When bullpens struggle, it shows in big and spectacular ways. There are a few ways major-league teams in contention go about shuffling fungible assets, the most common fix being the acquisition of retreads—journeyman relievers whose careers crested long ago and are now in decline.
The reasoning is simple: If you look hard enough, you can still see the heights of a player’s career arc—the high-water mark of competence and perhaps even borderline brilliance still visible on the worn façade of a given pitcher’s life in baseball.
Proven closers get shots long after their effectiveness was at its peak. Francisco Rodriguez was long thought to be done by this writer. Nowhere in his declining peripheral numbers and increasing propensity to give up loud contact did I think he still had something left in the tank, but I should have known better than to completely write him off.
Recent baseball history is thick with journeyman relievers and obscure nobodies coming in and nailing down 30 improbable saves in a given season, and I didn’t have to look too far to find a prime example of a retread pitcher working hard to chase that dream and still be relevant in baseball.
Kevin Gregg was never a dominant closer, but he was one who earned “Proven Closer” status, and for that, he’ll always get a shot from organizations that might think he still has something left in the tank.
Gregg will always walk the dangerous WHIP line because he lacks command of his arsenal. The stuff was always good enough to miss bats, but his propensity to drift the fastball over the heart of the plate, leave the splitter up in the zone, or just simply flip up a spinning slider right into a hitter’s hot zone was frequently his undoing.
A Kevin Gregg save always felt precarious no matter the situation. Owning him was an exercise in patience, much like what the Jose Valverde show became. Despite all of that, he still turned in some decent seasons from a pure saves perspective, including 37 in 2010.
He’s working his way through the Marlins system right now and got off to an inauspicious start. If he makes it, it’s doubtful that he’ll overtake Steve Cishek for the closing duties—but there’s always a chance, even if it’s remote.
Old relievers always get a shot.
Joe Nathan’s ERA is dancing north of 7.00 as of writing, and he’s had an atrocious five-game stretch. Nathan’s strikeout to walk rates are shrinking (20.4 percent K rate to 10.7 BB rate as of this writing), and he’s getting hit. Joba Chamberlain was the most logical Nathan replacement, as Corey Knebel is raw and Al Alburquerque is Al Alburquerque, but Chamberlain gave up a three-run homer to David Ortiz on Sunday, which kind of puts a damper on his stock.
At this point, who knows with the Tigers bullpen. Joel Hanrahan is throwing off a mound now, but this is a team that is in contention and needs bullpen help post haste. I still think Joba gets another shot, but I’m leery of trusting him.
Tampa Bay Rays
Grant Balfour has lost the strike zone, and I imagine his job security is shaky at best. Lefty bias might work against Jake McGee if this were another organization, but Joe Maddon is known for being unconventional, and McGee has actually done a lot of work against right-handed batters this season. Joel Peralta is another name to keep tabs on, but I would probably rank McGee ahead of Peralta, as the latter has a rather unfortunate tendency to surrender the gopher ball.
Hector Rondon had a hiccup outing on June 6 against the Marlins. The new father gave up four bloop hits and three earned runs in a strange relief outing. Rondon is still a very good arm with a walk rate under eight percent, so I’m not panicking as an owner, but Neil Ramirez is a tempting cover option should Rondon falter. The Cubs’ pen has been much improved over the 2013 model, but the two clear closer options on the north side are Rondon and Ramirez.
New York Mets
Jenrry Mejia has given up runs in his last four outings, and his previous shine as a reliever is starting to grow dull. Vic Black has impressed with some eye-popping strikeout rates since his call-up, but the walk rate is still dangerous, and I don’t know if the manager will entrust the ninth inning to a reliever with Black’s iffy control. Jeurys Familia and Carlos Torres remain interesting options, but there are not a whole lot of desirable places to go in the Mets bullpen.
David Robertson and Ernesto Frieri had some hiccups this week. I don’t see either outing as extremely alarming, but the Ernesto alarm will always be more sensitive given his tendency to leave a straight fastball over the heart of the plate from time to time.
LaTroy Hawkins survives another shaky week as the closer.
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