May 10, 2010
We've seen this Chicago story before, it's definitely a repeat. Bobby Jenks(notes) is sketchy. Matt Thornton(notes) is dominant. Ozzie Guillen can be cryptic. It's a character-driven drama, and it will be playing through the summer; get your tickets now.
Jenks has been throwing batting practice for most of the year and things might have reached a tipping point in Sunday's loss to Toronto. Jenks had a two-run lead to protect in the ninth but he couldn't get anyone out; the Blue Jays mashed him for a double, single, homer and single. Jenks was serenaded with boos when he left the mound, and his stat line is a horror show right now: 6.75 ERA, 2.17 WHIP, .352 batting average against. When you're scuffling like that, a crazy patch of facial hair won't bail you out.
Technically it was just the first blown save of the year for Jenks but don't let that trick you; he's had plenty of missteps in high-leverage spots this season. In two other games he's fallen apart working in a tie game in the ninth at home – that's a mandatory assignment for any closer, since the save no longer applies. You can't trust a closer who's lost his control and command as Jenks has – he's walked seven men over 12 innings. And obviously his strikes have been getting rocked all over the park (26.3 percent line-drive rate).
Is Guillen ready to put a new closer into play? He wouldn't say Sunday, but he did give us a quote to think about. "We have a lot of options, and we are going to search for ones," Guillen told the Chicago Tribune. "Maybe the next couple of days I might use someone different just to see if Bobby can regroup and come back to his form."
Thornton has earned the right to be at the top of that list. He's been Chicago's best reliever since 2008, a power lefty that gets out batters from both sides of the plate, and he's off to a superb start this spring (2.35 ERA, three walks, 25 strikeouts over 15.1 IP). The Blue Jays dread facing this guy; he's allowed them just one baserunner, a walk, over 4.1 innings this year. And oh yeah, he's punched out 11. If Ozzie uses Thornton differently in the just-completed series, the White Sox probably don't lose three of four.
Of course, Guillen might prefer to keep Thornton in his normal role, the Houdini escape artist that works before the ninth. There are other names we need to audit as we speculate on this bullpen.
If Ozzie wants to go the "experienced closer" route, J.J. Putz(notes) is around. Putz is carrying a 4.91 ERA for the moment but his other numbers tell a positive story: 16 strikeouts against three walks, 1.18 WHIP. He's got a skill set to close.
Sergio Santos(notes) is the sleeper in the Chicago bullpen. He's a converted shortstop that's only been pitching for a year, but to this point, it's been a wonderful transition. He's only allowed five hits and one run over 12.1 innings, and he's piled up 16 strikeouts against five walks. An average fastball of 95.6 miles per hour goes a long way, and he's putting a lot of batters away with his slider.
• Hey, wait, didn't someone throw a perfect game Sunday? Yep, I've buried the lede, but the Dallas Braden(notes) feature has been told very well in other places, there's no need for me to reinvent the wheel on this one. Here's four excellent takes on the Braden gem, all of them highly recommended: Jeff Passan here, Andy Behrens here, David Brown here, and Janie McCauley here.
As for Braden's fantasy value going forward, I'm unofficially calling him a $12 arm for the balance of the season, a little higher than Justin Masterson(notes) and Brian Matusz(notes), a little lower than Barry Zito(notes) and Brad Penny(notes), and about even with Mike Pelfrey(notes). My full and official list of starting pitcher ranks will be released later this week in Shuffle Up and Deal form; come back for that and we'll hash this thing out.
• Jarrod Washburn's(notes) 2009 run in Seattle was a beautiful thing, it gives us all hope. Whenever we see a surprise pitcher emerging in the Emerald City, we wonder if this could be another Washburn story developing before our eyes.
The Doug Fister(notes) story has been well-documented and now we've got Jason Vargas(notes) to break down. The unheralded lefty has quietly reeled off five straight quality starts, the latest one coming Sunday against the Angels (7.1 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 4 K). He's got three wins and a tidy 3.00 ERA for the year, along with a 1.00 WHIP and .193 BAA.
Okay, let's look under the hood and see what's what. A .240 BABIP jumps out as a flag, though Vargas is doing a good job keeping batters off balance (14.0 line-drive rate). A fastball in the mid-80s and a heavy fly-ball rate is also reason for concern (in contrast to Fister, a ground-ball artist), but keep in mind the success Washburn had inducing cans of corn in Safeco last year. If the ball stays in the air for a few seconds in Seattle, someone usually runs it down.
No one is ever going to call Vargas overpowering, but he's striking out 2.8 batters for every walk, that buys some cred. If nothing else, it's probably time to add him to the spot-start list; I don't like him at Tampa Bay this Friday, but he looks trustworthy for the remainder of the month.
