With the All-Star Break upon us, and the trade deadline getting closer, the Bullpen Report will look a little different over the next few days. Stay along for the ride as we dive into the world of trade rumors and how that might affect some of the bullpens in baseball.
• The Seattle Mariners have been one of the teams constantly coming up in discussions that center around relief pitchers changing teams sometime this month. It’s no surprise, either — at 36-51, they own the worst record in the American League and merely plugging a small leaky hole or two via free agency isn’t going to suddenly make them watertight again. Most of the talk has centered around moving Brandon League, a guy making $5 million in 2012 before hitting free agency for the first time this offseason. While League (career 3.65 xFIP, 4.64 in 2012) and his expiring contract is the obvious choice, could (or should) the Mariners entertain the idea of trading Tom Wilhelmsen as well?
The easy argument against moving Wilhelmsen would be “but he’s younger, has better peripherals, and is under Seattle control for five years. He’s the type of guy you need to build around.” However, this is precisely the reason why he would be an interesting piece for general manager Jack Zduriencik to consider offering up in trade discussions before the end of the month. Wilhelmsen has pitched extremely well this season with a 28.4% K% and a 3.18 xFIP (and if you believe Safeco suppresses HR/FB, it’s actually probably a bit lower than this) both before and after taking the closing job from League. However, relief pitchers are generally considered the easiest and cheapest position to develop, and experience high year-to-year turnover with many pitchers only exhibiting a few seasons of elite value. Just look at last year’s relief pitcher WAR. Names like Sean Marshall, David Robertson, and Greg Holland join the highly paid Craig Kimbrel, Jonathan Papelbon, and Mariano Rivera in the top six. This argument cuts both ways — cheap reliever help can be found, and found more easily than at other positions, but also, cheap reliever help is something that experiences enough turnover that you might find someone desperate enough to push all their chips to the center of the table when July 31st rolls around.
Am I suggesting a Wilhelmsen trade is likely? Of course not. And should his owners being panicking and trying to pawn him off as soon as possible? No (well, at least not unless you have better inside information that I do… which is none). Spend a top waiver claim on the two most internal candidates to replace Wilhelmsen, Charlie Furbush (2.61 xFIP but with a 3.35/1.69 RHH/LHH xFIP split) or Stephen Pryor (96+ mile per hour fastball but a 13.6% BB%)? I wouldn’t. But if I’m the Mariners, I consider Wilhelmsen my top trade chip. A guy that was built from nothing into a valuable commodity in a volatile reliever market. A guy pitching for a team that is still at least two or three years away from being able to label themselves serious contenders. With desperate teams such as the Mets, Marlins, and White Sox looking for a big fireballer to shore up their ‘pens, maybe someone will break the bank.
• The Twinkies are also a team going nowhere fast, boasting the second worst record in the junior league behind the aforementioned Mariners. Early on, there was much discussion about Matt Capps, a guy signed to a one-year contract (with $6 million team option) before the season. Well, the trade chatter has gone quiet, mainly thanks to Mr. Capps’ bum shoulder. While shoulder injuries have a nasty tendency to linger and recur, it appears Capps has gotten over the hump and is nearing a return to the big leagues, which couldn’t come soon enough for Terry Ryan and the rest of the Minnesota front office. While Capps’ injury has likely suppressed his trade value, he still remains an extremely logical (and likely) chip to move — he’s making a lot of money on a team which has essentially given up in 2012, who also have two arms behind him who have proven to be successful late inning guys this year.
In the event of a Capps departure, Minnesota would probably stick with what we’ve seen the last few weeks; the two-headed monster of Glen Perkins and Jared Burton. Perkins came into the season as the Twins “closer of the future” and was a trendy late round pick in deeper and keeper leagues because of this. Perkins peripherals are still good (26.7% K%, 7.9 BB%), although he’s put up 3.83 xFIP since the start of June after putting up a 3.10 during the first two months. This looks even worse in the box score thanks to a 0.384 BABIP and close to a 4.50 ERA over the last six weeks. Burton, on the other hand, has been a bit of a surprise in 2012, putting up a 3.60 xFIP, thanks in large part to the fact that he’s shaved his BB% from a career average of 9.3% to 5.7% this season. While owners should always been skeptical of a guy who seemingly puts it together after such a pedestrian track record, it’s worth noting that Burtons’ fastball velocity is up over two miles per hour since last year, which lends some credence to the belief that this recent run of success might be sustainable. I’d like to argue that Perkins should probably be the slight favorite (even with the left-handedness) for fantasy owners if Capps were to get dealt (and is probably the better keeper/dynasty play as well) but Burton has certainly made enough noise that he and his right arm might muscle his way into the upper half of the split in Minnesota.
