December 9, 2010
Hot Spots: Relief Pitchers
It's Thursday morning in the East, and that means Hot Spots is back with another look at Hot Stove relief moves. Today we're looking at new faces in the desert, and the return of the best closer in history.
If you read this space during the 2010 season, you'll remember that I spent a good amount of time talking about the Arizona bullpen, where it seemed we'd have a new closer candidate every week. If it wasn't Chad Qualls, it was Juan Gutierrez, or Samuel Demel, or Aaron Heilman, or the ghosts of Matt Mantei and Byung-Hyun Kim. It didn't really matter who the Snakes tried to plug in, of course; the relief corps were bad on a historic level and were largely responsible for GM Josh Byrnes and manager A.J. Hinch losing their jobs before the season ended.
Incoming GM Kevin Towers has a reputation for building bullpens from his San Diego days, and he's wasted no time in trying to revive the back end of the pitching staff. Slugging 3B Mark Reynolds was shipped off to Baltimore for righties David Hernandez and Kam Mickolio, while J.J. Putz was imported from Chicago on a two-year contract. If Hernandez and Putz sound familiar here, they should - each made appearances on the Value Picks list during 2010. Hernandez lost his starting spot after eight lousy outings this year, which tends to happen when you're walking more (28) than you're striking out (27). Yet once he got into the bullpen, Hernandez was a revelation; his K/BB ratio went from under 1 to nearly 3.5 in relief. Put another way, he pitched about the same number of innings in relief (37.0) as he'd had as a starter (42.1), but his K/BB went from the aforementioned 28/27 to an excellent 45/13. His high homer rate remains a concern, especially headed into Arizona, but he was so much better in relief that we'll need to give him a shot to see if being a fulltime reliever will help him in that category as well.
Still, Hernandez will be more of an 8th-inning guy in Arizona and thus more of a player of interest rather than someone you should rush out to acquire, because J.J. Putz is the real prize for the Diamondbacks. After a few dominating years closing in Seattle, Putz hurt his arm in 2008 and was either ineffective or unavailable for most of that year and 2009 with the Mets. Finally healthy with Chicago in 2010, Putz regained his form and set a White Sox record with 27 consecutive scoreless appearances. Putz managed only three saves, but that was more due to the stacked Sox pen than his performance, as Bobby Jenks, Chris Sale, and Matt Thornton all saw 9th inning time.
Putz figures to multiply his 2010 save total by a factor of at least ten, since there's no question he's going to be "the man" in the desert. The main concern with Putz is always going to be his health, however. As mentioned, he was useless for two years before 2010, he pitched only 54 innings last year, and he missed time in September with a knee injury. That, plus concern about how many leads he'll really see in the 9th inning in Arizona, should be enough to knock him down your draft list somewhat, but he's certainly someone worth owning in every league.
Mariano Rivera never appeared on the Hot Spots "Value Picks" list this season, and with good reason - if you played in a league where he was available, then it's time to find a new league. That said, with the news that he'll be returning to the Yankees for (at least) the next two years, it's worthwhile to wonder how long he can keep it up, seeing as how he's now 41. After all, we watched Trevor Hoffman - another Hall of Fame closer who relied mainly on one pitch - fall off a cliff pretty quickly this year, didn't we?
It feels like nitpicking, but there were a few parts of Rivera's game in 2010 that weren't quite as good as we're used to. His K/9 rate dipped to 6.75, the lowest it'd been since 2006 and second-lowest since 1998, and while his velocity was up over 2009, it's still below what we'd seen in the glory days. Beyond that, luck seemed to be in his favor, as his BABIP and HR rate were each a good deal below his career norms. Assuming some regression back to the norm next year, we could see some inflation in the stats, and who knows what could happen if his velocity keeps dipping - don't forget, he pitched the fewest innings he had in years due to some minor injury concerns.
But who are we kidding? It's Mariano Rivera. You're going to pay a lot for him in your draft, and until he gives you reason otherwise, you're completely justified in doing so.