Tagged: Closers

What To Do With Percival and Kazmir

Instead of recapping the series the Rays split with the last place Oakland A’s (more on the epic finale later), I will contribute something of a little more importance.  Some of the series’ downfall was caused by two downtrodden pitchers: starter Scott Kazmir and closer Troy Percival.  What can we do with them?  Here are some viable options.

First, there is the case of Dontrelle Kazmir.  Excuse me, Scott Ankiel.  Regardless of his name, Kazmir has gone 4–4 this season, which is not even the worst record on his team.  However, his ERA is an alarming 7.69 and he has allowed seven earned runs in each of his last two starts.  29 walks and only 35 strikeouts in 45.2 innings will never get the job done for him.  Especially with his fastball only occasionally reaching 91 miles per hour, when he should be regularly hitting 94.  But it usually stays around 88.  His slider is as flat as cardboard.  He says he is 100% healthy, physically.  But there are mechanical and mental blocks so large a bulldozer couldn’t knock them down.

Joe Maddon has stated that he will stay with Kazmir, on schedule as he has been.  But I think he needs more evaluation and another solution.  I have two possible ideas.

One possibility is to move him to the bullpen.  He can work off to the side on his mechanics and get his head back in the game.  Pitching only one or two innings at a time, he can let it fly without fearing an early exit.  Barry Zito’s demotion to the Giants’ bullpen last season did him well.  Why not try it here?

The other option is to send him down to minor league rehab.  Kazmir would have to accept the assignment, but I think he should if he knows what the long–term effects can be.  He can be sent to AAA, or even AA Montgomery.  Jeremy Hellickson has pitched very well there this year, and once he returns from shoulder spasms he can go to Durham with either David Price or Wade Davis being called up to the Rays.  A stint in either AA or AAA would do Kazmir good as he can pitch pressure–free and get his old self back.  It may be starting to work for Dontrelle Willis.  Maybe we should go for it here if everyone will go through with the plan.

The other concern is Troy “Tank” Percival.  He was saved in today’s game, but only after he loaded the bases and fell behind every hitter into three–ball counts.  In 14 appearances, his ERA is 6.35 and opponents have hit .304 against him.  This from a guy whose career opponents’ batting average is .135.  He never seems to get through an inning easily, if at all.  He scares every Rays fan and has driven some to drinking.

After watching him blow games (he is 6–for–6 in save opportunities, but not without some heart attacks) since the middle of last season, I have come to the conclusion that he is a worthless hack.  Tampa Bay Rays management, it is now time that Troy Percival be released from the team, effective immediately.  A Kazmir move to the bullpen could hold the spot until the return of Chad Bradford.  Jason Isringhausen can lead a committee of closers.  We have depth with the likes of Wheeler, Balfour, Howell, Shouse and Nelson, all of whom have a better recent track record than Percival.  He is very replaceable.

With that out of the way, I will soon talk about that huge win today and what a lift Ben Zobrist brings to the Rays.

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2008 Pitching Rotations

Hello, it is now that time to analyze and project the Tampa Bay Rays and Atlanta Braves pitching rotations for the upcoming season.  2007 saw both teams being forced to mix it up during the year due to injuries and lackluster play.  Now I believe both teams have improved on this end and fixed their rotations, but whereas the Braves had more questions about their batting order, the Rays have more pitching openings.  Not wasting any more time, here are the 2008 pitchers for these teams:

Tampa Bay Rays:

1.  Scott Kazmir – The ace of the Rays staff since his 2005 rookie year, Kazmir led the American League in strikeouts with 239 in 2007.  His ERA has been 3.77, 3.24, and 3.48 the last three years, very respectable for a starter in this era.  The 2006 All Star is the best known face of the Rays pitching staff, and with good reason.  Though he still gives up a few too many walks and has high pitch counts that restrict has innings of work, and is at risk of arm injury, the Rays are taking no chances with him and he has still proven time and time again that he is a legitimate force on the mound, one of the top left handed pitchers in the game today.  He can beat anybody else’s ace.

