July 1, 2010
Hot Spots: Relief Pitchers
Two new names join the list this week, and we'll start with Chris Perez of Cleveland. One of the main reasons we add a reliever to this list is usually that the incumbent in front of him is struggling or injured, opening up opportunity which may not have been there before. In Perez' case, it's exactly the opposite: he's here because Kerry Wood has started to be effective.
As I've been saying all season in this space, looking for fantasy value among relievers is quite different than at other positions, simply because of lack of opportunity. You might take a chance on a backup third baseman who only gets five at-bats a week, but he always has a chance to hit a homer in those at-bats, regardless of what the score or situation is. For relievers, it's almost more important to grab a guy in the right position rather than the more talented one, just due to the limited distribution of tasty, tasty save opportunities. That, friends, is how we end up with Aaron Heilman and Alfredo Simon on this list instead of Luke Gregerson.
Back to the Indians, many of us were writing off Wood after his most recent implosion, allowing a walkoff homer to Jimmy Rollins on June 23. Yet since then, he's been downright nasty in converting three consecutive save opportunies, allowing just one hit while striking out six over the three innings. Prior to the Philly disaster, he'd ripped off four scoreless outings in a row, and for the month of June overall he's allowed just a .184 batting average and a 10/2 K/BB rate. With last-place Cleveland all but announcing a fire sale by trading Russell Branyan to Seattle, Wood might just turn himself into a valuable commodity in a tough reliever trade market with a few more productive appearances.
If and when that happens, the Indians will surely turn the keys back over to Perez, who turns 25 today and already has 15 saves in his short career, including 7 already this year, several racked up as Wood's replacement during the veteran's disabled list stint. With Wood unavailable last night, it was Perez who entered the game in the 9th, where he shut down Toronto for save #7. Perez has outpitched Wood so far this season, walking fewer and allowing less hits and homers per nine than the former Cub, so if and when Wood is dealt, Perez is well-situated to step right in.
Hong-Chih Kuo is also joining us this week, but not because of any imminent danger to Jonathan Broxton's job security. It's mostly because Kuo has been one of the most dominating pitchers in baseball, even gathering support for the All-Star game. But it's also because the Dodger bullpen - so strong last year - has been in tatters this season, largely due to the drastic regression by George Sherrill and Ramon Troncoso since last season, with no small share of the blame heaped on Joe Torre's bullpen management "strategies". While Broxton is obviously one of the top closers in baseball, Torre's also made it clear that he trusts only Broxton (who pitched in four of five games last week, throwing 95 pitches in that span), Kuo, and occasionally Ronald Belisario. Despite his best efforts, Broxton can't pitch every night, and with Sherrill and Troncoso no longer options, Kuo stands to pick up save chances here and there - and with Broxton needing his nights off, Kuo has indeed picked up two saves in the last two weeks.
Kuo's magnificence this year just cannot be overstated. In 24.1 innings, he's struck out 30, allowing just 18 baserunners and three runs. That's nice enough, but what he's done against fellow lefties is so ridiculous that I almost feel foolish typing it. A fellow lefty has stepped to the plate 30 times against Kuo this year. Their line against him? .000/.100/.000. That's three walks and not a single hit. He hasn't allowed a base hit to a lefty since Tony Gwynn, Jr. slapped a single up the middle last September 29.
Kuo, as we all know, has managed to survive and indeed thrive despite four arm surgeries (including two zippers). Despite that, his domination is such that he's one of the few non-closers worth a roster spot, and Torre being Torre, he's getting the opportunity to vulture a save or two as well.
As for who's sticking around this week...
Alfredo Simon: Despite Mike Gonzalez starting his rehab stint, he's not expected back until after the All-Star Break - and even then, may need to wrestle the closer's job back from Simon. Simon tossed a perfect inning at the A's last night, earning his 10th save on the season and fourth game in a row in which he's been unscored upon while notching either a save or a win. The big man has taken firm control of the job in Baltimore, and should be owned in far more leagues than he is.
Aaron Heilman: The stats show that Heilman has blown two save opportunities since ascending to the Arizona closer's role, but that's sort of misleading - he hasn't allowed a hit in either one! His first came off of a few walks (one intentional) and a sacrifice fly, and the most recent one, on Monday in St. Louis, was hardly a case of him getting hammered. Entering the game with two on, no outs, and a two-run lead, Heilman fielded an Adam Wainwright bunt and made an error on the throw, allowing one run to score. After inducing a groundout to short, the next batter grounded to first baseman Adam LaRoche, who made an error of his own, scoring the tying and winning runs. Overall, Heilman has converted three of his five save opportunities, including closing out the Cardinals last night. There are those who think that rookie Sam Demel may get his shot, but he's been used in the 6th inning in each of his last three games, and was hit hard in St. Louis on Tuesday. If anything, Chad Qualls would get another chance, but this is Heilman's gig for now.
Arthur Rhodes:Yes, I know. As soon as Rhodes joined the list, he allowed three runs to the Phillies without recording an out, thus putting an end to his nearly season-long scoreless streak. One bad game shouldn't be enough to change opinions on him, of course, and he came back yesterday to grab a win with a scoreless inning. The reasons which put him on this list in the first place still stand, because beyond his great season, the Reds bullpen is still in turmoil, with even Danny Herrera getting demoted this week. Francisco Cordero has converted four saves in a row, but he's hardly been consistent - and is in many ways having one of the worst seasons of his career. Keep an eye on Cincinnati.
Brandon League: As expected, David Aardsma did leave the team to be with his wife for the birth of their child, and League nailed down his only save opportunity. With Aardsma expected to be a nice target on the trade market, League could end up with the fulltime job sooner than later. Really, though, as important as it would be to League to see Aardsma gone, it might almost be as good to see Cliff Lee leave. If he and Felix Hernandez are going to keep throwing complete games, that doesn't leave much left for the bullpen.
And we're saying goodbye to...
Brandon Lyon: This isn't a knock on Lyon, who's actually working on five consecutive scoreless outings. But he was useful only while Matt Lindstrom was injured and/or struggling, and that's no longer the case. Don't get me wrong - I'm still not big on Lindstrom, whose WHIP is nearly 1.600. It's just that since he's converted three saves and had a scoreless inning yesterday since his last blown save, it's clear that he's healthy and that his job is no longer in jeopardy. Good for him, good for the Astros, and lousy for those of us looking to take advantage of a change in Houston.
Fernando Rodney: After practically an entire season of expecting Brian Fuentes to fall off the cliff at any second, Fuentes has managed to stabilize himself somewhat by contributing five consecutive scoreless outings, four of which were saves. Rodney still has value - he's received two save chances in the last two weeks - and on the whole, he's been more successful than Fuentes. For now, we'll look elsewhere though.