September 9, 2010
Hot Spots: Relief Pitchers
As you've probably noticed from my Hot Spots cohorts this week, we're using September to look towards next year. This week is the NL, and next week we'll cover the the AL. Now, I like to think that the weekly Hot Spots pieces have been pretty useful this season, but if it's taught me anything, it's that trying to predict saves from the lower level of relievers even a week in advance can be a difficult pursuit. That gets multiplied exponentially when talking about looking ahead to the following season, particularly because - as usual - I won't be wasting your time pointing out that Heath Bell and Mariano Rivera are really good at closing. So the guys we're looking at today don't necessarily enter 2011 as the undisputed closers on their teams (they can't, really, if they're to be "value picks"), but rather are young up-and-comers, lightly owned in fantasy, who have the right mix of talent and opportunity to make them interesting for next year.
If you think about the Atlanta bullpen headed into 2011, one word should enter your mind: "opportunity". Billy Wagner is having one of his best seasons at 38, but he's made his intentions to retire clear. Takashi Saito is 40 with an elbow held together by chewing gum and duct tape, and while Peter Moylan and Eric O'Flaherty are each valuable relievers, neither are seen as closer candidates.
Meanwhile, Jonny Venters has made a miraculous transformation from something of a lightly-regarded non-prospect into one of the more dominating relievers in the league. In 2009, Venters made 17 starts for AAA Gwinnett County, and the results weren't pretty - he put up a 5.62 ERA, while barely striking out more (5.7/9) than he walked (4.1/9). This year in the bigs? Oh, just the lowest OPS against of any pitcher (min. 60 IP) in MLB. Venters' turnaround has been fueled mostly by his growing mastery of a sinker he began throwing in late 2008, after several years of dealing with arm woes. Unlike your ordinary sinker, Venters can push his into the upper 90s, something Bobby Cox says he's never seen from a lefty in all his years in the game.
Venters, owned in less than 4% of ESPN leagues, isn't the only young flamethrower kicking around Atlanta; Craig Kimbrel has been mentioned as a future closer as well. Kimbrel hasn't had nearly the MLB success Venters has - he's pitched in just nine games, walking 11 (though striking out 17) - so my money's on Venters being in the driver's seat for the 9th inning next year, with Kimbrel eased into the bigs as his control allows.
Speaking of young power arms who were non-prospects a year ago, we come to Los Angeles' Kenley Jansen. Jansen's ascent is possibly even more unlikely than that of Venters, since Jansen spent most of five seasons as a light-hitting catcher in the Dodger system. He was finally convinced that he had no future there late in 2009, and entered 2010 with just 11.2 pro innings on his resume. After racking up gaudy strikeout numbers in A and AA ball this year (15.6/9), Jansen has continued his assault on major leaguers, striking out 27 in 16.2 innings. I don't want to put too much importance on 16.2 innings, but the ensuing 14.58 K/9 rate would be good for the 6th highest season rate of all time. That's good for anyone; it's ridiculous for a converted catcher who's been pitching for just about a year.
It still seems odd to say this, but there's a pretty sizable hole in the back of the Dodger bullpen. Jonathan Broxton's second-half meltdown has been well documented, and while Hong-Chih Kuo has been dominant all year, his history of arm injuries means he rarely can go on consecutive nights. It's not impossible to think that the cash-strapped Dodgers look to move Broxton and the $7m coming to him in 2011, and veterans/former closers George Sherrill and Octavio Dotel almost certainly won't be back as well. It's probably a bit much to think that Jansen comes out of camp as the closer, but it's not at all unreasonable to think that he's the #2 option, especially with the constant worry over Kuo's health.
We'll stick with the theme of "young fireballers behind uncertain veterans" and head to Queens, and Bobby Parnell. Francisco Rodriguez' off-field troubles are no secret, and though he's expected to be healthy by the spring, he'll have to prove his health coming off of hand surgery. Current fill-in closer Hisanori Takahashi has stepped in admirably in K-Rod's absence, but he'll be a free agent after the season and there's been noises that he'd prefer to start anyway.
As for Parnell, he's been a bright spot in the Mets' relief corps this year, pumping in heat that averages over 96 MPH and has been known to top 100. Ignore his ERA, because most of that is coming from two poor outings. He's been unscored upon in 33 of 37 outings, and that's what counts. Manager Jerry Manuel recently mentioned that Parnell would get some save chances as the season comes to a close; the fact that we haven't really seen that is due more to the inability of the Mets to actually take a close lead into the 9th more than anything else.
Our final name to keep an eye on is Jeremy Jeffress, a 2006 first rounder probably best known for his multiple suspensions for marijuana. Back in June, when he was about to make his season debut, BP's Kevin Goldstein made the prescient observation that "if he keeps throwing strikes, he could rocket through the system as a short-stint reliever." Jeffress did just that, striking out 12.6 across three levels while keeping the walks down to 3.3/9. In his first two outings in the bigs, he's averaged over 96 MPH on his fastball, heat that will play anywhere.
Jeffress will play in the Arizona Fall League this offseason, looking to catch up on the innings he missed during his suspension. Looking to 2011, John Axford has probably nailed down the closing job, but Trevor Hoffman won't be back. Some considering should be given to to Zach Braddock as well, but he simply doesn't have the ceiling that Jeffress does. If he can keep his nose clean - no simple task, I'll grant, but hopefully the threat of a lifetime ban helps - Jeffress should be right in the mix in Milwaukee next season.