May 13, 2010
Hot Spots: Relief Pitchers
Welcome to the Jungle: There's an interesting situation brewing in Chicago, since incumbent closer Bobby Jenks is allowing 13.8 hits per nine, a large part of why his WHIP is north of two. His tenuous hold on the job seemed to be loosening not only because he allowed four runs without getting an out against Toronto over the weekend, but because Ozzie Guillen didn't hesitate to say he'd be looking for other options. Shocking, I know. Ozzie went so far as to say that he'd now be choosing his closer based "on matchups", and then went right back out and allowed Jenks to save the next game against Minnesota.
Still, Jenks getting that save doesn't close the book on the situation. Matt Thornton's been one of the better relievers in the American League for a few years now, and he's been absolutely murder on fellow lefties this year with an 18/0 K/BB ratio. Going back to that game against the Twins, Thornton was brought into the game to protect a three-run lead in the 8th inning with Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, both lefties in the heart of the lineup, leading off the inning. Thornton allowed a single to Mauer, but got through the inning unscathed otherwise. When Jenks came in, the 7-8-9 in the lineup (Delmon Young, Brendan Harris, and Nick Punto) were scheduled to hit. Jenks managed to get through it, but not before allowing a double to pinch-hitter Jim Thome and a wild pitch in the process. So while we can argue that Jenks got the save there, I think we all can tell where that game was really won.
Jenks likely still gets his chances, even if they are based on matchups, but he's clearly on a short rope. Thornton is one of the few non-closing relievers who's actually worth owning thanks to his very high strikeout rate, and since he may now be able to grab save chances here and there (and more if Jenks doesn't pull it together) that value just goes up. He's still available in about 85% of ESPN leagues.
The situation is a little different in Colorado, where interim closer Franklin Morales has landed on the DL with shoulder weakness. Morales had all but lost his job to Manny Corpas anyway, even before the injury was noted. Corpas, you may remember, was the team's closer during their World Series run in 2007 and was outstanding, but lost his job in 2008 and had settled into a setup man role since. He's available in more than 90% of ESPN leagues, but of course, there's complications here - not the least of which being that Corpas was immediately bombed by the Phillies after entering in the 9th inning of a tie game. Still, that shouldn't overshadow the nice season he'd been putting together prior to that; he brought a 1.66 ERA with a .489 OPS against into that game.
The other issue here is that Colorado's original closer, Huston Street, is steadily making progress back from his own shoulder injury. Barring a setback, Street should be back on or around May 25th, or just under two weeks from now. Corpas may only be the closer (and on this list) for a short time, but teams needing some quick help in relief stats for the rest of the month might get a short boost from him while he's got the opportunity.
Should I Stay or Should I Go: I was unsure about adding Conteras last week, but I'm glad I did, because he's now in the middle of the perfect storm in Philadelphia. The top two Phillies relievers? Ryan Madson's going to be out for the next two months following toe surgery, and now Brad Lidge has been sent back to Philly to get his surgically-repaired elbow checked out. The remaining crew? J.C. Romero's still just coming back from injury himself, and he's started slowly in allowing seven baserunners over his first three innings. Danys Baez still can't get his ERA below 6, and while Chad Durbin's been effective, he also gave up a walkoff homer to Miguel Olivo yesterday.
Clearly, there's opportunity here, but as we've seen before, none of that matters if you can't take advantage of it when it's presented to you. Contreras has done that and more, dominating the opposition with a 15/1 K/BB ratio, allowing just one earned run on the year. The skeptical among you may note that Contreras hasn't actually notched a save yet, but that's somewhat a matter of semantics. On Monday, the Phillies went into the top of the 9th in Colorado in a tie ballgame, and put up four runs to go ahead 9-5. It was Contreras who entered in the 9th inning to shut it down; had the Phils merely scored three runs rather than four, he'd have been in position for the save.
While we all kind of snicker, because it is Jose Contreras, after all, there's reason to believe his resurgence has some weight behind it. He was all but left for dead in 2009 after a brutal stint with the White Sox, ending his Chicago career with a 5-13, 5.42 ERA line in 21 starts, culminating in allowing eight runs (six earned) in a start against the Yankees on August 29th. Two days later, he was dealt to Colorado for a minor league pitcher and made two starts before mildly straining his right quad. Contreras returned for the last week-plus of the season a new man, and a new pitcher. Now reinvented as a reliever, he allowed just one run in 7.1 innings as Colorado pushed towards the NL Wild Card, and he's kept that up this year out of the bullpen as well. What's the difference? Besides for the obvious change in leagues, Contreras has seen a marked increase in his velocity since moving to the bullpen. A fastball which averaged 91.6 MPH with the White Sox last year jumped to 93.9 as a Rockie; this year that's risen even further to 94.7. We've seen it before a million times: when a pitcher no longer has to worry about pacing himself a few times through the lineup, he'll often be able to add something extra to his heater, and that extra juice can be the difference between success and failure. No one expects Contreras to keep up quite this level of domination, of course, but his success combined with the injuries elsewhere in that bullpen means that he could be looking at significant value, right now. And he's still owned in just 2.5% of ESPN leagues!
Since I was so verbose on Contreras, let's touch on our other three returnees more briefly. Alfredo Simon may not be long for this list, as his ownership is rising, but we'll keep him for another week in case you're one of the 70% of fantasy owners who play in a league where he's available. After some initial control issues, he's now gone four outings in a row without a walk, and is finishing off the Mariners for his fourth save as I'm writing this. He's also eligible as a starting pitcher (at least in ESPN leagues), so you could steal back a roster spot by not needing to use a relief role on him (like I've done for both Simon and Contreras in my league). In Pittsburgh, Evan Meek keeps on keeping on, as his stat line is sparkling. Just remember what we discussed last week; Octavio Dotel has gotten back on track with four scoreless outings (three of which were saves) in a row, so the opportunity may not be there until after the trading deadline. Finally, Michael Wuertz has pitched just 2.2 innings in his return from injury, and hasn't yet allowed a walk or a run.
Smell You Later: There's no quicker way to get off the Value Picks list than to get yourself onto the disabled list, and that's exactly what LaTroy Hawkins managed to do, thanks to what's being called right shoulder weakness. That'd go a long way in explaining his implosion last week; after putting out four scoreless outings in five tries with a nice strikeout rate, he gave up three hits and a walkoff grand slam to Andre Ethier in the second of back-to-back appearances. It was the first time he'd been asked to go on back-to-back nights since his first and second games of the season, and while he's hardly the only pitcher to get victimized by Ethier this year, he'd also hardly be the first 37-year-old who couldn't handle pitching without a night off. As for other Milwaukee options, Trevor Hoffman had converted his previous two save opportunities before getting bombed yesterday (allowing three runs on two walks and two hits), but Manny Parra and Carlos Villanueva each gave up two runs as well. Point being, that mess needs to sort itself out before you go anywhere near it.
As for Affeldt, he's done nothing wrong at all, picking up another hold while getting into four games in the 8th or 9th inning, so I still like him to vulture some stats. He's been here long enough, though, so time for him to move on in favor of our new contestants.