Closing Time: Jason (Kubel) takes Manhattan ... er ... the Bronx

Brandon Funston
May 17, 2010
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There was but one noteworthy blown save on Sunday, and it was only noteworthy because of the unlikely victim. For just the fourth time in the past 143 trips to the hill in a regular season game, Mariano Rivera(notes) blew a save opportunity.

Called on to preserve a 3-1 lead against Minnesota with the bases loaded and two outs in the eighth inning, Rivera walked in a run before giving up the grand slam to Jason Kubel(notes). For Rivera owners, this is a big "Whatever." It could be months before we see another blown save from Rivera. But that Kubel was the one to do the damage is intriguing.

I took some flak for putting Kubel at No. 100 on my Big Board this preseason. But I had what I believed were valid reasons. For one, he was coming off a .300/28/103 breakout campaign. He also sits pretty in the Twins lineup, closely following OBP machines Joe Mauer(notes) and Justin Morneau(notes). And he happens to share my birthday, and I always look out for my fellow Gemini. But what really piqued my interest with Kubel this offseason was when a friend from Inside Edge, a company that does insanely in-depth charting of every MLB pitch during the season, showed me a list of "Well Struck" leaders from '09 that had Kubel among the top five, right next to Mr. Albert Pujols(notes) and other A-list hitters. Inside Edge came up with criteria for determining when a player teed off on a pitch, whether the result was a base hit or not. And Kubel was among the leaders in this category. Regardless of how much subjectivity may go into deciding a "Well Struck" ball, any player that winds up surfacing to the top of this list over the course of a 162-game season demands attention.

Unfortunately for Kubel and his owners, he's endured a rough start to 2010, entering Sunday with a .224/2/11/8/0 fantasy line. But Sunday might be the start of nice turnaround. Kubel has a long track record of April/May struggles – his career OPS for April is .695 and his May mark is .712, while he sits in the mid-.800s for the remaining four months of the season combined. The ball he stroked over the fence against Rivera was low and inside and it was impressive that Kubel was able to drive it out of the yard. I've got a hunch that this could be the kind of confidence booster that sends Kubel on a roll. He only had five home runs through two months last season and then blew up with eight June bombs. If you are in the hunt for power, it's probably a good time (although, admittedly, any point before today was better) to pitch a low-ball offer for Kubel in hopes that the June lightning strikes twice.

If a Kubel deal seems implausible or too involved given your current situation, Luke Scott(notes) is another power play possibility – he's available in roughly 90 percent of Yahoo! leagues. Scott hit his fifth home run of May on Sunday – it was the only blemish for Indians pitcher Jake Westbrook(notes) in his complete game victory over Baltimore. Scott has averaged 16 home runs from May through July the past two seasons, so it jibes historically that he's starting to hit his stride now. It's no secret that he's available to any contender looking for some left-handed pop, and I suspect we'll start hearing his name more prominently in the coming weeks as the trade rumor mill kicks into a higher gear.

Storm clouds are forming around the current No. 1 player in Yahoo! leagues, Andre Ethier(notes). As an invested owner, his fractured pinky suffered Saturday night during batting practice is a potential kick in the groin with Sebastian Janikowski-type force. The Dodgers are planning to give Ethier another day to see what the level of pain is going to be before deciding on Tuesday whether he'll require a DL stint. It's the type of injury that will have to heal on its own, so Ethier can keep playing if he can deal with the pain and swing the bat effectively while doing so. After reading Ethier's comments in describing the pain, I'm betting on the DL stint.

Last week, Philly manager Charlie Manuel said it was time to start using reliever J.C. Romero(notes) more often and that he could be employed anywhere from the seventh to the ninth inning. On Sunday, with Jose Contreras(notes) having worked the two previous games, Manuel turned to Romero to close out a 4-2 game against Milwaukee. Romero proved up to the task, pitching a perfect ninth inning. Of course, facing Gregg Zaun(notes), Jody Gerut(notes), Craig Counsell(notes) isn't exactly a high-pressure set up. But give Romero credit nonetheless. With Brad Lidge(notes) on the DL, Romero will likely continue to get the occassional ninth-inning opportunity.

You have to feel good for Jeff Francis(notes). Because of arm troubles, he'd gone 20 months without kicking a major league rubber in a regular season game before facing off with Washington on Sunday. Francis held the Nationals to just one run, striking out six and walking two in a seven-inning no-decision. Rookie Ian Desmond(notes) was the only Nats player to produce an extra-base hit against Francis, who allowed seven hits in total.

