June 3, 2010
Hot Spots: Relief Pitchers
Milwaukee keeps trying to give Trevor Hoffman chances to get his job back, and he keeps making a bad situation even worse when he does things like allow three runs in an inning to the Marlins, costing the Brewers the game. His advanced state of "being toast" brings us to the first teammate swap on the Value Picks board, as we say goodbye to Carlos Villanueva and say hello to John Axford. Villanueva didn't actually pitch that poorly while he was on the board, picking up a save the day he was added and two holds since while maintaining a high K rate, but Ken Macha clearly prefers to keep him in his set-up role and has started to give the opportunities to Axford. If you haven't jumped on him yet, now is the time, since he's picked up three saves and a win in his last four outings and is starting to gain attention in the fantasy world.
Axford's story is an interesting one, especially considering the pedigree of the man he's (currently) replacing. The 27-year-old mustachioed Canadian rookie was drafted in the 42nd round by the Reds in 2005, but didn't sign and played independent ball north of the border. He was then picked up as an amateur free agent by the Yankees for 2007, where he was so impressive that he was... released right after the season. The Brewers picked him up for 2008, and while a 4.55 ERA, 1.674 WHIP, and 6.9 BB/9 (!!) rate in High-A ball that year isn't much to speak of on its own, it's even less so when you realize he was 25, quite old for that level. Still, the Brewers must have seen something they liked, because they brought him back for 2009 and something clicked right away. A return engagement in Broward County was complete domination, striking out 14 per 9, and good work at both AA and AAA as the year progressed got him an MLB cup of coffee late in the year, where he captured his first save - a stunning rise considering where he'd been in 2008.
Back in AAA to start this season, Axford struck out nearly 13 per 9 before being recalled in mid-May, working in middle relief until his recent promotion to the closer's role, where he's maintained that K rate in the short time he's been up. Unlike the changeup artistry of Hoffman and Villanueva, Axford deals in pure heat, averaging over 95 MPH on his fastball. That said, the Brewers seem to want Hoffman to work his way back into the role so badly that there's always the danger the future Hall of Famer could steal some opportunities if he puts some clean outings together, but with the Brewers featuring the second-worst bullpen in baseball, they'd do well to go with the hot hand, and right now that's John Axford. Whether or not he sticks long-term, he's almost certainly going to get the save opportunities right now.
In Toronto, a funny thing has happened, and that's that Kevin Gregg has seemingly remembered that he's Kevin Gregg. An outstanding April (0.82 ERA, 0.636 WHIP) gave way to a lousy May (5.11 ERA, 1.946 WHIP) and a total nightmare to start June - walking five while allowing a double and four earned runs against the Rays, getting ejected on his way out for good measure. It may be too soon to definitively say he's out of a job, but if this trend keeps up, it can't be far off, so it's not premature to look for alternatives, and that means Scott Downs or Jason Frasor. Downs did notch nine saves last year as the occasional fill-in closer, but he also allowed a grand slam last night as the Blue Jays melted down for the second night in a row. Since Frasor opened the year as the closer and is the only one of the three to not be a disaster lately, the feeling here is that he'll be first in line to reclaim his old job.
Frasor has more than "former closer" on his resume going for him, though, because his season has been the inverse of Gregg's. Frasor lost his job thanks to a brutal start to his 2010, as after ten games he'd blown two saves with a 9.35 ERA and a 1.051 OPS against. With Gregg pitching as well as he did in April, it's no surprise the switch was made. In the thirteen games after that, he was a new man, allowing just a 1.42 ERA and cutting his OPS allowed in half, to .522. Since Cito Gaston showed no hesitation in going from the struggling Frasor to the hot Gregg in April, there's no reason to think he wouldn't do the same now that the roles are reversed - especially with what we've seen over the last two nights.
As for who's remaining....
Will Ohman: If he hasn't picked up any saves since joining this list last week, well, that would be because the dreadful Orioles have lost seven in a row and haven't had any leads to actually save. Each of the last two games he's entered was to finish out the game, so he's still the best bet to get save chances in Baltimore, should the Orioles actually ever see themselves in that position again.
Drew Storen: The pieces are falling into place for the Nationals rookie, and maybe quicker than we thought. Matt Capps isn't really in danger of losing his job, but it's also hard to ignore that after allowing a run in three of his first eighteen games, he's now done so in five of his last seven, blowing two saves along the way. Keep an eye on this situation, because while Capps has earned the right to recover from his struggles, the Nationals won't let him keep this up forever as they contend for the first time in years.
Matt Thornton: Bobby Jenks hasn't pitched since May 26 as he nurses a strained calf. Now, Ozzie Guillen says that Jenks is healthy and is his closer, but let's not forget that Jenks' last game nearly ended in disaster, as he allowed three runs. Meanwhile, Thornton hasn't allowed a run since April. So, Ozzie, you'll excuse me if I'd like to wait and see how Jenks does in his return before I give up on Thornton just yet.
Evan Meek: Meek picked up his third win against the Cubs on Memorial Day, so while we're waiting to see him get saves, he's at least contributing some wins and holds elsewhere. Each of his three outings in the last week were scoreless, so he's done nothing to hurt his standing in Pittsburgh once Octavio Dotel inevitably gets moved.