As for Capps, his 4.24 xFIP is nothing special and he needs every bit of his minuscule 3.7% BB% to offset the fact that he’s not (in the relief pitcher world) whiffing anyone (15.0% K%). He’s extremely unlikely to be a closer anywhere he goes, as there are few contending teams with ninth-inning guys that are either currently worse or project worse (“project more mediocre” might be the right term) than Capps. Given his contract, he could easily end up as a setup man on a contending team looking for a bit more bullpen weight like the White Sox or Cardinals, although neither are likely to give up anything close to blue-chippers for Capps. Not that anyone else should be ready to give up top prospects for him, either. Capps owners have a couple choices; ride the wave through the end of July and hope the Twins don’t find a suitable taker for him (which would reflect poorly on Ryan) or shop him aggressively to teams desperately in need of a couple saves and get out while the gettin’s good.
• As Alan said yesterday, sometimes the most interesting trades come from within. He was speaking about the Marlins, but the Red Sox are another such team. They’ve dealt with injury blow after injury blow to the twenty-five man roster this year and the bullpen hasn’t been immune. The oft-injured Andrew Bailey (acquired in the deal that send the suddenly-slugging Josh Reddick to Oakland) suffered a torn UCL (thumb) during spring training, although it wasn’t a blown elbow like Vegas oddsmakers would have predicted. He’s been slowly making progress in his rehab, although conflicting reports have him returning anywhere from late July to early September. Meanwhile, the guy who had every opportunity to steal the Sox closer job while Alfredo Aceves was busy unraveling in April has returned from AAA exile to quietly put up solid numbers as he works his way back into the late innings. Mark Melancon‘s ERA still stands at an ugly 7.04, but he has a 3.42 xFIP (12/2 K/BB) since he was called back up to the big leagues in early June. He’s still not inducing enough grounders (38% GB% in 2012 compared to a 53.1% career average) but he’s no longer a liability.
It’s unlikely the Red Sox will make a big splash at the deadline for a relief arm; after all, the bullpen (which was the team’s Achilles’ heel during April), has actually been one of the stronger facets of the team over the last few months, with Scott Atchison (3.46 xFIP) and Andrew Miller (3.26 xFIP) being the most pleasant surprises. Once you note that Matt Albers is putting up the worst peripherals of their established relievers and still keeping a palatable 4.10 xFIP, you quickly realize that there isn’t a tremendous amount of room for relatively inexpensive upgrades from outside the organization.
The biggest internal negative might be Daniel Bard who, after being removed from the starting rotation to transition back to the bullpen in AAA, has walked an awful 10 batters in 14.1 innings. That doesn’t tell the whole store of his Ankielsian minor league saga — he’s also hit six batters while also tossing six wild pitches. Oh, and to make matters worse, he’s lost his upper-90′s fastball, sitting around 92-93 and topping out around 95. Time is rapidly eroding in the race to get Bard back to the major leagues this year and owners who are clinging to him in keeper leagues feel their hearts sink a little more with each AAA outing.
How the Red Sox bullpen will shake out over the next three months should be interesting to watch. Aceves has actually amped up the fastball velocity and has jumped from a near league average SwStr% to 11.5% in 2012 which has actually has improved his pedestrian career numbers (such as his 4.44 xFIP) this year (3.92 xFIP). That said, his WPA is an ugly -0.53 (he’s contributing more to the team losing than winning) and his sporadic implosions (while relatively infrequent) still have hold in the Red Sox psyche. He’s got the job right now, but he would slip faster than most other green-light closers if he runs into a stretch of shaky performances. Who could possibly challenge him? Well, Bailey is the obvious choice, but even he doesn’t seem to have a good idea when he’ll be back. Melancon is working his way back into Bobby Valentine’s good graces but still has some work to do before he’s a primary setup man again. Lastly, Andrew Miller remains a dark horse, but has little experience in the bullpen, let alone high-leverage end-of-game situations, and has a bit more of a platoon split (0.192 wOBA versus LHH compared to a 0.325 wOBA versus RHH in an admittedly small sample size) than you’d like to see in a closer. Bailey is worth a stash, and Melancon/Miller would be good speculative adds if Aceves has a couple muffed outings out of the gate for a Red Sox team trying to cling to the wild card hunt. One last thing to note — keeper leaguers should probably gamble on Bailey now if they can, as even if he doesn’t regain his ninth inning spot this year, he would seem to be the odds-on favorite to enter spring training with that position again in 2013.
[Green light, yellow light, red light: the colors represent the volatility of the bullpen order.]