I'm not recommending that Francis warrants attention in anything other than very deep leagues. But his opponent on Sunday, Scott Olsen(notes), might. Olsen pitched 6.2 innings of one-run ball against Colorado, allowing five hits and one walk, while striking out three. In his past five starts, Olsen owns a 1.11 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and a 25/7 K-to-BB ratio in 32.1 IP. Olsen is relying heavily on his slider this season – throwing it nearly 30 percent of the time – and for good reason. In terms of pitch value, Olsen has produced one of the top 10 sliders among starters this season. Olsen is expected to face Baltimore next. The O's have scored the fourth-fewest runs in the league. After that, Olsen gets the Giants (10th-fewest runs) and Houston (fewest runs). The conditions couldn't be better for an Olsen test drive.

Troy Glaus(notes), who homered off Bob Howry(notes) on Sunday after Atlanta rudely kicked Arizona starter Dan Haren(notes) to the curb, has received repeated mentions in my MLB Skinny columns, so I'm not going to paint the big Glaus picture here once again. I'll just point out his Yahoo! ownership (12%) and his May numbers (.400, 3 HR, 16 RBI, 8 R, 14 games) and let you plan your own course of action.

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As a Mariners fan, I never cared much for Brandon Morrow(notes). Certainly much of my disdain for Morrow was born when M's GM Bill Bavasi selected him instead of Seattle-area high school/college star Tim Lincecum(notes) in the '06 MLB Draft – I'll never relinquish the dream of a Lincecum-King Felix top of the rotation. But I always felt like Morrow had too much Nuke LaLoosh to his game. He often looked lost on the hill and his control was a threat to team mascot, the Mariner Moose. But on the occasions that he's properly breathing through his eyelids like the lava lizards of the Galapagos Islands, like Sunday when he whiffed eight, walked one and allowed just two runs in six innings to beat the Rangers, you see why he's a special talent. Full disclosure of Sunday's outing, Morrow actually wasn't breathing through his eyelids. He actually credits Shaun Marcum(notes) for correcting a mechanical flaw. Said Morrow of what Marcum discovered:

"When I'm really bad mechanically, like I was in Boston (his previous start), I have a tendency to break down on my back side and become really rotational and spin open. Today I was just a lot slower mechanically. To anybody who watched last week and this week, that was probably the biggest difference, staying tall with my body and slowing down my mechanics."

He also went on to say that the difference on Sunday was noticeable from the get-go and was like "night and day" from his previous start. He also said the performance felt "… kinda radical in a kinda tubular way. You know? But most of all it's out there."

In case you missed it earlier today, Andy Behrens covered the latest hot-button closer situations.

Quick hits: Although he picked up a loss, Wade LeBlanc(notes) allowed just one run in seven innings against the Dodgers, the fourth time in his past five outings that he's pitched at least six innings and allowed two runs or less … Joel Pineiro(notes) pitched a complete game shutout against the A's, allowing four hits and striking out five. He has a 0.84 ERA in his past 21.1 IP … Chad Billingsley(notes) continues to shake off the funk of a couple sour mid-April outings. He picked up his third win in his past five outings on Sunday, blanking the Padres for seven innings … Bronson Arroyo(notes) usually waits until August and/or September to become relevant in fantasy leagues, but he's won three games in his past four starts, including a complete game, two-run effort against St. Louis on Sunday … Cliff Lee(notes) was masterful (8 IP, 2 ER, 10 K) in a 2-1 loss to Tampa on Sunday. The Mariners have little hope of righting their ship and you can all but count on Lee getting moved sometime in the next couple months … If you only needed 5.2 innings instead of six innings to qualify for a Quality Start, Atlanta's Tim Hudson(notes) would be a perfect 8-for-8 in that category. He held Arizona to a run over eight innings on Sunday and only his 5.2 IP, two-run victory over San Diego on April 15th stands between him and Quality Start perfection … Howie Kendrick(notes) went 3-for-4 on Sunday. He's been hitting in the No. 2 spot in the order of late and any kind of positive reinforcement Kendrick can give manager Mike Scioscia for making that lineup change is a good thing.

Alright, I've got my weekly MLB Skinny to piece together starting as soon as I awake tomorrow and knock back some Grape Nuts. So I better leave myself something to write about. Until then, the floor is all yours …

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