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August 26, 2003
The All-Soriano Team
I'm a huge Rafael Soriano fan. In fact, I've been so impressed with him that I've given him my full endorsement. Soriano came up last year, pitched in the rotation for a stretch, but didn't do particularly well. After being sent down to the minors, he honed his slider and change and this year he returned as a reliever. Since then he's been outstanding. Despite only throwing 40 innings, he's on BP's Top 30 Relievers list.
Soriano deals. He has his off days, but not many this year, and I've been to games where I had to pick my jaw up off the sticky Safeco concrete, his stuff looked so good. You'll hear reports that he's got dominant closer stuff, but Soriano was a starter in the minors and he'll be back in the rotation sooner or later. Think Johan Santana.
So here are the guys pitching relief now who could be starting and health willing, winning if given the opportunity (a big thanks to Dave Cameron for suggestions).
Rafael Soriano, obviously.
Julio Mateo, Seattle Mariners. He's also been huge out of the Mariners' excellent bullpen. Mateo's always had a fastball running up into the 90s but has never enjoyed a lot of success, and has been limited by poor off-speed stuff. This season he seems to have put the package together and has been the second-best reliever out of the M's pen. He's been mentioned as a possible rotation candidate in the future, but there's a problem: he hasn't started in the minors since 2000, when he started...one game. He's never started more than six games in a season. If the team decided he'd finally got it, they'd likely send him to a winter league to get him used to pitch conservation and trying to work deeper into games.
Scot Shields, Anaheim Angels. Shields pitched relief exclusively for his first two years before switching to starting in 1999, and didn't relieve again until he reached the Show. His raw lines in the minors were pretty bad in 2000-2001, but coming out of the bullpen this year he's been outstanding. In 31 games, he ran up a 1.68 ERA in 69 IP, 56H, 4HR, 56K and 25BB. He's spot-started and taken a regular turn of late, and while his ERA as a starter stands at 4.32, he's also running a 36-to-6 K-to-BB ratio.
Grant Balfour, Minnesota Twins. Before this year, Balfour hadn't started in years, but he took some turns in Triple-A and it worked out fine. His line for the Rochester Red Wings ran 5-2, with a 2.41 ERA in 71 innings, with 87 strikeouts against 16 walks. Balfour's always had good ratios working relief in the minor leagues, and he's developed from a smooth-throwing slow-baller to ripping off a 90s fastball with a sweet slider. Balfour's going to pressure the Twins to make some rotation decisions if their non-Santana rotation members continue to underperform. Of course that's what we said about Santana for ages too, so patience may be advised here.
Keith Foulke, Oakland Athletics. Foulke has stated in the past that he wants to start, though recent reports that he's taken to closing cloud the picture somewhat. In any case, he's a free agent and could make an excellent starter for a team willing to offer him that role. I'd love to see Foulke take the now-vacant rotation spot for the A's, but we'll see if that happens. Seriously, Foulke throws what, eight pitches for strikes, and he's done a lot of multi-inning relief work in his career. Let's make this happen.
Brad Lidge, Houston Astros. Lidge has been a relief ace this year, attracting notice. He's got great stuff, but his health may limit him to the bullpen. Lidge has more injuries than the entire Twins staff--elbow, knee, shoulder...there's a cuticle he hasn't had surgery on, but that may be it. He worked a lot in 2002, so he may even hit a workload wall this season (in fact, much was made of a couple of recent bad outings as possibly being that wall). Lidge is a case where the scouting and performance analysis don't matter as much as the opinion of a good team doctor.
Juan Cruz, Chicago Cubs. We've seen Cruz start a little. In his three years up and down with the Cubs, he's started 19 games out of his 73 appearances. He's got the stuff, for certain. The only knock against him I agree with is that he's a little skinny (I've got him listed at 6'2" and 165 pounds, which is a pretty scrawny lad for a starter). But Baylor didn't like him, and Dusty Baker, well...if Dusty stays in Chicago for the whole of his contract, and during that time Cruz spends his off-seasons in the tropics, and smokes a lot, and doesn't wear sunscreen, maybe at some point he'll look old enough for Dusty to give him a chance at the rotation.
Todd Wellemeyer, Chicago Cubs. Well, for starters, he's got the same problem (youth) as Cruz. And the other same problem, not pitching well this year. Still, he's got good stuff, including a good fastball, awesome moving changeup, and a slider to boot. He's spent done time on every level adjusting to the new competition, and it may be that his struggles in the majors are just another set of growing pains. Or, he may end up going with his two best pitches and sticking in the bullpen as a good short man.
Chris Reitsma, Cincinnati Reds. Reitsma's displayed some stuff in the minors, but then spent two years getting slapped around hard (2001) and then not-as-hard (2002). He was only 23 and 24, for what that's worth, so it's reasonable to think that after the success he's found pitching in the bullpen, he'd be able to return to the rotation and have a shot at success.
Matt Ford, Milwaukee Brewers. Ford's shy of 30 relief innings, and he has started four games this year, but he's worth a mention. He's a Rule 5 pick from the Blue Jays (who themselves used the Rule 5 draft to acquire the electric Aquilino Lopez). Ford's a lefty with decent enough stuff who didn't have the kind of minor league track record above A-ball I'd like to have seen. Even without the eye-popping stuff of Soriano, Ford has two huge things going for him:
You could field two rotations out of these guys. Oh, they'd take their lumps, but they're all young and improving, and they'd outperform a lot of clubs from the start of the season.