May 6, 2010
Hot Spots: Relief Pitchers
Welcome to the Jungle: Last week in this space, I briefly mentioned Baltimore's Alfredo Simon: "Simon may be a sleeper among the group, but the Orioles are so bad and the bullpen situation so unsettled that it's hard to recommend picking up anyone from that mess just yet." The O's may still be a mess, but Simon has officially moved to the front of the pack. Former fill-in closer Jim Johnson found himself demoted to AAA (somewhat unfairly, because it's only been 9.2 innings in which he has the highest K/BB of his career) and Simon has done exactly what Johnson couldn't: take an advantage of an opportunity offered.
To say that Simon took an unorthodox path to a big league closer's role is somewhat of an understatement. Signed as an amateur free agent by the Phillies in 1999, he spent parts of five years in their system without ever getting out of A-ball, before being dealt to San Francisco along with Ricky Ledee (!) in 2004. After a 2-10, 6.75 season in 2006, he began a whirlwind tour around baseball. In October, he was released by the Giants; in November, he was signed by Texas, but didn't last long enough to put on the uniform, as he was selected by Baltimore in the Rule 5 draft and immediately dealt to the Phillies, where he lasted only until March of 2007 before being returned to Texas. His 2007 season didn't go much better (6.43 ERA), so the Rangers cut him loose too. He joined the Dodgers for spring training in 2008 - and let me point out here that I've been writing a Dodger blog since 2007 and even I don't remember him being in camp, so you can guess what kind of standing he had - before spending most of the year in the Mexican League and getting a brief cup of coffee with the O's in September. Last year, he finally broke through, winning a spot in the Baltimore starting rotation out of camp... and lasting all of 6.1 innings over two starts before undergoing Tommy John surgery. So while he may be a new name to many of us, he's pretty well-traveled, and he's actually turning 29 later this week.
Simon made one of the quicker returns from the zipper in recent memory, as he showed flashes of life in camp (striking out six, walking none) before impressing in AAA by posting a 1.59 ERA and striking out 14 in 17 innings, allowing just three earned runs. With original closer Mike Gonzalez on the disabled list and Johnson falling out of favor, Simon was recalled on April 27th and the O's surprised many by inserting the career starter directly into the 9th, rather than easing him back into the bigs. As if that wasn't enough of a challenge, his first four outings have been against the Red Sox and Yankees. Yet Simon has converted each of his save opportunities, even striking out David Ortiz and J.D. Drew with two men on to end a threat in the 9th inning of a tie game against Boston.
Considering his history and the team he plays for, Simon is hardly a sure thing. But what he is is a pitcher averaging 95.4 mph on his heater who's done a better job of taking advantage of his precious chance than anyone else on the abysmal Baltimore staff. Gonzalez is still weeks away, and Simon is owned by only 10.3% of ESPN teams, almost all of which have jumped on board in the last few days. For teams lacking in saves, he's well worth the mere waiver claim it would take to see if he's the real deal.
In Pittsburgh, Evan Meek's entered himself into the conversation, thanks to his sparkling start combined with Octavio Dotel's struggles. Meek's been quite good, so he's worth including here and keeping an eye on, but I'm not completely buying in - yet. It's not that I don't think he can be effective, just that I'm not convinced the opportunity is there. Since the Pirates aren't going anywhere this season, the biggest value they're likely to get out of Dotel is for him to be a valuable trade chip at the deadline, and the best way to do that is to give him every chance to rack up saves. The 8.74 ERA is ugly, but it's also inflated by two non-save outings in which he allowed six earned runs in 1.1 innings. His 11.3 K/9 rate suggests that he's still missing bats, and he converted two hitless & scoreless save opportunities against the Cubs in the last two nights. Meek's likely to sneak in and vulture some saves when Dotel's unavailable, so keep an eye on him, just be aware of the situation.
Across the state... well, look. I hate, hate, hate myself for including Jose Contreras on this list. But Ryan Madson is out for months after toe surgery, and no one can possibly have a ton of confidence in Brad Lidge just yet - including manager Charlie Manuel, who earlier this week said Lidge isn't ready to close yet. The opportunity is there - Danys Baez has been horrendous - and it's getting hard to ignore that Contreras has allowed just one run in ten outings with a ridiculous 14/0 K/BB rate. He's available in nearly every league, and while he probably hasn't reached "must-own" yet... it's also not out of the question that he's the Phillies closer in the short-term, or at least ends up in a job-share with Lidge while Madson is out. Besides, since he (like Simon) is listed in most leagues as a starting pitcher, you can exploit that loophole a bit by stashing him in an SP role that would normally be filled by guys who aren't starting that day, effectively gaining an extra RP spot.
Smell You Later: While Simon is beginning to take advantage of his chance, Juan Gutierrez completely threw his away. With Chad Qualls struggling terribly, Gutierrez had the perfect opportunity to grab a share of the job, and he's responded by picking up the loss in three of his last five outings, most notably allowing Carlos Lee to finally draw even with Yovani Gallardo on the homer leaderboard with a walkoff in Houston last night. I'm still not sold that Qualls is "back", but he has converted four saves in a row, so Gutierrez' window has probably closed, and he's not worth a spot. In Detroit, Ryan Perry hasn't really done anything wrong, even picking up a win on Saturday, and he may still be the future closer. But the Tiger bullpen has been so good (Jose Valverde, Joel Zumaya, Eddie Bonine, Fu-Te Ni, and Phil Coke are all rocking ERA under 2.00) that now's not the right time for him, so we'll forget him for the time being.
Still Hanging Out: As expected, Oakland's Michael Wuertz returned from the disabled list, and held Texas scoreless in the 1.1 innings that served as his debut on Tuesday. Don't forget how good he was last year (he finished 5th among relievers in K/9 rate while putting up 23 holds, 6 wins, and 4 saves), and he's available in over 99% of ESPN.com leagues, so you could do worse as a roster filler should you have a need. In Milwaukee, Trevor Hoffman has only pitched once in the last week, and while he did convert the save, he's hardly out of the woods yet. Ken Macha indicated Hawkins would probably be his first option, and Hawkins does have three scoreless outings in a row and a nice K rate, so we'll keep watching the Brewers as this situation develops. Finally, Jeremy Affeldt snuck in to grab another save for the Giants, giving him one more than Jonathan Broxton so far. Again, he's not a big name or a high value, but he always does seem to get his chances for wins, holds, and saves.