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Tribe Get Potential Bargain In Wheeler

The relief market is a hotbed for unusual activity during the off-season. This winter, the Philadelphia Phillies got the party started with its signing of Jonathan Papelbon to a four-year, $50 million contract. Since then, Philadelphia’s former closer, Ryan Madson, signed a one-year deal worth around $8 million with the Cincinnati Reds — and their former, former closer, Brad Lidge, just inked a one-year, $1 million agreement with the Washington Nationals.

In addition to that trio, Matt Capps received a $4.75 million salary to return to the Minnesota Twins, and Fernando Rodney got $2 million from the budget-conscious Tampa Bay Rays. But one of the few relievers who could not find guaranteed millions – or even a guaranteed contract – was Dan Wheeler, who signed a minor league contract with the Cleveland Indians.

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Colon Continues Comeback In Oakland

After a successful comeback season with the New York Yankees in 2011, Bartolo Colon is headed west. Reports surfaced last week that the Arizona Diamondbacks and Oakland Athletics were interested in the 38-year-old right-hander. On Sunday, the A’s were announced as the mystery team that secured his services for the 2012 season.

Colon experienced a career-renaissance with the Yankees after signing a minor-league contract in the winter. Despite scoffs from most of the baseball world when the signing was announced, he was largely (no pun intended) effective in New York, posting a 3.83 FIP, 3.57 xFIP, and 3.60 SIERA. He shouldered his highest workload since 2005 by tossing 164.1 innings in 29 appearances. Paid just under a million dollar in Salary, he fell just shy of the 3 WAR mark, making him one of the more valuable signings of the year.

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Shoppach Returns to Boston

Kelly Shoppach is going back to where he started. The 31-year-old catcher agreed to terms on a one-year, $1.35 million contract with the Boston Red Sox — the organization that drafted him in the second round of the 2001 draft. With incentives, the deal could be worth $1.75 million.

Signing with the Red Sox ensures that Shoppach will remain in the American League East, where he spent the past two seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays. His time with the Rays was largely disappointing: he hit .185/.285/.340 in 440 plate appearances. In the four seasons prior, he posted a .343 wOBA with the Cleveland Indians — the fifth-best mark among AL catchers with at least 800 plate appearances.

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Anthopoulos Gets Closer and Flexiblity

Barely two months after signing Sergio Santos to a three-year extension worth a guaranteed $8.25 million, the Chicago White Sox have traded him to the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for pitching prospect Nestor Molina. Eno Sarris has you covered from the White Sox perspective, so let’s look at the deal through the scope of Alex Anthopoulos and the Toronto Blue Jays.

Last winter, the Jays acquired the tandem of Jon Rauch and Frank Francisco to handle the late inning duties. Rauch was largely disappointing in his 52 innings of work, managing a 5.26 FIP. His 12.9% HR/FB was well above his career average, but a 4.56 xFIP shows that he was mediocre even if his home-run rate was a bit fluky.

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Rays Running For Willingham

Depending on whom you are reading at the moment, the Tampa Bay Rays are making a serious run at Josh Willingham. Still, despite being a reported finalist, there is concern that the team might not be able to outbid the other teams vying for his services. Recent changes to the collective bargaining agreement removed the first-round bounty on Willingham and several other free agents — which is good news for the Rays — but likely expands his market to include deeper-pocketed teams like the Boston Red Sox. If Tampa Bay can somehow outlast the competition it could be a perfect pairing of talent and need.

And all this couldn’t have happened at a better time for the “Hammer.” Willingham certainly helped himself with a powerful contract year in Oakland: he hit a career-best 29 home runs and belted 26 doubles in 563 plate appearances. His .232 ISO was nearly 20 points higher than his career average, whih landed him between Josh Hamilton (.238) and Robinson Cano (.231) on the American League leaderboard.

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Cardinals Find Lynn-chpin

Prior to the start of the National League Championship Series, the St. Louis Cardinals activated starter-turned-reliever Lance Lynn from the 60-day disabled list (strained left oblique) and added him to the active roster. The 24-year-old last appeared in a game on August 9th before taking the mound in game 1 of the NLCS. Since, he has faced nine batters in the series, allowing just one hit.

Lynn made his major-league debut as a starter in early June. He took two turns through the rotation before being returned to Triple-A. He was recalled later in the month and used as a relief pitcher. Over the next six weeks, he made 16 appearances out of the Cardinals’ pen before straining his oblique.

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White Sox Extend Sergio Santos

In 2008, Sergio Santos hit .228 with a .607 OPS as a 24-year-old shortstop in Triple A. He will begin the 2012 season as the multi-million dollar closer of the Chicago White Sox. The Sox locked the now 28-year-old to a three-year deal worth a guaranteed $8.25 million. With club options, the deal could max out at six years and just over $30 million.

