Good news, everyone. We’re exactly three weeks from the start of the regular season, which means we’re that much closer to games that matter. There hasn’t yet been a catastrophic injury among relievers, nor has there been much in the way of outright job proclamations since Joel Hanrahan beat out Evan Meek in Pittsburgh. Still, there’s plenty to get to and more changing by the day. Here’s what’s important in the world of relievers right now.
Minnesota: For most of the offseason, even dating back to before the spring games got started, I’ve been pretty high on Joe Nathan being able to come back from his Tommy John surgery to reclaim his closer’s job and be an undervalued pick. I say “undervalued”, despite the fact that PECOTA adores him this year, because there’s the obvious inherent uncertainty that goes with a 35-year-old coming off a major injury while last year’s incumbent remains at a high salary. I’d been basing that feeling on the fact that the timing was right (since the injury happened early last spring, he’ll have about a full year to recover), that the history of TJ recovery in recent years has been excellent, and that Nathan was so good before the injury that even a slight decline wouldn’t render him completely ineffective.
Well, so far, so good: Nathan’s made it through his first three appearances by not allowing a hit or reporting any unusual soreness. He’s struck out just one, but that’s nothing to worry about yet, since he’s just working on building strength and throwing strikes. Control is often the hardest part of the recovery cycle to master, and Nathan’s also only walked one in those three outings, which is a great sign. There were reports that he’d touched 95 MPH, though I’d caution you against putting too much faith into spring training guns; still, the signs on Nathan couldn’t be better. Verdict: Slide Nathan up your rankings, though not quite into the top-5 spot he used to hold.
Washington: A few weeks ago, I looked at Drew Storen, and wondered why the Nationals refused to name him the closer even though we all considered it a foregone conclusion. Well, perhaps the Nats knew something we didn’t, because Storen is off to a pretty lousy start, having allowed seven runs (six earned) on nine hits through three innings. You know as well as I do that small spring sample sizes generally don’t mean much, but don’t underestimate the need for an unproven second-year reliever who doesn’t officially have the job yet to prove himself in camp.
If there’s good news for Storen here, it’s that he’s struck out four while walking no one, so there’s signs of life. Jim Riggleman has claimed all spring that he’d go with a closer-by-committee including Tyler Clippard and Sean Burnett if he needed, though I still believe that he’d prefer to have a set stopper. Clippard is intriguing not because of his fluky 11 win season, but because he’s made strides over the last two years in keeping the walks down while increasing the whiffs. An 11.1/9 K rate is worth noting, and he could have value is he starts seeing save opportunities. Verdict: Storen was a lower-tier closing option anyway, so try to avoid this situation until there’s some clarity.
Texas: We’ve been wondering whether the Rangers would really make Neftali Feliz into a starter all winter, and it looks like we may have to hold out for two more weeks for official word: Anthony Andro of the Dallas-area Star Telegram believes that the decision will come down on or about March 22. For his part, Feliz is saying he’d prefer to remain in the bullpen. Still, I’ve long thought that while starting may be in his future, it wasn’t going to be this year, and MLB.com beat writer T.R. Sullivan thinks that the decision has already been made to keep him in the 9th.
Now, the news that Brandon Webb won’t be ready for the start of the year (shocker!) does thin out the 5th starter herd a bit, but Tommy Hunter, Matt Harrison, and Derek Holland appear likely to pick up the last three spots behind Colby Lewis and C.J. Wilson. Besides, when manager Ron Washington was asked why Feliz was pitching the final three innings of Wednesday’s game rather than the first three, he replied, “I don’t think I have to tell you why we’re doing that.” That sounds pretty clear to me. Verdict: Draft with confidence.
Baltimore: I’ll admit I never thought that Koji Uehara would make it through the entire season healthy, but I at least thought he’d manage to make it into a spring training game first. That wasn’t the case, since he hasn’t thrown in a week after receiving a cortisone shot in his right elbow. My entire reason for backing him was that he’d be better than Kevin Gregg if healthy, which is true, but if he’s not pitching, he’s certainly not beating Gregg out. Verdict: Drop Uehara down/off your rankings, and begrudgingly slide Gregg up.