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Sitting only a few games out of both the Wild Card and National League West lead, this week the Diamondbacks improved upon their most glaring weakness, the starting rotation. Recognizing that out of all of the potential playoff teams that they were the keepers of the weakest rotation–held together by Brandon Webb‘s exceptional year and whatever other warm bodies can toss a baseball without embarrassing themselves–they acquired Livan Hernandez and cash in exchange for minor leaguers Garrett Mock and Matt Chico.

Hernandez has struggled mightily this season due to trouble with a knee injury, but has pitched much better since the All-Star break. The rest he received after an inning and two-thirds against Florida on July 6–Hernandez didn’t make another start until July 16–may have done his knee some good, or at the least given him some time to work on his mechanics.

                IP        ERA        K/9        BB/9        H/9        HR/9
Pre-Break       113.7     5.94        5.2        3.8        11.31      1.43
Post-Break      33.0      3.27        6.3        1.1        9.00       1.09

33 innings is not a substantial sample size, but the difference between the two lines is drastic. Hernandez has improved his control, upped his strikeouts, and lowered his homerun and hit totals significantly. This very well could be a stretch of luck, but it is just as plausible that Hernandez’s injury is somewhat under control, or his mechanics have been tweaked just right.

If Hernandez is able to maintain his numbers from his past few starts, he will slot in nicely behind Brandon Webb as the D’backs second-best starter. If he falls back somewhat and ends up with an ERA somewhere in the 4.00s, he is still one of their better starters. He is also locked up under contract for 2008, at the cost of only $7 million; considering the potential dull market for starters, trading for someone who could be a league average starter or better for only seven million dollars is very useful.

The price for Hernandez was somewhat lofty though, as Baseball America’s #7 and John Sickels #9 D’backs prospect Garrett Mock was shipped to Washington. Mock has not done so well this year; he’s 23 years old in Double-A, and has allowed a .280/.349/.443 opponents line–the average line for the Southern League is .250/.323/.369. His K/BB of 2.34 is not all that impressive, and he serves up too many homeruns to right-handed batters. It is possible he’ll turn out to be a fairly productive starter, but the D’backs need help in their rotation now in order to take advantage of a weak National League.

Matt Chico is also 23 years old, and was having success at the Double-A level after starting the year in high-A ball. Sickels had him rated as the D’backs #20 prospect in the preseason. He has only allowed a .209/.261/.328 opponent hitting line, and his K/BB is a nifty 3.00. His batting average on balls in play is very low at .247, so that’s something to watch when trying to gauge his production.

Considering Mock’s lack of success in 2006–as well as high opponent slugging that one would only expect to increase in the dry heat of major league Arizona, and the uncertainty surrounding Chico’s short run of success–it doesn’t look as if the D’backs front office can be faulted for making a deal that is more likely than not to help the current team for the remainder of this season, as well as the next one. The most likely scenario is that this deal will help both clubs out in their own way; the Nats receive a few promising arms that they will need in the future, and the D’backs acquire another piece that allows them to both contend and rebuild simultaneously.

Marc Normandin

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Seattle’s biggest asset this year has been its bullpen, which has kept the Mariners on the fringe of contention in the AL West despite a dreadful offense (27th overall in MLV, at 61 runs below average) and average rotation (19th in SNLVA with 0.5 wins added). The Seattle bullpen ranks third in the majors in Adjusted Runs Prevented, with a collective 51, and fifth in WXRL, with 9.5. That latter figure means Seattle’s relievers have created 9 1/2 wins over what a replacement level bullpen would produce if handed the same late-game situations. Two teams–Kansas City and Cleveland–have actually had pens worse than replacement level this season by WXRL.

