spots. Wheeler also has an 8.2 K/9 rate and 2.4 BB/9 rate since 2007. However, he does not fare well against left-handed batters. Randy Choate owns a 2.57 career FIP versus left-handed batters making him a better option in those situations. Wheeler and Choate will likely handle seventh and occasional eighth inning duties.
When Howell returns, he will quickly regain his set-up job. He would also be the first pitcher to get save opportunities if anything happens to Soriano. Next in line for saves would be Balfour.
Now that C.J. Wilson has officially made the Rangers rotation, there will be a shake-up in the bullpen. Neftali Feliz, one of the game’s elite pitching prospects, is a future starter but will pitch out of the bullpen this season. The twenty-one-year-old flame thrower impressed the Rangers late last season with a 39/8 K/BB ratio in 31 innings as a reliever. Despite a 12.00 spring ERA, Feliz will open the season as the set-up man for closer Frank Francisco. Feliz is also the closer-in-waiting should Francisco get hurt.
Chris Ray had a 3.48 SIERA as the Orioles closer in 2007 but then missed all of 2008 following Tommy John surgery. He had a rough year in 2009 with a 7.27 ERA in 46 appearances but he looks more like the 2007 version this spring. If Feliz can’t handle the set up role, Ray would probably take his place. For now, Ray will pitch the seventh inning and be the alternate set-up man on days when Feliz can’t pitch.
Sixteen-year veteran Darren Oliver showed no signs of age in 2009 striking out eight batters per nine innings, his highest rate since 1994. Although Oliver is left-handed, he pitches better versus right-handed batters than left-handed batters and would be misused as a lefty specialist. Darren O’Day pitched well in high leverage scenarios leading the Rangers with a 2.93 WXRL in 2009. O’Day is very good at avoiding the long ball allowing just five homers in 102 innings for his career. Both Oliver and O’Day will be used in middle relief.
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