SweetSpot: Kyle Farnsworth

Fernando Rodney is awesome

September, 28, 2012
Adam Dunn is at the plate, looking relaxed, just another of his more than 7,000 career plate appearances in the major leagues.

Dunn may appear relaxed, but Chicago White Sox fans certainly aren't, as they stand in unison, knowing the season has come down to this: one pitch. The cameras pan to the White Sox dugout and bullpen and Dunn's teammates have that look of dead men walking -- the depressing look of a team falling apart at the wrong time of the year, not knowing or understanding how this happened.

The count is three balls, two strikes, Fernando Rodney on the mound for the Tampa Bay Rays, his hat askew and beard groomed in a long goatee hanging in a point off his chin. It seems more goofy than intimidating -- if that's what Rodney is going for -- but when you have an ERA of less than 1.00 and have allowed two earned runs since the All-Star break, nobody cares what you look like.

Dunn has one thing on his mind: home run. The Rays lead 3-2, there is a runner on base, the White Sox in danger of losing for the eighth time in nine games. On the previous pitch, Dunn somehow laid off a changeup that dipped just below the knees. The pitch before he was late on a 98-mph fastball.

Fastball or changeup?

Good luck.

Rodney throws the changeup, it drops at the last moment, and Dunn swings over the top of it, and the air is let out of 18,000-plus at The Cell. The White Sox, 3-2 losers, are now two games behind the Detroit Tigers in the American League Central and their season feels over. The Rays have now won eight in a row and are two games behind the Oakland A's in the wild-card race. They've done this miracle surge thing before.

* * * *

Evan Longoria belted the winning home run off Brett Myers in the ninth inning, a sloppy curveball that a player of Longoria's caliber doesn't miss. But let's write about Rodney, because of his superlative season and because we really haven't talked much about him this year.

There was a tweet I saw as Rodney came in to close it out, from a guy named Dave Hogg (@stareagle): "Guess what, Tigers fans? You are about to relive the past -- it's going to be Fernando Rodney closing out a huge game for Detroit."

That's kind of a joke. Rodney used to pitch for the Tigers but wasn't that great for them. He was the closer one year for them, saved 37 games, but with a 4.40 ERA. The Tigers let him walk and he signed with the Los Angeles Angels, where his ERA was 4.32 the past two seasons. He had more walks than strikeouts for them last season. Of course they let him walk. Why wouldn't they?

And now he's put together one of the great relief seasons in history. How do you explain this?

You can't. The Rays have said it's all about improved fastball command from previous years, helping set up that lethal changeup. It's not just the drop in the pitch, but the separation from his fastball; his heater averages 96.1 mph, his changeup 82.4 mph.

"I'm surprised, to tell you the truth, whenever anybody puts the bat on one of them," Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey told Marc Tompkin of the Tampa Bay Times back in July. "Because this is not just a changeup."

Here's one heat map example of his improved fastball command against left-handed batters, 2011 versus 2012:

Fernando RodneyESPN Stats & InformationRodney's fastball command has been much improved in 2012.

Before this season, Rodney had averaged 4.9 walks per nine innings in his career (and a staggering 7.9 with the Angels in 2011). In 2012, that number is less than 2 per nine.

That command sets up the change. In 64 plate appearances ending with a changeup, batters are hitting .102 against -- 6-for-59, one double, no home runs, 25 strikeouts. And because of that, Rodney's ERA is now 0.62. Talk about staggering. The lowest ever for a pitcher with at least 50 innings: Dennis Eckersely, 0.61 in 1990. With more scoreless inning, Rodney will match exactly Eck's totals: 73.1 innings, nine runs, five earned runs. (To be fair: Craig Kimbrel of the Braves has actually allowed fewer runs per nine innings this year.)

Not bad for a guy the Rays signed for $1.75 million and $2.5 team option (after the Angels had thrown away $11 million on him over two season). Rodney got a chance to close only when Kyle Farnsworth was injured in spring training.

"We thought he was ripe for a good year," Rays manager Joe Maddon had said back in July. "I think it's a combination of him feeling good about himself and liking it here, and maybe some nice physical and mental adjustments, and all of a sudden, you've got an All-Star."

Score one for the Rays. As our pal Jonah Keri said, in reference to Rodney's infamous post-save celebrations: He is an arrow-firing cyborg.

That cyborg is a reason the Rays are still alive. Very much alive.
You know, Fernando Rodney has never really been that good. He had 44 good innings for the Tigers in 2005 and he was tough to hit in 2006, when he had a 3.52 ERA. But from 2007 through 2011, he posted a 4.42 ERA, hardly impressive for a relief pitcher, and allowed a ton of baserunners (1.50 WHIP) as he always walked too many batters (5.2 walks per 9). He lucked into 37 saves for the Tigers in 2009 despite a 4.40 ERA and other uninspiring numbers (41 walks, 61 strikeouts, eight home runs in 75.2 innings).

So of course the Angels gave him $11 million, and then were surprised when it turned he was wild and ineffective.

And then the Tampa Bay Rays signed him. The Rays are always in search of power arms for their bullpen. Sure enough, Kyle Farnsworth gets hurt, Joe Maddon decides to sort of make Rodney his closer, he starts throwing strikes for the first time in his career and now he's 2-0 with 11 saves, no blown saves, no extra-base hits allowed and a .232 opponents' OBP, more than 100 points below his .342 career mark.

