Bullpens and Crystal Balls
Injuries, poor performance or impending free agency can be reasons teams explore potential role changes in their bullpens. Each week in End Game Odyssey we briefly touch on the bullpen happenings around baseball, but this is a good time to throw some hopefully well-aimed darts at a target or two and hope we can pop a closer-in-waiting onto your radar screen. It might be an opportunity to grab a handful of saves for your league's stretch run, or it might give you a crystal ball look into some evolving scenarios for next year. Either way, some speculation can be fun. Let's take a look.
Chia-Jen Lo (Houston Astros)
When you only have one proven relief pitcher, and you trade him, there is bound to be some shuffling in your bullpen, and when the Astros dealt Jose Veras at the trading deadline, the musical chairs began. Many thought Jose Cisneros would claim the job, but that didn't materialize; Josh Fields got the first chance and flamed out. As I have stated the last few weeks, I remain convinced Lo will step in as the regular closer at some point soon, and it wouldn't surprise me to see him head into next season as the leading candidate, if he can stay healthy. He has long been the Astros heir apparent, and injuries have slowed his progress, but his day may be at hand. The clock is ticking as he now has logged a save so people are starting to notice. Hopefully readers didn't wait too long, as he is definitely worth a shot.
J.J. Putz (Arizona Diamondbacks)
The often-injured Putz is still the closer in Arizona, even if he is currently pitching earlier in games. Heath Bell filled in for a stretch and did reasonably well, but he stumbled and the Diamondbacks are now using Brad Ziegler as their primary end-gamer. Ziegler is also a specialist type who is vulnerable to lefty swingers, and does not project as a long-term closer. But, that's not a problem, as Arizona never intended for him to be. Putz has a pretty long history of successfully closing games. It's his nearly as long history of being fragile that sometimes gets in the way. He suffered a strained ligament in June that did not require surgery, and he has been used conservatively since his return in early July. He hasn't allowed a run in more than a month, but he hasn't pitched on back-to-back days in that time, either. Once Arizona is convinced he is ready to assume a heavier workload, he should be back in the role, and he is signed through next season.
Danny Farquhar (Seattle Mariners)
I hadn't watched Farquhar very much lately until it became fairly obvious that former closer Tom Wilhelmsen wasn't going to be the long-term guy in Seattle, and the best bet to succeed him, Carter Capps, suddenly became a high-velocity batting practice pitcher. Farquhar has some pretty decent stuff, but his varying arm angles make that stuff more difficult for hitters to pick up. The problem with varying those arm angles, and therefore your release point, is a tendency to lose command. That has been the knock on Farquhar for quite some time. When he can consistently throw strikes (like he has while serving as the M's closer and for a stretch before) he can be effective. I'm not quite convinced he is going to be the guy long term - Capps has an even better arm, and a considerably better pedigree so he remains a solid option if he gets his act together and Farquhar falters - but while he's on a roll, he should do reasonably well and Seattle will ride his dominant streak as long as it lasts.
Ernesto Frieri (Anaheim Angels)
Frieri recently suffered through an implosion of cataclysmic proportions, and eventually bought himself a ticket to low-leverage land. In some cases like this it's easy to write off the incumbent and grab his replacement with confidence, but this isn't one of those cases. While Ryan Madson and his slow-to-heal elbow are gone, Dane De La Rosa is the interim closer, and someone like Kevin Jepsen could step in if he stumbles before the Angels give the job back to Frieir. The point is, barring an acquisition from the outside, the ball will eventually come back to him. The Angels simply have no reliably established options internally, and while Frieri is still seen by many as a better set-up man than closer, he is the best they have, and should return to the gig once he gets a large dose of confidence builder. However, there is a very good chance the Angels will shop for a new closer during the offseason, so don't get to excited about his long-term value in keeper leagues just yet.