No squad has had a better 1-2 relief punch this year than Seattle’s J.J. Putz and Rafael Soriano, who rank 3-4 in the majors, respectively, in ARP. Putz, who turned in a solid 2005, has taken a huge leap forward in all three of the true outcomes: he has a spectacular 72/9 K/BB ratio in 55 innings, with just 2 home runs and 37 hits allowed. Always a purveyor of mid-90’s gas, it appears that Putz has learned how to place his stuff exactly where he wants it, and in the process has been making A.L. hitters look foolish. In fact, as measured by K/BB ratio, Putz is having a landmark season. Here are the best single-season K/BB ratios by a reliever since 1960, minimum 50 innings:

Year  Pitcher                IP    K   BB  K/BB
1989  Dennis Eckersley       57.7  55  3   18.33
1990  Eckersley              73.3  73  4   18.25
1991  Eckersley              76    87  9    9.67
2003  John Smoltz            64.3  73  8    9.13
1997  Doug Jones             80.3  82  9    9.11
1992  Eckersley              80    93  11   8.45
1996  Eckersley              60    49  6    8.17
2006  J.J. Putz              55    72  9    8.00
2000  Trevor Hoffman         72.3  85  11   7.73
2003  Mike Timlin            83.7  65  9    7.22

Given that Putz is 29 and had a career rate of 3.6 BB/9 in almost 700 professional innings entering 2005, one must not get too worked up about a 50 inning sample, as reliever performances are notoriously fickle. Soriano, who has the best Stuff on average in the Seattle pen, is a better bet to sustain his 2006 success. He has been nearly as good as Putz, holding on to his fourth spot in the ARP rankings despite throwing just 3.3 innings in the last 18 games due to a stint on the 15-day D.L. with shoulder fatigue. The 26-year-old righthander, who converted from the outfield after the 1998 season, had a similarly dominant year with Seattle in 2003, piling up 24.4 ARP after moving to the bullpen from the rotation. Then elbow problems struck, a common occurrence among position players-turned-pitchers. Soriano had elbow ligament replacement surgery in 2004, and was limited to 46.7 pro innings from 2004-05, just 10.7 of which came in the majors. Considering how hard he was worked by manager Mike Hargrove in his first full year back–he threw more than an inning in 19 of his 42 appearances before going on the DL–the fatigue comes as little shock. The good news for M’s fans is that the problem is not in his surgically repaired elbow, although with Seattle’s gruesome history, no arm injury can be taken lightly.

While the Mariners knew they could depend on Putz and Soriano, the real bullpen surprise has been the work of rookie Mark Lowe, who has come up from the minors to throw 14.7 shutout innings, and done so with flair, striking out 17 against just six walks. A fifth round pick in the 2004 draft, Lowe was hardly in the Mariners plans before the year began–heck, he didn’t even make the cut for BP 2006, even in the pitching-thin Mariners system–but earned a look by shredding minor league bats in the first half:

Year Level    G   GS  IP    H   BB   SO   HR   ERA
2004 Low-A    18  3   38.3  42  14   38   4    4.93
2005 A        22  22  103.7 107 49   72   12   5.47
2006 High-A   13  2   29.3  14  11   46   0    1.84
2006 AA       11  0   16.7  14  3    14   1    2.16

After a disappointing year in the single-A rotation, Lowe was moved to the bullpen and responded with a noteworthy jump in peripherals, as hard throwers so often do. BP’s Kevin Goldstein has pointed out the Mariners’ penchant for aggressively promoting their minor leaguers, which is exactly what they did with Lowe, who got just a brief taste of the high minors before being summoned to Safeco on July 7 to replace Eddie Guardado. His electric performance thus far has already made Lowe the Mariners’ third most valuable reliever by ARP. While Lowe is likely in for some adversity when the league gets a chance to see him for a second time, it’s looking like he could team with LOOGY George Sherrill to provide the cheap pre-arbitration accompaniments to Putz and Soriano, who are both arbitration-eligible next year.

Lowe’s rapid ascent is also another testament to how much easier it is to forge an effective reliever than a solid starter. For more evidence, glance at the roster of the AAA Tacoma Rainiers, which contains two pitchers who were among the best prospects in the game entering 2003: Jesse Foppert, who hasn’t pitched since May, and Clint Nageotte, who holds a 5.42 ERA in 76.3 innings.

Despite the strength of the team’s relievers, the Mariners are just 12-17 in one-run games. The four teams that have better bullpens by WXRL–the Mets, A’s, Twins and Tigers–have collectively gone 82-45 in one-run games, a .646 percentage. While the strong Seattle bullpen should help turn that around, don’t expect the Mariners to chart a course for the A.L. West title: although they’ve scored nine more runs than they’ve allowed, their adjusted equivalent run totals, based upon equivalent average and the quality of their opponents’ pitching, hitting and defense, indicate that they have earned fourth place in the division.

Caleb Peiffer

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