Can he keep it up? Look, I've learned never to bet against Maddon, but we have a long track record of wildness from Rodney. I doubt the Rays were the first team to tell him, "Throw more strikes."

Anyway, it's been an interesting season for closers, with nearly half the teams in baseball needing to replace their projected closer since spring training began. Of 33 relievers to record at least three saves, only 16 of them have an ERA under 3.00. We have 46 starting pitchers with an ERA under 3.00. Fifteen closers have an opponents' OBP under .300; 52 starters do. (Yes, there are more starters than closers, but still ... shouldn't the guy pitching three innings a week be a little more dominant?)

While Rodney has been perfect, closers have struggled:
  • Miami's Heath Bell has three losses, four blown saves, a 10.03 ERA and 30 baserunners allowed in just 11.2 innings. He's basically unusable right now, even if he's a Proven Closer.
  • Jose Valverde, Mr. Perfect a year ago for Detroit, is proving you can walk a tightrope for an entire season but that your luck will eventually run out. He has two blown saves, a 5.51 ERA and 12 walks in 16.1 innings.
  • Frank Francisco has three losses for the Mets, two blown saves, an ERA on the wrong side of 8, one ejection and too many walks.
  • Henry Rodriguez, who replaced the injured Drew Storen in Washington, throws 100 mph but has three blown saves (two of which were losses). I guess he's not a Proven Closer.

And so on. Let's just say you know it's a strange season when we're singing the praises of Fernando Rodney.

Rays missing more than Red Sox for now

April, 15, 2012

Pitching, defense and three-run home runs? It’s a formula that has worked going back to the days of Earl Weaver and beyond. An inning into Saturday’s game, the Rays had all of that going for them: Designated hitter Luke Scott had already hammered a bomb off Boston's Clay Buchholz to plate a trio of runs, reigning Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson was on the mound, and nobody is more alertly creative and productive on defense than Joe Maddon’s ballclub.

Unfortunately, none of that mattered all that much in the next eight innings of action against the Red Sox. Boston’s bats hammered the Rays, hitting five home runs, and made their initial case for why they’ll still be able to score runs hand over fist without Carl Crawford or Jacoby Ellsbury. Rather than throw too much of a pity party for their life absent Ellsbury, just try to keep in mind that Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and Kevin Youkilis provide an offensive platform that 29 other teams would be happy to work from. Counting out the Red Sox a week into the season or a half-inning into a ballgame is just silly; they’re still stacked.

What’s less silly is looking at the Rays’ challenges in the weeks and months to come. Tampa Bay's problem is that while the Red Sox opened up on offense, the Rays didn’t have the usual collection of moving parts to respond on offense or defense.

The Rays' pitching depth is the envy of the industry, but Joel Peralta has taken a series of beatings out of the bullpen en route to handing the closer’s job to Fernando Rodney. Maybe that will work out the way Kyle Farnsworth did last year, but Peralta’s not that far removed from his days as waiver bait, and Rodney’s reputation for flammability perhaps exceeds Farnsworth’s -- before last season.

The Rays being the Rays, they get a pass on running risks other teams might shrink from, but this year’s bullpen confection is still a soufflé with as much potential to flop as rise. Having one less body around proved expensive when a three-run game still in reach became a blowout in the eighth thanks to rookie Dane De La Rosa’s five-run debut against that Red Sox offense.

The other early issue in terms of reaping the downside of risk is that their offense is cranking less than most others in the early going, ranking just 10th in the American League in runs scored. That doesn’t mean that much in itself, because we’re still not even talking about two full weeks’ worth of action. It’s what you get when you wind up with Jeff Keppinger and Sean Rodriguez as everyday players.

That wasn’t part of any plan, but that’s the upshot of being without the flexibility of having Ben Zobrist moving around on the field to wherever he’s needed while Maddon plays matchup games on offense with bit parts like Rodriguez or Keppinger. They knew they wouldn’t get many runs out of Jose Molina or Jose Lobaton as their catchers, but that’s another slot you can’t count on in terms of offense, and another reason why the Rays have that much less margin for error in the early going. The Rays’ offense is the sort of high-flying act that can’t really afford to lose certain key regulars for a great length of time.

Which is why much will change for the better soon, once B.J. Upton comes back from the disabled list and returns to his spot in center field. The Rays won’t simply get the benefit of adding his bat to the everyday lineup or his glove to the defense. They’ll also reap the tactical in-game benefit of all of the situations in which Maddon will be able to use his valuable part-time contributors -- like Keppinger and Rodriguez -- to his advantage. Matt Joyce won’t have to face the left-handed pitchers he can’t hit. That’s not because of what Upton does and will do, but because of the multiple benefits the Rays get from having him healthy.

Taking a few chances on “extra guys” is not automatically bad -- far from it, especially when you’re dealing with budget handicaps as the Rays do. Taking a chance on Scott was an eminently worthwhile low-cost risk: After averaging 25 homers per season for three years for the Orioles, Scott’s injury-wracked 2011 brought him into the Rays’ orbit as far as his sale price as a free agent. If he gives the Rays’ lineup a third source of power from the left side beyond Carlos Pena and Joyce, you’ll have a lineup that gives opponents fits, just as it did in each of the past two years.

Add it up, and just like the bullpen, the Rays’ offense is a complicated proposition few other teams would risk. Handled as well as the Rays have and will, though, and it works … until you knock a key starter or two out of action for any great length of time. Expose their irregulars’ shortcomings, and the risk becomes one to the Rays’ bid for a postseason three-peat.