2.  James Shields – This man is the clear-cut right handed staff ace, and fits in well at number two behind Kazmir.  Shields was the Rays’ best pitcher during parts of last season.  12-8 with a 3.85 ERA, despite giving up 28 home runs (even Johan Santana allowed 33 HR), he walked just 36 hitters in 215 innings of work while showing near-pinpoint command.  With a bullpen that won’t blow as many of his games, he is bound to become an even better pitcher as his prime years hit.  He can strike guys out with his devastating changeup and complimentary fastball.  Give him the ball in the big game, and he can take it.

3.  Matt Garza – Acquired from Minnesota in the Delmon Young trade, Matt Garza is one of the better young pitchers in the Major Leagues and a lock at number three.  In 16 games (15 starts) for the Twins in 2007, Garza showed his potential with a 3.69 ERA and 67 K in 83 innings, added to a similar stat line in AAA.  He is ready for the big time now, and he will no longer have the pressure to be a top guy as he could have in Minnesota without Santana.  He is like Kazmir in that he will use his fastball and slider to strike guys out, and he also has the determination to throw smarter, not harder, to get out of trouble.  Now with three legitimately good starters, the Rays are much closer to contention with the big dogs in the American League East.

4.  Edwin Jackson – Now this is where it gets difficult.  There are several guys battling for two rotation spots, and nobody knows who will get them yet.  But I’ve decided to put Edwin Jackson in at number four, and I have my reasons.  He had a bad season in 2007, 5-15 with a 5.76 ERA, but considering that it was 7.77 at one point, that says something of his natural ability.  He shut out the Texas Rangers and rolled through the powerful Yankees late last season, and if he can command his mid-90s fastball, he can get guys out.  He had a good start to Spring Training, and I think he can’t get any worse from this point on.  Only 24 years of age, he is still a prime prospect as a starter.  Early projections only have him getting slightly better this season, so he can be shuttled down to number five if need be.  He’s also out of options, which basically forces the Rays to keep him on the team.

5.  Andy Sonnanstine – This was also a very difficult decision, with guys like Jason Hammel and J.P. Howell also vying for this spot.  But of all three, it was actually Sonnanstine who had the best 2007 season (6-10, 5.85 in Tampa Bay; 6-4, 2.66 at Durham).  He has the least bullpen experience of these guys, making his possible transition more difficult.  Hammel and Howell have not proven enough potential as starters to justify earning this spot.  In more good news, Sonnanstine’s projections have him improving to maybe a 4.70 ERA in 2008.  I think he could be a very competent fifth starter–maybe not like the Boston Red Sox fifth starter, but a useful one anyway.

Bullpen: Troy Percival (Closer), Al Reyes, Dan Wheeler, Gary Glover, Scott Dohmann, Trever Miller, Juan Salas, Grant Balfour (Maybe Jason Hammel and J.P. Howell)

Atlanta Braves:

1.  John Smoltz – There was little guesswork involved here, and why should there be?  I (and some others) may not agree with his personal views and beliefs, but that’s an off the field rant for an off the field place.  For the Braves, John Smoltz has provided ace quality pitching dating all the way back to 1989.  He was 14-8 with a very nice ERA of 3.11, one of the league’s best, in 2007 at age 40.  Through Tommy John Surgery and team overhauls, he still has it.  Many people still don’t see him falling off this season, myself included.  He’s seen the biggest of pressure situations and pitched through the worst of times, so there is little doubt about his talent and composure.  A first ballot Hall of Fame probability, Smoltz should continue his excellence as he anchors the mound in 2008.  He can still beat any other pitcher out there, including Johan Santana.

2.  Tim Hudson – Another ace quality guy and once a member of the A’s "Big Three," Tim Hudson enjoyed a renaissance in 2007, going 16-10 with a 3.33 ERA.  As a veteran much like most of this pitching staff, Hudson has been there, done that, so to speak.  He is a true star who has been unfortunately overlooked during his Atlanta tenure.  He’s not much of a strikeout pitcher, but he keeps the ball on the ground (just 10 HR allowed last year) and leaves the work to a good defense.  His 224.1 innings last year also proves that his pitch-to-contact style works well to buy time for his bullpen.

