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September 16, 2010

Fantasy Beat

Hot Spots: Relief Pitchers

by Mike Petriello

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With the season wrapping up, most remaining value is tied up in keepers you can grab before rosters finalize for the winter. Last week, we checked out some NL relievers who weren't primary closers this year but might have a good shot at saves in 2011; today it's the AL.

Headed into 2010, Jacob McGee had pitched in 110 minor league games over parts of 6 seasons, starting all but one. He then started out this season by making 19 starts for AA Montgomery. So why are we looking at him as a future relief asset all of a sudden?

In this case, it's the perfect marriage between situation and player. The Tampa Bay rotation is beyond crowded for next year. Though many assume that one of Matt Garza or James Shields may get traded, there's still David Price, Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis, and Jeremy Hellickson ahead of McGee in the pecking order. Yet in the bullpen, relief leaders Rafael Soriano and Joaquin Benoit are each free agents after the season, leaving a pretty sizable hole in the late innings. So while there may not be opportunity in the rotation, there definitely seems to be in the bullpen.

Besides, starting pedigree or not, McGee's future has long seemed to be in the bullpen. McGee's high-90s MPH fastball is major-league quality right now, yet he's had trouble developing quality secondary pitches. Even calling him a "starter" in the minor is somewhat of a stretch this year; though he was the first pitcher to toe the rubber, he averaged just 4.6 innings per start for the Biscuits as he continued to recover from 2008 Tommy John surgery. When he was promoted to AAA, he began coming out of the bullpen (save for one start) and the results were astounding: 27 strikeouts against just 3 walks.

The Rays have yet to make any sort of announcement on McGee's future role, but it's no secret that they're stacked in the rotation. McGee will get a long look out of the pen this month (and possibly in October), and that performance could go a long way towards getting him high leverage late inning work in 2011.

Speaking of pitchers with an uncertain role in 2011, we have Chris Sale of the White Sox. Sale was a college starter who was put into the minor league bullpen upon being drafted in June, with hopes it would accelerate his ascent through the system, and to say that strategy was successful is an understatement.

Sale was in the minors for all of 10.1 innings (striking out 16) before getting called up, and he's continued that high strikeout pace in the majors, allowing just one earned run. With a variety of injuries to Bobby Jenks, J.J. Putz, and Matt Thornton, Sale's even been able to sneak in and grab some saves. Ozzie Guillen has even gone so far as to say, "“Bobby’s not my closer right now, he’s not, I’m very happy with [Chris] Sale."

Looking towards next year, the arbitration-eligible Jenks seemingly always has one foot out the door, Putz is unsigned, and Guillen seems to prefer Thornton in the 8th, so there's possible opportunity in Chicago. That said, both Guillen and Kenny Williams have been completely non-committal on Sale's future, so there's a decent chance he ends up back in the rotation. Keep that in mind when considering whether to save a roster spot for him.

In Boston, there's no doubt that Daniel Bard's coming out of the bullpen, only whether or not Jonathan Papelbon will be standing in his way next year. While the stories about Papelbon's "struggles" tend to get a bit overblown by the overzealous Sox fan, it's true that his strikeouts have trended down, and his walks up, since his peak of 2006-08. He's still a very effective reliever, of course, but he's also likely to make over $10m in 2011 before heading into free agency, so the trade rumors will be swirling around him all winter.

Back to Bard, he's harnessed the wildness that plagued him in his professional debut to become one of the top setup men in the league, thanks to heat which touches 100 and an improving slider. He's now the same age Papelbon was when he took over the role, while striking out a man per inning and keeping the WHIP below 1.

Really, though, this situation is all about Papelbon. If he moves on, Bard immediately becomes one of the more valuable closing prospects, if only due to the perceived value of "being the Red Sox" closer. Watch closely.

In Anaheim, Jordan Walden has taken somewhat of a circuitous route to the bigs. After a few seasons of starting in the minors, the Angels put the flamethrower into relief to start 2010, and the results were... mixed. Hell, it was just six weeks ago that BP's Kevin Goldstein wrote, "turning such a prospect into a closer seemed like a no-brainer, but the results have been worse than expected at Double-A Arkansas. With 21 walks in 41 innings, Walden still struggles with his control. His slider is inconsistent, too; some days it's utterly unhittable, but other days players are mashing it all over the field."

That didn't stop Walden from getting promoted to AAA and then the bigs, but the results since then have been astonishing. He walked 2 in 6.2 AAA innings, and has walked just 2 in 8 MLB innings, but it hasn't affected his strikeout stuff at all; he's struck out 15 of the 34 MLB batters he's faced thus far, thanks to a fastball that's averaging north of 98 MPH. It's a nice bright spot in what has been an unremarkable Angels season.

I know it's kind of a recurring theme, but part of the reason Walden is intriguing is because the Halo bullpen is unsettled heading into 2011. Brian Fuentes is in Minnesota, Fernando Rodney is being reliably Rodney-esque, and Scot Shields is at or near the end of the line, so there's no reason a talented young arm like Walden couldn't step in to an important role, particularly given the splash he's currently making.

Mike Petriello is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Mike's other articles. You can contact Mike by clicking here

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