Paul KonerkoBrian Kersey/Getty ImagesPaul Konerko can afford to smile, at least as long as the White Sox are in first place.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
It’s another Opening Day! Can you feel the excitement? Keith Law and I can, and we talk about the big ESPN Cardinals-Marlins game for Wednesday’s Baseball Today podcast along with plenty of other stuff!

1. I set the over/under on Josh Johnson starts for 2012 at 26, and KLaw sends back his opinion. Will Marlins fans be happy or sad with his answer?

2. Do we have the defending champs or the Marlins in the postseason? All the preseason predictions are posted at ESPN.com, and we discuss our choices.

3. A pair of AL East closers hit the shelf with injuries, but there’s really no need for the Red Sox and Rays to panic. So will they panic?

4. Keith digs into his scouting bag of tricks to discuss how the Pirates handle young pitchers and how scouts judge outfield arms.

5. Stephen Strasburg, Lance Berkman and more Yankees bias are topics for our emailers.

So download and listen to Wednesday’s fun Baseball Today podcast, our first in which we preview a 2012 game in the USA! Many more to come!

Every Monday should be like this. All 30 teams in action. Cliff Lee, David Price, Josh Johnson, Tim Lincecum, Tommy Hanson and Brett Anderson among the day's starting pitchers. The Yankees riding a five-game losing streak going in and facing clubhouse turmoil. Tony La Russa returning from treatment for shingles, wearing sunglasses and ... starting Albert Pujols at third base?

Indeed. Let's start there, in St. Louis, and watch a night of baseball in our trusty home office setup with our HDTV, MLB.TV and ESPN.com scoreboard operating simultaneously. By the end of the night, I'll feel a little like Vin Mazzaro, my head pounding from baseballs flying all around me.

Philadelphia at St. Louis: The night begins with Pujols playing third base. According to Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, La Russa approached Pujols in the batting cage, and Pujols agreed to his first start at the hot corner since 2002. The move helped keep Allen Craig's bat in the lineup, but in right field instead of second base (where he started a game last week), with Nick Punto playing second and Lance Berkman moving to first as La Russa started eight right-handed bats against Lee. (He did, however, have pitcher Jake Westbrook batting ninth.) Pujols started 89 games at third his first two seasons, when he moved among third, first and the outfield, before moving permanently to first base in 2003 when the Cards acquired Scott Rolen. He actually rated as a good fielder there and would have been more than adequate if he had remained there. Still, a bit of a quirky move by La Russa. (Too soon for a shingles joke?)

Sure enough, in the top of the second, Pujols bobbles a potential double-play ball, getting just one out, which leads to Ben Francisco's RBI single. La Russa adjusts his sunglasses.

New York at Tampa Bay: David Price is not whom you want to face when trying to end a five-game losing skid, but the Yankees score twice in the second and then take a 5-1 lead on Curtis Granderson's long three-run homer to right in the fifth. Price tried to fire a 97 mph fastball past the Grandy Man (sorry, John Sterling made me do it), but it was right down the middle and Granderson became the first left-handed hitter to homer off Price since Chase Utley in 2009. It was Granderson's 14th home run of 2011 and, amazingly, his seventh off a left-hander. Entering this season, he was a career .211 hitting against lefties, with 20 home runs in 777 at-bats. He has seven in 40 at-bats in 2011.

Meanwhile, A.J. Burnett looks good, and hopefully we can all move on from this Jorge Posada nonsense if the Yankees win.

Philadelphia at St. Louis: Lee just walked Matt Holliday (looked like he got pinched by plate umpire Gerry Davis on an inside fastball) and Lance Berkman (fastball way outside) back to back for the second time in the game. Craig strikes out, but Yadier Molina reaches on an infield single, Punto bloops an RBI single into right and Ryan Theriot bloops another RBI single into right. It's not Lee's night. He'd end up walking a career-high six batters -- after entering with seven walks in 52 1/3 innings. Lee hasn't won since shutting out the Nationals on April 14. His other win came against the Astros, and the Phillies have won just four of his nine starts. It's been some bad luck, but his 3.84 ERA just isn't that impressive in 2011 -- that ranks 33rd among National League starters as I type this.

New York at Tampa Bay: And just like that, Burnett blows up. I blame Posada. Sam Fuld, the pride of New Hampshire, belts a two-run homer in the sixth. Actually, "belts" isn't quite the right word, but Fuld got enough to clear the fence near the foul pole. Then with two outs, Evan Longoria reaches on an infield single, Burnett throws a wild pitch, Matt Joyce singles in Longoria, Burnett uncorks another wild pitch and then throws a junk curveball that B.J. Upton appropriately belts -- right word -- for another home run and a 6-5 Tampa Bay lead.

Cleveland at Kansas City: Somewhere in here, I noticed the Indians are scoring a bunch of runs in the fourth inning. I figured, "Ahh, another bad start by Kyle Davies," but it turns out he left the game in the first inning with what the club called "anterior shoulder soreness." The victim was Vin Mazzaro, who turned in maybe the worst relief outing in major league history. I went back and watched his complete fourth inning, which went like this:

Matt LaPorta: Soft liner into right field.

Jack Hannahan: Bounces into a 4-6 force play.

Michael Brantley: Walks on four pitches. Mazzaro walks off the mound, tugs his hat, spits, and I feel sorry for him knowing what's about to happen.

Asdrubal Cabrera: Bloops an RBI single into left field.