• I'm generally a supporter of the Hairston family, but it was a rough ninth inning for Jerry Hairston Jr.(notes) at Houston. First he failed to deliver a man from third with less than two outs, even with the infield drawn in (rapping into a fielder's choice); next he was caught stealing to end the top of the ninth; and his final misstep was a wildly inaccurate throw which sparked Houston's game-tying rally against Heath Bell(notes). We like Hairston for his position eligibility and occasional speed, but the Padres will be a better club when he's able to go back to being a bench player, not someone who starts every day.
• The Kerry Wood(notes) preamble is over, he's ready to get back to the ninth inning, at least in the estimation of manager Manny Acta. Effective Tuesday, Wood gets the closing chair back while Chris Perez(notes) returns to a setup role.
Wood pitched four times this past week, with varying results. He had one horrendous inning in Double-A, then backed it up with a clean frame. Presto, recall. Then Wood got two assignments against the Tigers on the weekend, one a mess (two runs, four baserunners, two outs) and one successful (he retired Miguel Cabrera(notes) in a key spot Sunday).
"I feel good," Wood said after Sunday's win. "It helps that I'm getting better command of my breaking ball. I'm happy with where I'm at."
Perez's five-week stint as closer was an up-and-down affair, but in save-chasing leagues you probably want to hold onto him. He converted on 5-of-7 chances while Wood was out, with a 2.61 ERA, that's good. But he's carrying a 1.55 WHIP around and he walked seven men against just six strikeouts; that's a red flag. The best pro-Perez case right now is the mere fact that he's behind Wood, an injury prone closer that the Indians will probably dangle in trade talks later this season.
Injury Blog: Troy Tulowitzki(notes) left Sunday's game with a quad strain but the team doesn't think it's serious. The Rockies are also hoping to get Brad Hawpe(notes) (quad) back this week. … If J.J. Hardy's(notes) hand doesn't show improvement by Tuesday, he'll probably go on the disabled list. … Luis Castillo(notes) has a bone bruise in his heel and might need some DL time; it will be interesting to see if he runs much when he returns. The unexciting Alex Cora(notes) is the stand-in while Castillo can't go. … LaTroy Hawkins(notes) landed on the 15-day disabled list with a bad shoulder, opening up hold opportunities for Todd Coffey(notes), Carlos Villanueva(notes) and Manny Parra(notes). The Brewers also recalled left-handed specialist Mitch Stetter(notes) from Triple-A. … Andy Pettitte(notes) (elbow) might be able to pitch next weekend against Minnesota. … Mike Cameron(notes) (abdomen) will start a rehab assignment at Pawtucket on Monday. … Nelson Cruz(notes) (hamstring) is aiming at a quick rehab assignment, then a Thursday return to the Rangers. … Casey Kotchman(notes) rested his sore ankle Sunday, not to mention his 1-for-31 bat.
Speed Round: The Red Sox badly need an ace to step up right now and that's what Jon Lester(notes) is doing; he's 3-0 over his last four starts, allowing just three earned runs over 27.2 innings. He's struck out 30 over that span. … Mike Leake(notes) got past the Cubs and Ryan Dempster(notes) Sunday, allowing four hits and three runs over seven crisp innings (92 pitches, 61 strikes). Leake gets St. Louis this week. … Brian Wilson(notes) worked hard for his seventh save, strikeout out five at New York. … Clayton Kershaw(notes) needed a strong outing like plasma and he came through against Colorado, working an eight-inning gem (2 H, 0 R, 3 BB, 9 K). Ubaldo Jimenez(notes) was the hard-luck loser on the other side, allowing just one run over seven innings. … The Rangers completed a four-game sweep of the scuffling Royals, but don't blame Mike Aviles(notes) (3-for-4, homer). … The Philly bullpen had a walk in the park against Atlanta, setting down twelve men in order. Chad Durbin(notes) worked two innings (and struck out four), Jose Contreras(notes) got the eighth and Brad Lidge(notes) worked a clean ninth. … Throw your sombrero to the sky, Ichiro Suzuki(notes) had three steals against the Angels. … Yadier Molina's(notes) tame ownership level makes no sense to me. He's hitting over .300, he's got 22 RBIs, and he's picked up four steals. The Cardinals play him into the ground as well; his 103 at-bats are tied for first among NL catchers. What else do you need to see? … Our condolences to Kevin Correia(notes) and Carlos Gonzalez(notes), who are dealing with deaths in their respective families. Gonzalez will be available Tuesday but Jim Tracy might rest him an additional day.