Pedro Strop (Chicago Cubs)
When Kyuji Fujikawa went down with an injury requiring season-ending surgery, and following Carlos Marmol's annual flameout, which lead to Kevin Gregg being named the Cubs closer, you could have gotten very good odds from me had you wanted to bet on Gregg still having the job in mid-August. He was remarkably successful for a stretch but may be in the process of turning back into Kevin Gregg now. He has walked almost a batter an inning over the last month, leading to a WHIP of more than 2.00 and an ugly 5.40 ERA, so it's time to start searching for the next in line. I'm going to go with the arm they acquired from Baltimore with Jake Arrieta for Scott Feldman (a HUGE win for the Cubs, by the way). Throw out one debacle against Milwaukee in July in which he allowed five runs, and Strop has a perfect 0.00 ERA since changing uniforms. He has the best stuff in their bullpen, and should be their closer next season, if not before. And, if I were to make a bet today, I would bet on sooner, rather than later.
Joakim Soria (Texas Rangers)
This one is more about next year than the current season. The Rangers are in a playoff mood, and they have future Hall-of-Famer Joe Nathan closing out games, and doing it very well. Soria, who recently returned from his second Tommy John surgery is still shaking off the rust of missing all 2012 and half of this year, but he is the reliever who saved 143 games between 2008 and 2011, and he is just 29, so the crystal ball says closing is still very much in his future. There were rumors that Texas even considered dealing Nathan at the trading deadline, so it's possible they will make a move, perhaps this offseason, if they are convinced Soria is ready to step back into the role. He is under contract next season, and the Rangers hold a club option for 2015, so the he is in their plans, and it's unlikely to be as a set-up man long term.
Some Notable Rotation Happenings
Sonny Gray (OAK) - I've been asked a few times about his immediate and long-term future in the A's rotation, and I think there is a good chance he sticks for the rest of this season and beyond. Brett Anderson will probably be eased back, and Oakland will probably relish the opportunity to see if Gray is ready. He's going to need to continue to hone his command, but he has a fairly high ceiling.
Josh Johnson (TOR) - Just another in the long list of Blue Jays starters to spend time on the disabled list this season. The forearm injury is not supposed to be related to the elbow problems that lead to Tommy John surgery, but he has really been a colossal disappointment even when he was healthy.
Noah Syndergaard (NYM) - He is one of the most anticipated arms in my possible peeks in September book, but the Mets aren't going to overuse their trio of golden geese that includes Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler. He may get a look, but his workload will dictate the duration and intensity of that trial.
Ross Detwiler (WAS) - He had back surgery and initial projections had him out for the remainder of this season. However he has bounced back quicker than expected, and word is he may make a couple of appearances in September if things continue to go well. I still like Detwiler as a back-of-the rotation fantasy guy.
David Price (TB) - Maybe it was a quiet injury that wrecked the first couple months of this season, but since returning from a stint on the disabled list he has looked very much like last year's Cy Young winner with an 0.74 WHIP and a 1.77 ERA. His strikeouts are down a bit, but everything else is premier quality.
Kris Medlen (ATL) - I was one of those expecting a big season from Medlen, and was disappointed when he struggled for so long. He is pitching like I thought he might now, and the Braves are riding their hot rotation pitchers, including Medlen, into a divisional runaway. I expect good things from him again next year.
Other Short Takes in the Endgame Odyssey
I didn't mention the Mets situation because I couldn't find a crystal ball powerful enough to sort through that mess. Bobby Parnell is out, and may not be back very soon, and LaTroy Hawkins is filling in after David Aardsma predictably flopped. I'd have to be very desperate for saves to get involved in this one. ... Think how good the Dodgers might have looked had they installed Kenley Jansen as their closer on Opening Day. The guy is an elite talent, and I love watching him pitch. ... I'm a little concerned about Casey Janssen. He has struggled a bit recently, and he has been pitching through some minor shoulder soreness all year relating to surgery he had during the offseason. With Jays season all but over, it wouldn't be surprising to see the team lighten his workload. ... Rafael Betancourt could rejoin the Rockies as soon as this weekend, but no word yet on whether he or Rex Brothers will close. Brothers hasn't quite shut the door on Betancourt, but Colorado may give him a chance to do so. ... In Tampa Bay, the Fernando Rodney rollercoaster is in a valley now. Jake McGee hasn't been great lately, but he could sneak into the picture.