Shin-Soo Choo: Mazzaro falls behind two balls, and pitching coach Bob McClure visits the mound. The Royals announcers talk about Mazzaro (who entered in the third) needing to suck up the innings in place of Davies. Choo ends up flying out to deep center.

Carlos Santana: The announcing crew mentions Mazzaro was scheduled to start Tuesday night and wonders whether the Royals knew Davies' health was a question mark. Santana falls behind 0-2 but ends up working a walk.

Travis Hafner: Slices a double to left-center as Melky Cabrera takes a step in and then stumbles going after it. Let's just say Andruw Jones in his prime would have caught it.

Orlando Cabrera: Slices a liner down the right-field line for an 8-0 lead.

Travis Buck: Mazzaro reaches his 30th pitch of the inning. I think every breaking ball he's thrown has been low and in the dirt. Buck grounds a ball into the hole that Alcides Escobar circles ... but double-clutches on the throw, and Buck beats it out.

LaPorta: Drills a double down the left-field line.

Hannahan: Dribbles a single into right.

Brantley: Drills a 91 mph meatball over the fence for a 10-run inning and 13-0 lead.

A. Cabrera: Mercifully, strikes out.

Now, with a little luck, Mazzaro would have been out of the inning much earlier. But he has no knockout pitch, and I don't think he threw an off-speed pitch for a strike the entire inning. And it would get worse: He'd be responsible for four runs the next inning. His final line score: 2.1 IP, 11 H, 14 R, 14 ER, 3 BB, 2 SO, 1 HR. And one likely trip back to Triple-A.

Philadelphia at St. Louis: Pujols turns a double play and makes a diving stop for an out on another play. La Russa adjusts his sunglasses.

New York at Tampa Bay: Joel Peralta throws two perfect innings, and Kyle Farnsworth closes it out with a 1-2-3 ninth, Longoria making a nice scoop on a slow chopper for the final out. There's a little irony in Farnsworth, scorned in New York during his years there and signed for $3.25 million by Tampa this offseason, effectively closing games while Rafael Soriano, Tampa's departed closer and now the Yankees' $35 million setup man, pitching poorly and battling a sore elbow. I blame Posada.

Philadelphia at St. Louis: The Cards' bullpen has been shaky, but Fernando Salas breezes through a 1-2-3 ninth. Salas doesn't throw hard, but La Russa hasn't been afraid to use closers who don't light up the radar gun as long they throw strikes. I don't know whether he'll hold the job, but on this night, Salas struck out Raul Ibanez and got Ryan Howard on a medium-deep fly ball to center and John Mayberry on a routine fly to center. During this tough stretch that began last week, the Phillies have gone 1-2 against the Braves, 2-1 against the Marlins, 1-2 against the Braves and now 0-1 against the Cardinals. Chase Utley, you are needed.

San Francisco at Colorado: I flip over to watch some of this one. Gotta watch Lincecum. I see Nate Schierholtz give the Giants a 4-2 lead with a one-handed home run off Clayton Mortensen. But then I see Timmy come apart in the bottom of the inning, as the Rockies score five, capped by Carlos Gonzalez belting -- correct word -- an outside fastball deep into the trees in right-center. The pitch was up, and CarGo seemed to be sitting dead red and yanked it with authority and had an animated home run trot around the bases. I wonder whether Lincecum took note.

Baltimore over at Boston: Flip over to Fenway Park, where the Red Sox have rallied from a 6-0 deficit to make it 7-6 by the bottom of the ninth. The bespectacled Kevin Gregg is on for the save. He's not my favorite closer in the world. Jacoby Ellsbury walks with one out. Dustin Pedroia steps in, works the count to 2-2, takes a splitter in the dirt as Ellsbury steals second, fouls a liner down the left-field line, fouls off another pitch, and another one, then works a walk on the ninth pitch of the battle. The proverbial "great at-bat." With the red-hot Adrian Gonzalez stepping in, you can predict this ending. He doubles off the Monster on the first pitch. Red Sox win 8-7. Yankees fans blame Posada.

Vin Mazzaro postscript: It turns out 11 relievers have allowed at least 14 runs (since 1919, via Baseball-Reference.com). But they all did it before 1945, and most were in long outings. The worst: Lefty O'Doul allowed 16 runs in a three-inning stint in a 27-3 loss for the Red Sox to the Indians. But only three of the runs were earned! The last reliever to give up as many as 11 runs was Mel Rojas, in a 22-6 loss for the Tigers to the Mariners in 1999. Rojas pitched just four more games in his major league career.

Florida at New York: I thought I was done, but then I see the Marlins and Mets are in extra innings. Marlins reliever Burke Badenhop comes up in the 11th with two runners on and two outs. Marlins manager Edwin Rodriguez still has Ozzie Martinez left on the bench (he has only 13 position players) but leaves in Badenhop, who is 1-for-23 in his career with 12 strikeouts. Starter Josh Johnson lasted only five innings, so Badenhop is already the team's fifth reliever, but it still seems odd to leave him in with two outs. Sure enough, Ryota Igarashi throws a first-pitch curveball for a ball, falls behind 2-0 ... and then Badenhop hits a 3-2 fastball up the middle for an RBI single. In the bottom of the inning, the Mets are out of bench players (David Wright was unavailable), so pitcher Jonathon Niese pinch-hits with two outs ... and hits a triple off the glove off Emilio Bonifacio. That brings up Jose Reyes, and I'm pretty sure the night is going to go on forever.

Except Reyes strikes out.

