December 16, 2010
Hot Spots: Relief Pitchers
As the big names like Carl Crawford and Cliff Lee begin to fall off the board, now and in the coming weeks is when we'll really start seeing some movement on relievers as teams start to fill out their rosters. Three-year deals to non-closers seems to be the new trend, since Joaquin Benoit, Matt Guerrier, and Scott Downs have all picked up such multiyear commitments despite not being top-flight closers. Being a Dodger fan, the commitment to Guerrier kills me, but should the Angels be as concerned with Downs? Let's take a look.
Our nice fancy graphics - courtesy of Heater Magazine - may say Scott Downs and Hisanori Takahashi because they're the new guys in town, but this is more about the Angels bullpen as a whole. Last season's closer, Brian Fuentes, was traded to Minnesota late in the year, leaving the job to the reliably unreliable Fernando Rodney. Rodney responded to the challenge by posting a 5.65 September ERA, blowing four saves while getting hung with the loss twice more. He still throws as hard as ever - averaging over 95 MPH last season - yet his inability to grab the job and his decreasing strikeout numbers (which declined in both 2009 and 2010 from his 2008 peak) is in large part why the Angels put big money into their two new relievers.
Takahashi spent several weeks on the Value Picks list in 2010 and was one of our greater success stories. The 35-year-old rookie was underwhelming early in the season as a starter for the Mets (5.01 ERA, .821 OPS against) yet became an effective reliever (2.04 ERA, .582 OPS against) who was the surprise choice to take over 9th inning duties once Francisco Rodriguez' year ended with his infamous altercation. Downs, 35 in March, also became a reliable reliever after moving from the Toronto rotation in 2005, despite never averaging even 90 MPH on his fastball. He's actually been quite underrated - admit it, you had no idea that over the last four years, he's got a 184 ERA+, did you? He was never really the full-time closer in Toronto, though he did manage to pick up 16 saves over the years. He's got a well-deserved reputation as a lefty-killer (.631 OPS career) though after moving to the bullpen, he's done just fine against righties too. In adding both, the Angels have managed to add two of the top thirty relievers in WXRL from last year, with Takahashi coming in at 18th and Downs 28th.
It's at about this point that you might be asking me, "so which one closes?", but it's more complicated than that. Mike Scioscia claims that he'll start the season with a committee including youngsters Kevin Jepsen and Jordan Walden along with the veterans to close games. Jepsen's a fine piece of a bullpen crew, yet nothing about him screams for a promotion to the 9th, especially ahead of the newcomers, so I wouldn't worry about him. Now Walden, who I looked at last September as a possible keeper in deep leagues, is someone you really should be watching. After years of inconsistent results as a starter in the minors, Walden finally made his debut as a reliever in the bigs last year and the results were astounding: 13.5 K/9, just 4 earned runs allowed in 16 games, and a fastball that averaged nearly 99 MPH. Oh, and he only turned 23 a month ago.
So who's the man in Anaheim? If I'm running the team, Takahashi and Jepsen are in middle relief, Rodney and Downs tag-team as setup men and fill-in closers, and Walden gets a chance to take his 2010 splash and see what he can do. But you just don't often see three free agent imports pushed aside for a rookie, and Downs didn't just get all that money to be a LOOGY, so he has to be the favorite headed into the season. Just beware of all of the other options who might see time as Scioscia tries to figure out the best mix for his new toys.
Like Takahashi, Uehara was a staple of the Value Picks list in 2010, and again like his countryman, it only happened once he left the rotation for good to join the bullpen. Uehara was a reasonably effective starter with Baltimore in 2009, despite battling injuries for most of the year, and spent much of the first half of 2010 on the shelf as well - he made just seven appearances before July. In part to preserve his arm, he returned as a reliever, yet with the Baltimore bullpen imploding (no, really, go look back at the Value Picks articles from this past year to see how many Oriole relievers we went through) Uehara was the closer by mid-August.
If you managed to grab Uehara off the waiver wire in your league at that point, you were not disappointed. From July 1 on, Uehara saved 13 of 15 chances, allowed just a .598 OPS, and put up an absolutely unbelievable 49/3 K/BB ratio. That's no typo; Uehara walked Juan Rivera of the Angels on August 4, and didn't issue another free pass for the rest of the season. Meanwhile, Oliver Perez probably walked two guys as you were reading this.
Health is always going to be the issue with Uehara, of course, but there's not much of a question that he heads into camp ahead of Alfredo Simon, who did an adequate job as a fill-in but was far too homer-prone to keep the job. Yet despite last season's stunning success, Uehara doesn't seem to get the credit he deserves. Is it because he was injured for most of his first year? Because the Orioles are awful? Because he didn't get the job until the last third of the season? Most likely, it's a combination of the three, but even if he doesn't quite match his 2010 performance, putting up 11 times more strikeouts than walks is a pretty good place to start from.