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March 17, 2011
Value Picks in the Bullpen
Happy St. Patrick’s Day, where I admit to the fact that I have the day off of work but may be the only person in the country who is stepping out for reasons that don’t involve either green-tinted festivities or the beginning of the NCAA Tournament. (I’ll watch Boston U get crushed in the first round, and then turn spring training back on, in case you’re wondering.) After a day spent looking at outfielders, we’re back to the bullpen, where there’s much to discuss.
Obviously, the big story of the week was Oakland closer Andrew Bailey clutching his surgically-repaired arm in pain after throwing a pitch against the Indians. Despite fears that he’d once again blown out his elbow, a visit to Dr. James Andrews ended up showing that he’d merely strained his elbow, not destroyed it. While there’s no official timeframe for his return yet, the word is that he’ll be allowed to throw when the pain subsides, and that no further procedures will be necessary. That’s great news for A’s fans, and likely means he’ll be out for weeks, not several months or the entire season.
Still, Bailey is almost certain to begin the year on the disabled list (which makes him a great choice to try to draft low and stash on your DL spot), and that means the A’s bullpen situation just opened up significantly. When Bailey missed time last year, Craig Breslow and Michael Wuertz saw the bulk of the duty, but this year that responsibility is likely to fall to two newcomers, Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour.
You can make the case that Balfour’s the better pitcher–he struck out more and walked fewer than Fuentes did last year–but all indications are that Fuentes will be the man to step into the ninth, though his extreme platoon splits may lead to him not being used against righty-heavy lineup segments. Fuentes has rightfully never been seen among the elite tier of closers, but he’s also managed to score 20 or more saves in each of the last six seasons, so there’s reason to think that he can step in and be successful. 2010 was actually something of a bounce-back year for him after a sub-par 2009 (despite getting a career-high 48 saves that year, which should tell you all you need to know about the viability of the save statistic), which is partially what tempted the A’s into buying him.
This situation largely depends on how long Bailey is indeed out, but let's remember that he’s shown injury issues in the past, and not just with his arm, having missed several weeks with an oblique strain last year. Fuentes could be a good buy-low candidate not only to begin the season, but to hang on to in case Bailey is further limited.
When Value Picks returned from a winter hiatus, I felt like I was practically running a Toronto blog, since each week the Jays were picking up a new reliever, whether it be from signing Dotel and Rauch, trading for Francisco, or re-signing Jason Frasor. Once all the dust had settled, most agreed that Francisco was the likely leader for the ninth inning, and we’ve since moved on.
Unfortunately for Toronto, it hasn’t worked out that simply. Dotel hasn’t pitched since March 8 due to a sore hamstring and is limited to throwing off flat ground. Francisco missed the first two weeks of games trying to build strength in his shoulder, and hasn’t pitched in a week due to soreness variously described as being in his right shoulder or pectoral. He’s expected to throw a bullpen session this week with hopes of being able to get back in a game next Tuesday, but it’s particularly troubling since he didn’t pitch after mid-August last year due to injury as well.
If there are no further setbacks, there’s still time for Francisco to get into shape and ready for Opening Day, though his recent injury history means it can’t be counted on. That would open the door for Jon Rauch, who was effective filling in for Joe Nathan last year in Minnesota before Matt Capps was acquired. If anything, though, this marks Francisco down more than it marks Rauch up, because even if Rauch gets a few chances to start the season, he’s unlikely to be the long-term answer there.
Drew Storen, Nationals
We’ve been talking about the Washington bullpen for a while here, mainly because Jim Riggleman had refused to name Storen the closer entering camp. MLB.com’s Bill Ladson recently went so far as to say that Storen might not even make the roster, much less be the closer.
That’s big talk, but I’m not quite buying it. The idea of him not making the roster seems far-fetched for a guy who was effective as a 22-year-old rookie last year, and it’s hardly like the Nationals have a bullpen that is overflowing with talent as it is. Besides, recent events have been favorable to Storen, who has settled down after a rough start by tossing out back-to-back scoreless appearances against the Mets and Tigers. On their own, two good spring appearances may not mean much, but they look all the better when you realize that competition Tyler Clippard gave up a three-run homer last week and then blew a four-run lead by allowing six men to reach and five runs yesterday.
While Riggleman may talk about a closer-by-committee being an option, no manager ever really wants that, and the best-case scenario is that Storen takes the job. I think it’ll happen, even if it’s not at the beginning of the season. That being the case, Storen remains a lower-tier closing option.
Matt Thornton, White Sox
All spring, we’ve been wondering if Matt Thornton or Chris Sale would end up with the Chicago closing gig, and according to Peter Gammons, we now know: it’s Thornton. Earlier this offseason, I speculated that it may be Sale because Ozzie Guillen used him far more often in the ninth inning than he did Thornton after Bobby Jenks was unavailable, but that was just doing our best to read the Ozzie-flavored tea leaves. Since then, Thornton has signed an extension while Sale has had a few poor spring outings, so it’s no longer a surprise at this point to see that the veteran wins the job.
Now that Thornton is seemingly the man, he should be shooting up draft boards, and rightfully so. He’s averaged 11 strikeouts per nine innings over the last three years, topping out at last seasons’ 12.0, and he cracked the top ten in the WXRL leaderboard. If there’s any trepidation, it’s that he’s 34, about to be a full-time closer for the first time, and had two short bouts of arm soreness last year–plus, he’s playing for a manager who’s shown that he’s willing to use more than one closer before. I don’t put that out there to discourage anyone from drafting Thornton–he was actually one of the first two closers I took in a draft last night–but just to point out that his new role does come with some minor questions. Even so, if he’s healthy, I expect Thornton to be a top-ten reliever in most formats this year.