And I think Mets fans blame Jorge Posada.

Meanwhile, out on the West Coast, Michael Pineda is throwing zeroes, the A's and Angels are tied at 0 ...

Adrian BeltreJonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesPlease, don't disturb Adrian Beltre. He looks pretty comfortable there. Just give him a moment.
Follow Dave on Twitter: @dschoenfield.
The Minnesota Twins and Boston Red Sox battled for 11 innings on Monday night, and in the end, Carl Crawford’s double high off the Green Monster plated Jose Iglesias with the winning run in a 2-1 victory.

Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, apparently waiting to take the lead before using closer Matt Capps, and not wanting to use Joe Nathan on back-to-back days, was left with somebody named Jim Hoey on the mound. With one out, Hoey walked Jed Lowrie -- not necessarily a surprise since Hoey walked 34 in 52 2/3 innings in the minors last season. Iglesias came in as a pinch-runner and Crawford hit a 3-2 pitch off the wall.

We’re going to see a lot of games like that this season: low-scoring affairs decided in the late innings. With scoring down, games will be tight, and with close games, late-inning bullpen work may be more important than ever. And if you’re relying on Jim Hoey in tie games, chances are you may be 12-21.

Let’s do a quick overview of the state of 'pens around baseball.

Three best bullpens on contenders

1. San Francisco Giants: The unheralded secret weapon of last year’s champs, the bullpen has picked up where it left off, with Javier Lopez, Sergio Romo, Ramon Ramirez and Guillermo Mota throwing lights-out. Closer Brian Wilson blew his first save chance but has since converted 11 in a row, despite a little wildness. The team has lefty-righty balance, with lefties Jeremy Affeldt and Dan Runzler adding solid depth.

2. Florida Marlins: Several arms were added to the Marlins' 'pen after last season’s shaky performance and so far they have a 2.59 relief ERA, second only to San Diego’s. I believe in this group, although stellar setup man Clay Hensley was just placed on the DL with a bruised rib. Closer Leo Nunez appeared in 17 of the team’s first 32 games, so watch his usage carefully.

3. New York Yankees: Yes, Mariano Rivera had that little burp, but he’s back on track. Setup man Rafael Soriano has struggled, but I project he’ll turn it around. Joba Chamberlain is throwing better than he has in years, and underrated David Robertson has one of the nastiest curves you’ll see. The 'pen has allowed just five home runs in 95 innings. The big question is whether Boone Logan will prove to be a reliable lefty in the absence of Pedro Feliciano.

Bullpen doing it with smoke and mirrors right now

Tampa Bay Rays: The Rays have a 2.69 bullpen ERA, third-best in the majors, and have allowed opponents a .203 batting average. They’ve allowed just 61 hits in 87 innings despite a poor 51/34 strikeout/walk ratio. Some of that is attributable to their defense, but the low strikeout rate means that .203 average will be difficult to maintain. And maybe you believe in Kyle Farnsworth more than I do.

Three bullpens I’m worried about

1. Texas Rangers: The Rangers will be fine at closer once Neftali Feliz returns, but the rest of the ‘pen looks shaky, as it has allowed 16 home runs in just 94 innings and has a poor 66/43 strikeout/walk ratio. Forty-somethings Darren Oliver and Arthur Rhodes are looking more their age and have surrendered three home runs apiece, and Darren O'Day is on the 60-day DL with a torn labrum in his hip.

2. Detroit Tigers: The team’s best reliever has been Al Alburquerque, and with a name like that, he'd better be good, because we want him to last a long time. Closer Jose Valverde is always a tightrope, but the rest of the setup crew, including high-priced free agent Joaquin Benoit, has looked inconsistent.

3. Milwaukee Brewers: Brewers relievers already have nine defeats. They have a few good arms in closer John Axford and Zach Braddock and Brandon Kintzler, but control issues have been a problem so far and lack of depth could be an issue.

Two awesome bullpens if you only need two guys

1. Atlanta Braves: Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters are dominant (and Eric O'Flaherty provides a nice third guy). We’ll have to see whether Venters holds up after pitching 79 games and 83 innings last year, but so far he’s been even better than he was in 2010, with a 0.70 WHIP.

2. Boston Red Sox: Daniel Bard’s raw numbers are great (well, except that 0-3 record, which is not exactly a non-important notation). Jonathan Papelbon is back with an 18/2 strikeout/walk ratio. But new acquisitions Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler have been disastrous, leaving a gaping hole after the top two.

Bullpen that may actually be OK

St. Louis Cardinals: The Cards are tied with the Brewers with nine bullpen losses, three by deposed closer Ryan Franklin. And while the team may not have a set closer (Fernando Salas has the role for now), there are some good arms here. Jason Motte, Mitchell Boggs and rookie Eduardo Sanchez all average more than 93 mph with their fastballs, and Salas throws strikes. Mix in LOOGYs Trever Miller and Brian Tallet, and I think Tony La Russa will figure out roles that turn this into one of the better 'pens in the NL.

Jay BruceThomas Campbell/US PresswireStretch! Jay Bruce reached as high as he could, but no dice. That one's gone.

Podcast: How many playoff teams?

April, 22, 2011
Top five reasons why you should listen to Friday's Baseball Today podcast, with myself and researcher/writer/Mets fan extraordinaire Mark Simon:

1. The commish wouldn't discuss baseball's newest-owned franchise, but he did drop a bomb about more teams entering the playoff party in future seasons. What is the perfect number of qualifiers, and could this be a poor precedent?

