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The Rodney/Fuentes Situation

Earlier in the decade, the Angels were known for consistently cobbling together top-tier bullpens. From 2002-2007, L.A. ranked in the top three in the American League in reliever xFIP, taking top honors in 2003 and 2004.

The names, outside of $900,000 bonus baby Francisco Rodriguez, were hardly glamorous. Those Angelic bullpens were anchored by guys like Brendan Donnelly (a 27th round pick of the White Sox who passed through six organizations), Scot Shields (the Angels’ 38th rounder in 1997) and Ben Weber, a 20th round pick of the Blue Jays who didn’t get a legit big league shot until age 31.

Given the Angels’ track record of uncovering bullpen gems, one might find it strange that the team has laid down a big chunk of change on free agent relievers in recent off-seasons. Justin Speier pulled down $18 million while contributing -0.2 WAR. Brian Fuentes compiled 0.4 WAR in 2009 while making $8.5M. He’ll earn $9M in 2010, and has a $9M vesting option for 2011. Fun fact: Donnelly came out of nowhere, again, to post a 0.6 WAR season with the Marlins in 2009. The cost? A minor league deal.

Add Fernando Rodney to the list of high-profile relief signings. The long-time Tiger, 33 in March, inked for two years and $11M recently. It’s a level of compensation that Rodney has not justified during his major league tenure.

The first thing some will point to regarding Rodney is: 37 for 38. As in, he converted 37 of 38 save opportunities in 2009. That sounds impressive, right? Well, looks can be deceiving.

Rodney posted his lowest strikeout rate (7.26 K/9) since an 18-inning stint 2002. His control, never a strong suit (career 4.64 BB/9) was again middling, with 4.88 walks per nine frames in 2009. On the positive side, the righty with mid-90’s gas and a hard changeup did post the highest groundball rate (57.9 percent) and first pitch strike percentage (62.7) of his career.

Even so, he was nothing special. Rodney’s xFIP was 4.42 this past season. For reference, 138 relievers pitched 50 or more innings in 2009. Fernando’s xFIP placed 89th. His 1.49 K/BB ratio ranked 115th. Even by Rodney’s own standards, it wasn’t a banner season. His 77.9% contact rate was his highest since ’02, and well above his 73.3% career mark. His ’09 xFIP was actually his worst full-season mark.

With the Angels, Rodney could now compete with last year’s big-ticket disappointment, Fuentes. The 34 year-old southpaw posted a K rate (7.53 per nine) well below his career level (9.92 K/9), while handing out 3.93 BB/9. His xFIP was a grisly 4.94.

Fuentes couldn’t seem to find his breaking stuff last year. His recent Baseball Info Solutions pitch data lumps all of his mid-70’s breakers together, but the Pitch F/X data suggests Fuentes tosses both a slider and a curve.

The slider has been worth a healthy +0.76 runs per 100 pitches since 2002, with the curve posting a run value around the major league average. But in 2009, those slow, sweeping pitches (all called sliders by BIS) were pummeled for -0.42 runs/100. Fuentes’ contact rate spiked to 80.3 percent, well above his 73.6% figure since ’02.

Here are the 2010 CHONE projections for Rodney and Fuentes:

Rodney: 57 IP, 7.9 K/9, 4.9 BB/9, 4.58 ERA, 0 runs above replacement
Fuentes: 56 IP, 7.9 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, 3.54 ERA, +8 RAR

If Rodney and Fuentes were to perform around this level, the Angels would be paying $14.5M for less than one win above replacement.

Heading into 2010, Rodney will garner attention based on his save total and the possibility that he usurps Fuentes for ninth inning glory in L.A. Don’t get carried away, though. For all of the press and cash Rodney and Fuentes will get, the best reliever in the ‘pen might just be pitching in middle relief.