The former first-round pick of the Arizona Diamondbacks was a once a top-40 prospect as a shortstop. As he advanced in level, his bat failed to do the same. With little development, his future as a major leaguer was in doubt. Santos signed a minor-league contract with the Chicago White Sox in early 2009 which proved to be a career-changing move.

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Jarrod Parker Debuts For Diamondbacks

Lost in the shuffle of Tuesday night’s historic comeback by the Arizona Diamondbacks was the major-league debut of D-Backs prized prospect, Jarrod Parker. A top-10 selection in the 2007 draft, Parker missed the entire 2010 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Despite the injury, Marc Hulet ranked him as the No. 1 prospect in Arizona’s system prior to the season, saying he might be major-league ready by the end of 2011.

During the summer Mike Newman — our other prospect guru — had the opportunity to scout Parker. In his write-up, Newman said Parker’s fastball sat 92 mph to 96 mph with the ability to hit higher velocity, on occasion. As far as secondary options, Parker relied on his changeup more than his previously rated plus-slider, perhaps as a byproduct of his continued recovery. Like Hulet, Newman thought the 22-year-old Parker was ready for MLB action this year. With 5.2 innings of shutout ball on Tuesday, Parker looked ready—  even though his debut was not Strasburg- or Moore-esque.

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Wade & Sonnanstine v. The Process

Althought it appears Andrew Friedman has the Midas touch, not every move he makes turns to gold. While no front office will hit on every transaction, the hope is they come out more often than not. For the Tampa Bay Rays this has been the case since the Friedman regime took over prior to the 2006 season. Relatively small in regards to the grand scheme of things, the team’s decision to release right-handed reliever Cory Wade in June serves as an example of a rare misstep by the Rays front office.

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Sun Will Come Out For Morrow

When a pitcher strikes out a lot of batters while keeping his home runs and walks allowed to a minimum, good things generally happen. Prior to this season, there were 31 occurrences of a season in which a starting pitcher threw at least 140 innings with a K/9 greater than 10.0 with a BB/9 less than 3.5 and a HR/9 below 1.0. The list includes some of the game’s greatest pitchers: Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling (3x), Sandy Koufax (2x), Nolan Ryan (4x), Pedro Martinez (4x), and Randy Johnson, who had nine (9!) such seasons. The list also includes some surprises like Jason Schmidt, Mike Scott, and Erik Bedard. Recently, we’ve seen Scott Kazmir, Justin Verlander, and Tim Lincecum (2x) put up these kind of seasons.

Zack Grienke (10.67 K/9, 2.16 BB/9, 1.02 HR/9) is close to joining the list; however, as of right now Brandon Morrow is the only pitcher in baseball on pace for membership to my arbitrary statistical club. After his start this weekend, Morrow has a K/9 of 10.41, a BB/9 of 3.45, and a HR/9 of 0.97.

There is one huge difference between the Toronto righty and the rest of the list.

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Matt Bush: September Call-up Candidate?

Over the next 48 hours everyone in and around baseball will be busy analyzing the rosters of minor league teams in anticipation of September call-ups. But perhaps the most interesting name who is currently on a 40-man roster, Matt Bush, may not get the call at all. By now we all know Bush’s story – the bust that was the first overall pick in the 2004 draft. The immature teenager who made more headlines for his transgressions off the field than his play on it. Fast forward to 2011, and not only has Bush overcome his personal demons with substance abuse, but he has put his career on a major-league path.
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Britton Bounces Back Against Yankees

Back on July 30, the New York Yankees shelled Baltimore Orioles’ rookie Zach Britton. The 23-year-old lefty struck out Derek Jeter to lead off the bottom of the first, but then gave up seven hits, a walk and nine runs — six of which were earned. Forty-three pitches later, Britton was done — and the Jeter K was his lone out.

Fast forward to Sunday, when Britton was going against nearly the same lineup — plus a healthy Alex Rodriguez — and tossed seven shutout innings en route to his eighth victory of the season. After such an abysmal outing last month, he allowed just four hits and a walk, while striking out five. None of Britton’s five Yankee baserunners reached second base. In fact, even after his exit, the Yankees failed to move a runner in to scoring position as Jim Johnson and Kevin Gregg worked the final two innings to preserve the combined shutout.

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Free Russ Canzler

Following in the footsteps of Brandon Allen and Brandon Belt, it is time to free another minor league first baseman with outstanding numbers. Although he does not have the prospect pedigree of Belt – or even Allen for that matter- Russ Canzler has quietly been one of the most productive minor-league hitters over the past two seasons without a big league at-bat to his credit. In fact, Canzler, who is younger than Allen, has hit .280/.350/.470 in over 2,400 minor-league plate appearances spanning eight seasons.