2. What did Mets outfielder Jason Bay do on Thursday that was so rare? Mark and I each have answers, one about what he did on the field, the other the fact he was actually on the field at all!

3. More ace discussion: Should there be official criteria for "ace-hood" or not? And, have we essentially milked more than humanly possible from this poor topic already?

4. Big weekend ahead, with Reds-Cardinals featured on ESPN's Sunday night baseball, but does this matchup actually need buildup, or is it already there?

5. A certain pitcher-umpire matchup could create history on Sunday, and which unknown NL outfielder is finally getting a shot to play, and should impact himself and others?

Plus: Excellent emails discussing the excellent Kyle Farnsworth, a bold statement comparing future Hall of Famers Scott Kazmir and Brad Emaus and a comprehensive weekend preview with an NL postseason rematch. Enjoy and have a safe weekend, and we'll be back with myself and Mr. Simon to recap it all Monday!

Cubs have problem with Zambrano in pen

May, 13, 2010
When the decision was made to move Carlos Zambrano and his $91.5M contract to the bullpen to “shore up the late inning issues," it was clear to Cub fans that something has gone seriously wrong with this team.

Jerry Lai-US PRESSWIREThe Cubs can't keep Carlos Zambrano in the pen forever.
Since the move, Zambrano has pitched to the tune of a 3.86 ERA in seven innings and has seemingly brought a presence to the pen that was sorely lacking. The problem comes when you look long term for the team.

You can make the argument the money has already been allocated for Zambrano, regardless of where he pitches.

But leaving Zambrano in the pen permanently means general manager Jim Hendry looks completely incompetent for the contract given to Z after the 2007 season that has ultimately resulted in a very expensive 8th inning guy. Couple that colossal blunder with the offseason moves that blew up in his face all last year -- and a two year deal to John Grabow this past offseason -- and you’ve got a GM that has spent an awful amount of cash with very little results. There is no question in my mind that Hendry must get Zambrano pitching and pitching effectively out of the starting rotation again to avoid massive amounts of criticism from the new ownership that could ultimately cost him his job should this team go south.

Zambrano said he expects the move to the pen to be a temporary one. A putrid pen forces the Cubs to figure things out sooner rather than later or risk Zambrano going ape over the fact that he’s still in the pen come August. He’s known to have a volatile temper, and you can only imagine what might happen should his patience run out while he's sitting on a bench with a bunch of kids that can’t get people out. Should he be left in the pen as the long term solution, there is a definite chance of him approaching the Cubs to seek employment elsewhere. He has a full no-trade clause in his contract, but that could be waived in an effort to find someone who will let him start.

The longer the Cubs leave Zambrano in the bullpen, the longer it will take to get his arm in shape to work deep in a ballgame. If Zambrano is going to be an effective starter, especially down the stretch and into the playoffs (No I’m not smoking anything), he’s going to need to build his arm strength back up and get that sharpness back as a starter. If not, do you really think the Cubs have a chance at advancing in the playoffs with either Carlos Silva or Tom Gorzelanny as the fourth starter? I’ll bet no.

The Cubs have a move to make and it’s a move to bring in enough help to get Zambrano back into the rotation. Perhaps the move involves a trade of Gorzelanny or Silva. Perhaps it means looking closer at guys like Kyle Farnsworth or Jason Frasor again. Whatever the move, it needs to be made sooner rather than later. The ball is in your court Mr. Hendry, where do we go from here?

No. 5 Starter Watch: Royals

April, 2, 2010
It's not much of an upset, but Kyle Davies is officially the Royals' fifth starter. And as Bob Dutton reports, this time Davies is ready:

    Specifically, Davies says it’s time he begins performing like a veteran pitcher with nearly 100 major-league starts on his career resume and move past the inconsistency that has marked his nine-year professional career.

    “It has to be something I can’t do anymore,” he said. “You can’t keep going through the same things over and over and over again. You have to learn from them. And you know what? It’s time for me to do that.

    “I’m old enough to do it. I’ve had enough experience to do it. And I need to do it. My whole goal of the season is to try to stay on an even keel. Just pitch. Get ahead with strike one, and then just pitch. Let everything fall where it falls.”

    It is now official that Davies will get the chance to put that resolve into practice. Manager Trey Hillman confirmed Wednesday that Davies will be part of the five-man rotation that opens the regular season.

    “You certainly would like (for him) to not have the lapses in lack of command,” Hillman said, “especially with the fastball. But you know what? For the time being, as long as he can control the damage, I’m resigned to the fact (he will have those lapses).

I suppose this means the it's-so-crazy-it-just-might-work idea of turning Kyle Farnsworth into a starter is officially dead. Oddly enough, among the seven Royals who started at least twice this spring, Farnsworth's 3.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio was the best. But Farnsworth gave up a couple of home runs and racked up a 7.98 ERA, and I won't be so impolite as to mention that Davies' ERA (8.47) was even higher.

Davies keeps getting chances, I suppose, because he's pitched well from time to time. As Dutton notes, "Davies closed last season at 5-1 with a 2.95 ERA in his final seven starts. He also finished the 2008 season by going 4-1 with a 2.27 ERA in five starts."

You know what, though? It's a funny thing about those final seven starts last season. Davies pitched 40 innings.

He struck out 30 hitters. He walked 24.

Davies has started 99 games in the major leagues. His ERA in those games is 5.46. He's got a lovely ERA in Triple-A action, but even there his strikeout-to-walk ratio is just a hair over 2.

