• Whoa. Did Jim Johnson have a major meltdown or what? Tasked with closing out a 9-8 win at home versus the Athletics, he was rocked for six runs on five hits and a walk. Over his last eight appearences, he’s thrown 6.1 innings with a 2/2 K/BB — good for an 18.47 ERA (pushing his season mark up to 3.71 after it was as low as 0.78 last month). Johnson’s smoke and mirrors act has been mentioned in this column before, but it bears repeating that his K% is only 14.0% and his SwStr% is 6.1%, both well below league-average for late-inning relievers. Johnson’s regression has brought his ERA back in line with his xFIP (3.80) and he figures to pitch to that number going forward (not as good as he was early in the season and not as bad as the last couple weeks). He’s unlikely to be in any imminent danger of losing his job, but Pedro Strop racked up a couple saves earlier this season (and he sports the 1.40 ERA, even though his 3.80 xFIP is identical to Johnson’s) so he’s no stranger to the ninth inning at Camden. Hopefully owners were able to sell him as a top-10 closer when he was way up fantasy leaderboards in May and June.
• With Francisco Cordero getting some time off after batting some combination of a toe injury and the terriblitis; the Astros needed to turn to someone to close out tonight’s game against the surging Buccos. While conventional wisdom (and those pesky statistics) peg Wilton Lopez as the best reliever in the pen, the ‘Stros turned to Rhiner Cruz in the ninth inning instead. Rhiner Cruz. You know — the guy with the 6.88 ERA (5.10 xFIP). In not-so-shocking fashion, Cruz loaded the bases without recording an out before being pulled in favor of the slightly-more-adept Xavier Cedeno (3.93 xFIP) who was able to finish the inning, but not before allowing two of his inherited runners to cross the plate. The team hasn’t pulled Cordero from the closer role yet, even after some poor performances the last few nights, so he will still headline this shaky bullpen until further notice. Lopez is easily the best arm in the pen (2.73 xFIP, 6 K/BB) but it’s possible the Astros are still concerned with the UCL in his elbow and may coddle him given that the team is going nowhere fast (note: author speculation). And while Cruz got the opp tonight, I would expect his performance to negate any future chances going forward so he’s probably not a guy to blow even a nickel of FAAB on. Either way, the Houston bullpen is one only for the bravest save vultures with the most iron-clad stomachs.
• Frank Francisco tossed a scoreless inning on the rehab trail this evening, appearing in his second game for Double-A Binghamton. Francisco had a minor setback a week or so ago when he dealt with a sore knee, but it appears he is now on track for a return to the Mets ‘pen sometime early next week. Bobby Parnell has quietly done a very solid job in the closer role (29.0% K%, 2.75 xFIP in July), although a couple blown saves (however unlucky) are probably enough to ensure that Francisco will get the job back upon his return. However, with Francisco’s 4.20 xFIP being less than stellar and the Mets fading fast, don’t be shocked if Parnell gets another look sometime between now and the end of the season. I wouldn’t drop him just yet in deeper leagues.
• Ken Rosenthal tweeted an interesting nugget earlier this evening. Apparently not satisfied with just trading for Zach Greinke, the Angels are also in the market for another reliever. Rosenthal specifically states that the team is looking for a late-inning guy guy who could “who could share load with Frieri and Downs.” The team has a plethora of strong arms in the pen: the aforementioned Ernesto Frieri (3.15 xFIP) and Scott Downs (3.64) in addition to (the recovering) Jordan Walden (3.91), LaTroy Hawkins (4.08), and Kevin Jepsen (4.11) have all seen high leverage innings in 2012. Interestingly, all of those pitchers (except Jepsen) have ERAs lower than their xFIPs (and in the case of Frieri, Downs, and Hawkins there’s more than a run of ERA-xFIP differential) so it’s possible management is proactively searching for one more arm to hedge against some second-half regression. Probably more smoke than fire at this point, but if someone like Jonathan Broxton lands in California, the ice could get a little thinner for Frieri owners.
A Pitcher for Tomorrow: Kris Medlen (ATL) vs. PHI
After being sent to AAA in early June to begin a transition to the rotation, Medlen was instead returned to the big leagues in his familiar bullpen role. The pride of Santa Ana College has really come on strong as both a setup guy and swingman as of late (3.38 xFIP, 21.7% K% in July) and could give you multiple innings in middle relief with a Mike Minor start on tap tomorrow.
[Green light, yellow light, red light: the colors represent the volatility of the bullpen order.]