There might only be one more week until Opening Day, but that is still enough time to catch some spring training action, and I’ll be doing just that: on Friday night, I’ll be in Tampa for the Astros/Yankees tilt, and the next afternoon I’ll be catching Blue Jays/Phillies in Clearwater. Since it’s currently thunderhailing as I write this in New York City, you better believe the weekend can’t come quickly enough.
The season also can't come soon enough for several relief squads, because the last week has seen a good deal of injury news that could impact who gets the ball in the ninth inning. Let’s get to it.
I’m going to dispense with the usual “geez, we’re talking about the Blue Jays again?” jokes, because there’s actual news here. Frank Francisco came out of his meeting with Dr. James Andrews safe from structural damage to his right pectoral, but will still open the season on the disabled list, according to John Lott of Toronto’s National Post. Octavio Dotel, battling a hamstring injury, was able to make an appearance in a minor league game on Tuesday, but may also not be ready for the start of season.
That leaves Rauch, who’s having an excellent spring–just two hits allowed in six scoreless innings–as the likely Opening Day closer. Rauch, of course, filled in admirably for Joe Nathan in Minnesota last year before being supplanted by Matt Capps in July, and would probably be fine in Toronto as well. Before you run out and spend your FAAB dollars or waiver spot on Rauch, however, keep in mind how fluid of a situation this is. Francisco may not be at full strength, but is set to begin throwing again this weekend, and Dotel’s minor league inning went well with the help of two strikeouts. If either (or both) begins the season on the DL, all indications are that the stay would not be very long at this point. That means that Rauch’s term as the closer could last only a few days—don't forget that Jason Frasor is around too.
Bottom line: this is an interesting collection of veterans with various injury problems and platoon splits (particularly Dotel), and that means that it’s possible we do see a real “closer by committee” setup here until someone proves they can be both healthy and effective at the same time. I still like Francisco as the favorite to get the most saves, but his injury concerns dating back to last year have piled up—watch closely.
J.J. Putz, Diamondbacks
The newly-imported Diamondback made just two spring appearances before back spasms knocked him out, preventing him from making an appearance last Friday. He reportedly felt better after playing catch for seven minutes earlier this week—his next step is long-toss, with no indication of when he may try to get into another game. With the season just a week away—and particularly with Putz’ health history—it wouldn’t be at all surprising if he’s held back in order to pick up some more work in hopes of being fully healthy shortly into the season.
If Putz can’t answer the bell (if you read this column last year, you know how much time I had to spend discussing all of the entries in what was one of the worst bullpens in baseball history, from Chad Qualls and Juan Gutierrez to Sam Demel and Aaron Heilman) Gutierrez and Demel could still get chances, but my favorite here is someone I talked about in 2010 as part of a different mess: David Hernandez, who came over in the Mark Reynolds trade.
Hernandez was pretty atrocious as an Oriole starter–27/28 K/BB in eight early-season starts–before reinventing himself as an effective reliever, turning that K/BB ratio into 45/13 in 33 relief appearances. I wouldn’t rush to get him right away–it doesn’t sound like Putz is going to miss too much regular season time, if any–but Hernandez is a name to watch in case Putz re-injures himself later in the season.
Brian Wilson, Giants
Giants fans picked up a scare earlier this week when Brian Wilson strained his left oblique, knocking him out of spring action. Wilson offered the usual platitudes about it not being serious–“If it's a regular-season game, I'm throwing,” among them–but we should know by now that players are generally not the best arbiters of their own health. This isn’t the first time Wilson has had issues with the left oblique, as he tore it in his major league debut in 2006 and missed nearly a month (information which is easy to find thanks to Corey Dawkins’ injury database, now included in BP player cards).
The news didn’t get any better when Wilson wasn’t able to make it througha planned day of catch on Wednesday, which doesn’t bode well for his chances to be ready for Opening Day. The Giants have a deep bullpen to go along with their excellent rotation, and they don’t seem likely to rush Wilson back if he’s not ready. If so, the surprisingly effective Sergio Romo may get a chance to step in temporarily. Romo has averaged 10.0 strikeouts per nine innings over his three-year career, which is very good on its own, but even better when you see that he doesn’t include the wildness that so many other high-strikeout relievers are saddled with. He issued just 14 unintentional free passes over 62 innings last year, leading to an excellent K/BB ratio of 5.0.
Romo’s no threat to Wilson’s job, of course, but don’t underestimate the severity of oblique injuries. Watch Wilson closely leading up to Opening Day to see if he’s able to get back into action. It shouldn’t take him more than an appearance or two to test out the muscle, but I doubt they’d let him start the season without proving his health at least briefly.
As a fan of managers keeping leverage in mind in order to deploy the best reliever for the job regardless of inning, the confirmation that the Braves won’t have a set closer at the beginning of the season is a breath of fresh air. Unfortunately for the fantasy player, it’s a huge annoyance, and one that knocks Kimbrel in particular down the draft board.
Venters and Kimbrel have each shown the ability to rack up strikeouts, and offer manager Fredi Gonzalez the potential to use a lethal lefty-righty duo if he picks his spots correctly, particularly helpful because Atlanta’s main rival in the East, Philadelphia, is overwhelmingly lefty-heavy.
Still, these situations always sound good in theory during March, yet rarely last the season. It’s almost certain that as the year goes on, one pitcher will get a hold of the role, leading to a more traditional setup. That’s still more likely to be Kimbrel than Venters, though the silver lining here is that because of the high strikeout rate piled up by each, they’re both worthy of a spot until the usage patterns start to define who is going to be The Man.