I used to think that Hiram Kyle Davies might be a pretty good pitcher. A year or two ago, I realized I'd been wrong. At some point this summer the Royals are going to catch up with me.

Royals turn to alchemy

February, 11, 2010
Yes, the Royals are going to see if Kyle Farnsworth can start. And yes, everyone (including me) has already mocked them for it. But hold on a minute. According to Dave Cameron, this is so crazy it just might work:

    His strikeout rate is actually higher against left-handed hitters, which is unusual for a power righty. He’s still better against RHBs, as the strikeouts don’t offset the higher walk and lower groundball rates, but the difference isn’t huge. He’s not the type of pitcher who is going to fall apart when the opposing manager stacks the line-up with left-handed bats.

    There’s also reasons to be encouraged that he may have learned something last year. As McClure notes in the linked article, they got him to start throwing both a two-seam and a four-seam fastball last year, and it significantly changed his pitch mix.


    This new wrinkle paid dividends. He’d been an extreme flyball guy most of his career, which was one of the driving causes behind his home run problems. With his new lower velocity fastball, he posted a 46% GB% in 2009, drastically reducing his long ball issues. Thanks to the limiting of his biggest problem, he posted a 3.10 xFIP, his lowest since 2005.

    In a lot of ways, Farnsworth is reminiscent of Ryan Dempster, another power reliever with command problems who flourished with a move to the rotation. It’s not wise to expect that kind of outcome, but there are reasons to believe that Farnsworth could find success in the conversion. The stuff is good enough, especially with his new pitch mix, and it’s certainly worth the experiment.

    The Royals take a lot of crap from us, but I’ll applaud them for recognizing an opportunity here. Farnsworth could justify his contract, and then some, if this works.

Cameron's right: the Royals should be applauded, if only for the original thought. I'll ask you, has anyone else suggested that Farnsworth try to pitch six innings every five days?

Now, here's why I'm skeptical:

1. The Dempster comparison is interesting, but before Dempster was a power reliever, he was a starter and once pitched in an All-Star Game. In Farnsworth's 26 career starts, a long time ago, he went 6-11 with a 5.81 ERA. Granted, he might not have been throwing the two-seamer then.

2. In a related note, there's no particular reason to think Farnsworth can maintain his stuff for more than an inning or two. We all know that pitchers throw harder when they don't have to pace themselves. Last year he was throwing his four-teamer at 96 and his two-seamer at 90. Can he be effective if those numbers drop to 92 and 87? And without any changeup to speak of?

3. It's the Royals. They're better at turning gold into lead than lead into gold.

Obviously, I hope I'm wrong. It would be a great story, and I'll be thrilled to write it.

Royals find new way to lose

September, 30, 2009
Last night, I saw a play that I'm always begging to see ... So of course when I finally saw it, it was my least-favorite team doing it to my favorite team.

It was the top of the ninth in the Bronx. The Royals owned a 3-2 lead. Their leadoff man walked, which brought banjo-hitting Josh Anderson to the plate. Sure, Trey Hillman could have ordered up a pinch-hitter, but (in case you haven't been paying attention) the Royals aren't exactly swimming in hitters this season. Instead, Hillman ordered up a bunt.

Anderson bunted, all right ... straight into the air, giving Jerry Hairston plenty of time to make the catch.

But Anderson didn't run. Hairston noticed, and -- this is the part I'm always begging to see -- he let the ball drop, picked up and fired to second for the out there, after which the shortstop relayed the ball to first base to complete the double play (Anderson did finally run, but was a couple of steps too late.

Yankee broadcaster John Flaherty attributed the play to a veteran (Hairston) who "knows the game" and "a young kid just got caught making a bad baserunning mistake."

Josh Anderson is 27, and last night marked his 900th professional game. If he hasn't already learned that you have to run to first base every time, he probably never will.

But we can hardly blame Anderson's gaffe on the Royals, right? After all, Anderson's been a Royal for less than two months. Maybe he just hasn't been indoctrinated yet. Maybe a winter of contemplation and a spring training of stern managing will convince him to adopt the Ways of the Royal.

Except ... Well, there was this. Flaherty continued, "You talk to people around the Royals who watch them play every day, and they say they do some of these things. You know, they don't play the game the right way, missing cutoffs, situational hitting hasn't been great..."

I don't know about the situational hitting. I do know that it's easy to pick on the worst team in the league, and that fewer mistakes are forgiven when you're losing. I also know that if you're managing the worst team in the league and you've not convinced your players to do even the little things right, you're not much use.

Oh, and the punch line? With Joakim Soria unavailable, Hillman called upon Kyle Farnsworth to preserve the Royals' slim lead in the bottom of the ninth. Thanks largely to his failure to field two ground balls hit right to him, Farnsworth gave up two runs and lost, thus snatching defeat from the jaws of Anthony Lerew's first major league victory. And so the beat goes on. On and on and on.

Monday Mendozas

June, 15, 2009
Today's links are better served late than never (I hope) ...

• Lynn Henning is right, of course: the Tigers simply can't keep running Dontrelle Willis out there every five days. This was obvious even before the latest debacle, and would be true even if the Tigers weren't actually actually contending for a playoff spot.

• I showed up to read Fun Facts about Farnsworth that make Farnsworth look decidedly non-clutchy, but stuck around for yet another example of Trey Hillman's bizarre stategery. (For the record, though? Farnsworth, over his entire career, has been almost exactly as good in clutch situations as in non-clutch.)

