January 13, 2011
Hot Spots: Relief Pitchers
Compared to other recent Japanese imports, Takashi Saito came to America with relatively little fanfare. There was no high-profile posting war from MLB teams; in fact, there wasn't even a major-league contract, as he started 2006 in the minors before eventually taking over the Dodger closer role from a fading Eric Gagne. Despite being 36 by the time he threw his first American pitch, Saito was immediately successful, collecting top-10 finishes in both the Cy Young and Rookie of the Year voting in that first season. He followed that up with a 2007 that nearly cracked the top 100 relief seasons of all time.
His third and final season as a Dodger started off promisingly, but he missed most of the second half with an elbow injury, and was non-tendered after 2008 as Jonathan Broxton stepped up into the 9th inning job. Saito's recovery from that injury hasn't received the attention it deserves; he partially tore his UCL, an injury which generally requires Tommy John surgery, yet by using PRP (platelet-rich-plasma) injections he was able to throw 56 games in each of the last two seasons. After a good but somewhat inconsistent 2009 in Boston, Saito was excellent in Atlanta, striking out 69 while walking just 17, in 54 innings.
All of which leads us to Saito's new home, Milwaukee, where he landed for $1.5m plus incentives. Saito's collected just three saves over the last two seasons, in part because the Red Sox and Braves have featured deep bullpens, and he won't be counted on to be the man in Milwaukee, either, with 2010 Value Pick hero John Axford coming off a successful season. Yet it's been just two seasons since Axford was buried in the low minors with command issues, and Jeremy Jeffress, Trevor Hoffman, Todd Coffey, and Carlos Villanueva have all moved on from last year's bullpen, while LaTroy Hawkins' season was ruined by injury. That means Saito is likely to serve as Axford's setup man, and if used properly (one inning stints, rarely on back-to-back days) can still be a valuable asset. Even at 41, you don't have to squint too hard to see a situation where the Brewers need him to help out at times in the 9th inning, and that alone makes him something worth keeping in the back of your mind. If your league counts holds, that plus his high strikeout rate may make him worth a back-end roster spot, with the chance of possible saves also being enticing.
I feel compelled to talk about Kyle Farnsworth signing in Tampa yesterday, which only serves to muddy an already confusing Rays bullpen situation. Even though it seems unlikely that a front office as respected as Tampa's would actually sign Kyle Farnsworth to be their closer, were the season to start today, that might actually be the case because the pickings are sparse (though not without intrigue). 2009 fill-in closer J.P. Howell is said to be recovering nicely from shoulder surgery that cost him all of 2010, yet he's not expected to be ready before May. Joel Peralta had a 49/9 K/BB ratio in 2010, yet still got non-tendered by the Nationals. Beyond that, there's deposed starter Andy Sonnanstine, untested top prospect Jake McGee, and a collection of former Padres like Adam Russell, Mike Ekstrom, Cesar Ramos, and Brandon Gomes.
Of course, there's still time for Tampa to upgrade externally should they choose to do so. Former Rays Rafael Soriano, Grant Balfour, and Chad Qualls have all found the open market less than appealing and could possibly return (okay, probably not Soriano) and Brian Fuentes is still out there as well, assuming he ever comes down from his rumored 3/$15m asking price.
Back to Farnsworth, who despite his hilariously shoddy reputation, has managed to make positive strides over the last two seasons with the Royals and Braves. He's managed to limit his walks and homers allowed while keeping his strikeouts high. The volatility of relievers, especially one like Farnsworth, might lead us to believe that there's regression coming, hard and fast. That may still be the case, though BP's own Mike Fast claims that Farnsworth has made mechanical adjustments in his mound positioning over the last few seasons that has led him to a more consistent release point. That doesn't make Farnsworth an All-Star, of course, though it's within the realm of believability that a pitcher with his velocity could see quick results if he truly has corrected a flaw.
Bottom line, Farnsworth is probably better than he gets credit for, and he'll be in the mix for saves with Tampa this season - but I'd be surprised if this is the last move they make. Stay tuned.