Last season, Canzler really broke out at the Double-A level as a member of the Chicago Cubs organization. In 2010, he bashed Southern League pitching to the tune of .287/.372/.556 with 53 extra-base hits in slightly more than 400 plate appearances. He left the Cubs as a free agent this offseason and found a job with the Tampa Bay Rays.

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The San Francisco Firemen

When you think of the San Francisco Giants bullpen, you think of Brian Wilson. Since assuming the closer’s role four years ago, Wilson has been the face – and the beard – of relief pitching in the Bay Area. That recognition comes with merit since the right-hander has been one of the better relief pitchers in baseball and his save totals (160 since 2008) shows he is well-equipped with the closer’s mentality. While he has done a great job closing the door, the pitchers bridging the gap from starting pitcher to Wilson has been as good, if not better.

As a unit, Bruce Bochy’s bunch has been a top-3 bullpen this season. More specifically, he has deployed a lefty/righty combination of high-leverage relievers to lock down the innings prior to his closer. From the left side, Javier Lopez has been quite the pickup for the Giants since joining the club in late 2010. As an alumni of the FanGraphs’ school of higher leverage, Lopez has settled in as one of the more dependable lefties in relief.

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Cardinals Add Furcal to Mix

In an effort to sure up their interior defense, the St. Louis Cardinals agreed to a trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers, bringing Rafael Furcal back east in exchange for Double-A outfielder Alex Castellanos. The trade was first reported last night, but could not be made official until Furcal – a 10/5 player – waived his no-trade clause to complete the transaction.

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Giants Acquire Orlando Cabrera

Not content with Jeff Keppinger and Carlos Beltran as trade deadline acquisitions, the San Francisco Giants added veteran middle infielder Orlando Cabrera to the mix. In exchange for Cabrera, the Giants sent 23-year-old outfielder Thomas Neal to the Cleveland Indians – who had little use for Cabrera after Jason Kipnis was promoted.

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Pirates Acquire Derrek Lee

Just hours after acquiring their potential first baseman of the future (Chris Davis), the Baltimore Orioles shipped off their first baseman of the present – Derrek Lee – to the Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for yet another young first baseman in Aaron Baker. Selected in the 11th round of the 2009 draft, Baker has produced above-average offensive marks since turning pro. Meanwhile, his age (23) and his level (A+) probably give him an advantage. Although Baker may never turn in to anything more than an organizational soldier, his power potential is worth taking a shot on; especially since the 35-year-old Lee is not in Baltimore’s post-2011 plans.

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Giants Upgrade Infield With Keppinger

Looking to sure up an area of weakness – the middle infield – the San Francisco Giants acquired Jeff Keppinger from the Houston Astros for a pair of minor league arms. For the Astros, selling a piece like Keppinger makes sense even if the return – or in this case returns – never pan out. I will not pretend to know much about Henry Sosa and Jason Stoffel; however, getting two live arms in a system void of many prospects in exchange for a player who does not have much a future in the organization is a worthwhile gamble regardless of the outcome.

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Five Relievers Who Are Finding “It”

Quite often we hear that a relief pitcher does or does not have what it takes to get the high pressure outs. Certain pitchers have “it” while others melt under the spot light. Ryan Madson could not be a successful closer because he lacked the vaunted “closer’s mentality.” I’m sure on a case by case basis you will find players who simply cannot handle the pressure; however, studies have shown that a reliever should perform to his talent level regardless of the leverage. After all, they are just roles not skill-sets.

As a fan of the Rays, I have watched Kyle Farnsworth transform from a guy who also lacks the closer’s mentality in to a true relief ace pitching in high leverage situations. Farnsworth is not the only middle reliever to graduate to the high life with success. Including Farnsworth, I found five relief pitchers who moved from the mid-to-low level situations up to a higher level. All five pitched at least 50 innings last season with a pLI less than 1.0. In 2011, they have tossed 30 or more innings with a leverage index of 1.3 or higher (basically set-up man or more). Here is the list…

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Tigers Move Coke to Bullpen

When the Detroit Tigers acquired Phil Coke in early 2010, they floated the idea of using him as a starter. Although he had appeared exclusively in relief as a major leaguer, Coke worked as a starter in the minor leagues until his promotion to Triple-A in 2008. Ultimately, the Tigers decided to kept him in the bullpen for the 2010 season (although he did make one start at the end).

Coke pitched well enough as a reliever (3.76 ERA/3.23 FIP) for Detroit to re-visit the idea of moving him to the rotation again this spring. This time, the Tigers followed through on their plan and Coke made 14 starts sandwiched around a brief stint on the disabled list. After dropping to a 1-8 record with a 4.91 ERA following his last start, Tigers manager Jim Leyland announced Coke is moving back to the bullpen.

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