• From 11 Points -- "Because Top 10 Lists are for Cowards" -- 11 Major League Baseball feats that have happened just once.

• Fantastic lede in Alan Schwarz's piece about Pat Venditte:

    The Yankees, whose bullpen is among the worst in the American League, have two arms in Class A ball leading the minor leagues in saves. The left-handed one has kept hitters to a .121 batting average; the right-handed one has not walked anyone in 20 innings. This would all be rather straightforward, except that both arms belong to the same body.
What makes the story worth reading, though, is that it's just not about the strangeness of Pat Venditte; we already get that. More, it's a balanced look at why he's still stuck in Class A.

• Jeff Pearlman goes a long way toward explaining why I'm glad I do what I do.

• Was Watching presents some (admittedly prelimary) findings regarding the stamina of Joba Chamberlain.

• I know it's time to let this thing go and I will, soon. But in case you haven't been following the Raul Ibanez-and-BBWAA-orthodoxy-vs.-bloggers kerfuffle, here's a a real good roundup (including plenty of solid comments).

• If you used to spend most of your disposable income on "wax packs" -- as I did, for a few years -- you know exactly what Chris Jaffe's talking about.

Hillman's odd percentages

April, 20, 2009
The Royals are tied for first place. They've lost five games. Three of those games have been lost by Kyle Farnsworth. Sunday afternoon, the Royals blew a 5-3 lead in the last two innings, and their ace closer -- who hadn't pitched in nearly a week -- never escaped the bullpen. Care to wallow in the pity of it all? You've got your choice between Jazayerli and Posnanski. I don't recommend either unless you have a limitless capacity -- as you know, neither Joe nor Rany is shy with the ol' word count -- for reading about managers who don't know what they're doing.

And then there's this, from Bob Dutton:

    Hillman said he never considered using All-Star closer Joakim Soria instead of Farnsworth to start the ninth inning because it was a tie game.

    "Not on the road,” Hillman said. "At home, yes. But not on the road. Just simply because the percentages are against you in that situation.”

    The Royals entered the Texas ninth knowing they needed, as the road team, at least six outs to get a victory. Hillman said he wasn't willing to extend Soria beyond "one up and down” because of a lack of work in recent days.

    The problem now is Soria hasn't pitched since April 13. And because of Monday's open date in the schedule, he will have at least seven days of rest before his next appearance.

    That matches his longest down time logged last season, which is something Hillman has said repeatedly that he hoped to avoid.

Got that? You just can't use your best pitcher in a close road game because the percentages are against you. Yes, folks: this is the manager who is going to lead the Kansas City club out of the wilderness.

Not that we're bitter or anything.

Is Royal buzz justified?

April, 10, 2009
The Royals are 2-1 and their starting pitchers have given up one run in 20 innings, so you'll understand if there's a little buzz around the club. And as Sam Mellinger writes, expectations for the Royals have seldom been higher (not since the early 1990s, at least).
    The Royals' focus has been investing time and money on the amateur draft -- it's thought that they spent more money on last year's picks than any team ever -- and on player development.

    From spending $91 million on free agents Gil Meche and José Guillen, to trading for Kyle Davies (who blanked the Chicago White Sox for seven innings Thursday) and Coco Crisp (who hit the go-ahead homer in the ninth), everything the Royals are doing at the big-league level is meant as a bridge of sorts to when the organization's investment in the infrastructure of the minor leagues begins to show.

    "Our constant balance is improving our big-league club without sacrificing what we're doing below,” Moore says. "Look, I understand. I like getting some sleep at night, and that certainly is a product of things going well (with the major-league team). But we can't be so consumed that we forget about what's most important, and that's long term.”


    Moore knows this other side of it, too. He knows the expectations that are created by adding nine new players and $12 million of payroll.

    Internet message boards that used to fill with positive fan comments now question why Moore signed Kyle Farnsworth -- who didn't help himself by blowing an eighth-inning lead in the season opener -- for two years and $9 million.

Dayton Moore made a big mistake when he signed Jose Guillen for three years and $36 million. That contract suggested -- and continues to suggest, each day -- that Moore lacks a basic familiarity with objective analysis. Moore made a small mistake when he signed Farnsworth, whose skills, impressive as they might be -- in, say, South Korea -- are not worth anything like $9 million on the open market.

If the Royals played in the American League East, Moore's propensity for such mistakes would take the Royals off the board for as far into the future as you might care to look. But they don't play in the AL East, and if Moore really does build a superior farm system and picks up a little luck here and there -- well, a Royals fan can dream a little. Especially if Davies keeps pitching like this.

Thome smokes a Farnsworth heater

April, 7, 2009
Last year, Kyle Farnsworth gave up 15 home runs in 60 innings. In his career, Farnsworth has allowed a .441 slugging percentage to left-handed hitters.

Jim Thome is a left-handed hitter with 541 career home runs.

Over the past three seasons, Chicago's U.S. Cellular Field has been the most homer-prone ballpark in the American League, both generally and for left-handed hitters specifically.

With two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning and two White Sox on base, the Royals held a 2-1 lead. Thome was coming up. If there's a single pitcher in the majors who shouldn't be facing Thome in that situation, it just might be Farnsworth.

Yet, face him he did. Threw Thome a fastball down the middle, he did. Gave up a long, three-run, (eventually) game-losing home run, he also did.

And Royals manager Trey Hillman? He sat on his hands and watched it happen. That's what he did.