By Tommy Rancel //
The production from relief pitchers is volatile in nature. In addition to the uncertainty of the position, there are also health concerns in some bullpens. Just this spring we’ve seen a few closers (Brad Lidge and Brian Wilson) go down with injury. With all things considered: injury, ineffectiveness, fatigue, it is wise to keep one eye on the future when building a bullpen. That said, here are a few names to keep tabs on as we enter the 2011 season.
Among the top arms in the Rays’ system, McGee will complete the transformation from starter to reliever that began late last season. As a left-handed pitcher who can hit the high 90’s with his fastball, you can literally see the appeal of McGee as a late-inning option. While he struggled developing his secondary pitches as a starter, he can now focus on his fastball and slider as a reliever.
McGee pitched out of the Rays’ pen just eight times last season, but showed the strikeout stuff you want to see from a shutdown reliever. Bloomberg Sports’ projects him for 60 innings this season with nearly a strikeout per inning. If McGee’s stuff translates as expected, that number could be even higher. Tampa Bay will start the season with a closer-by-committee, although veterans Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta are likely to get the early ninth inning opportunities. Meanwhile, if McGee can get batters out on both sides of the plate, he could find himself as Joe Maddon’s high-leverage relief ace of choice.
Another former starter, Walden pitched exclusively in relief during the 2010 season. Surprisingly, his strikeout rate actually dipped as a reliever in the minors. Upon his late-season promotion to the majors, his K-rate spiked. In 15.1 innings with the big league club, Walden punched out 23 batters. That translates to a K/9 of 13/5. Like most young pitchers, Walden struggles with control and command. That said, his fastball can touch the triple digits and his slider is a decent second option. The interesting thing to watch is his strikeout rate going forward. If he is getting swings and misses in bunches, the walks will become more tolerable.
Fernando Rodney will begin the season as the Angels’ closer; however after rumored interest in several high-profiled relievers this winter, Los Angeles does not seemed to be married to Rodney in the ninth. If Rodney struggles, set-up man Kevin Jepsen could get a look, but Walden has the goods to be the guy at some point this year.
Like the others named above, Jansen is also transitioning to the bullpen. However, he is a converted catcher and not starting pitcher. He spent the first four seasons of his professional career as a catcher in the Dodgers’ system and was behind the plate for the Netherlands during 2009 World Baseball Classic. Jansen began the transation to the mound during the 2009 season. With a high-90’s fastball and a really good slider, it did not take him long to shoot up through the system. In fact, he bypassed the Triple-A level altogether.
He made his big league debut in late June and was a key piece in the bullpen going forward. In 27 innings of work he allowed just two earned runs (0.67) and racked up a ridiculous 41 strikeouts. The K/9 near 14.0 and BB/9 near 5.0 show the same wild, yet effective, approach exhibited by Carlos Marmol with the Cubs.
Unlike the Rays and Angels, the Dodgers have a very good closer in Jonathan Broxton. On the other hand, Broxton fell out of favor with the club last season and briefly lost his job as closer. Los Angeles also has another very good arm in Hong-Chih Kuo to close should Broxton falter. Jansen faces more obstacles than Walden or McGee, but has similar potential to become a true relief ace with time.
Even if McGee, Walden, and Jansen don’t rack up double-digit saves, the potential for high strikeouts make them attractive options in deep leagues and those that count holds.