3.  Tom Glavine – Welcome back, Tom.  After spending five years with the enemy in New York, he has returned home to finish off his amazing career.  Though he has fallen statistically and his fastball has lost velocity in recent years, Glavine still possesses a solid changeup that can get the best hitters out.  He had a down year for the Mets in 2007 with his ERA at 4.45, but he has rebounded from off years before (1991, 2004), so with his leadership and experience, why couldn’t he do it again?  He has nothing left to lose, and he’s back home where he belongs.  I think his downfall last year can be attributed to his horrific ending to the season (his ERA was 3.88 before his final three starts), a little injury trouble, and the fact that maybe he just didn’t want to pitch for the Mets.  (He took $5 million less to return to the Braves.)  Glavine still has his ability to get people out and pitch 200 innings.  I think he can still anchor a trio of left handers on the back end of this rotation and have at least one more good season.

4.  Chuck James – James showed the world what he had to offer in 2006 (11-4, 3.78), but hit somewhat of a sophomore jinx last year, going 11-10 with a decent 4.24 ERA.  The staff’s young gun at 26 years of age, James should be a very reliable fourth starter for Atlanta in 2008.  A little pressure can be taken off by the three veterans in front of him and the strong bullpen–arguably the division’s best–behind him.  So there is the potential for James to be a very solid pitcher in this role.

5.  Mike Hampton – The wild card of the staff because of his well-documented injury troubles, Mike Hampton finally looks to be ready to return to active duty this year.  He was very effective last time he pitched for the Braves in 2005 (3.50 ERA in 12 starts), and he has made significant strides going into 2008.  Provided his talent stays with him, he would make an excellent fifth starter to scare other teams’ fourth and fifth guys, and even go head-to-head with some aces.  It finally appears as if he is back and here to stay.  Not much of a strikeout pitcher, he, like Hudson, is adept at keeping the ball on the ground.  Maybe not so much at the plate, however–Hampton is a secret weapon as a hitter, with 15 career home runs and a .242 batting average to his credit.

Bullpen: Rafael Soriano (Closer), Peter Moylan, Mike Gonzalez (Upon return from arm surgery), Will Ohman, Manny Acosta, Tyler Yates, Royce Ring

That just about covers the Rays and Braves probable pitching rotations for the 2008 season.  I think both teams stepped it up and improved from last year, especially Tampa Bay with Matt Garza and still-improving young arms.  They’re very different, but can both contend on their best days.  Until next time, go Rays and Braves.

Now Pitching For The Devil Rays…Who?

I am about to step out of the usual game recaps I have written here lately and talk about what every other Devil Rays fan talks about and wishes was better.  I’m not talking about the prices of beer and popcorn at Tropicana Field, but it’s the most harmful on-field aspect of this team: pitching.  On all fronts, this team has not pitched very well whatsoever this season.  The bullpen ERA is at the bottom of the Ray tank at the stadium, there have been several changes in the starting rotation, and only a select few pitchers have been consistently good.  This team claims it didn’t go out for more pitchers during the off-season because they "didn’t think they would win this year" or something to that effect.  Then what is the point of running an MLB franchise if you don’t even try to win and you let the big-market teams have all the good players?  Everytime I see that bullpen lose a game, I think that we have another Vince Naimoli/Chuck Lamar administration.  We don’t need any more cheap trades for minor league players, and we don’t need to overlook free agency like we have in the past.  We need to get a set of relievers who will actually be relieving to see pitching for us, and I believe we need one more starting pitcher to have a potential trio of aces like the 1990s Braves did.  Scott Kazmir is Glavine and James Shields is Smoltz–we need Maddux.  But first, the relief team.

The good relief pitching for the Devil Rays this year has been few and far between, but there are bright spots in this otherwise black hole.  When he’s been available, Al Reyes has been a good shutdown closer, earning 17 saves before the All Star Break.  For some reason, he pitches best in one or two-run games and gets the job done when it’s close and the game is on the line.  Despite his age and injury history, we need to ride this guy for as long as we possibly can and show the Dodgers, Brewers, Cardinals, and others what they missed out on.  He is also the only Devil Ray who has appeared in a World Series, pitching for the Cardinals in 2004.  I think they did a good job in acquiring 34-year-old veteran Jay Witasick after the A’s let him go.  He can teach the young guys something from his experience, and he has one of the better ERA’s on the team this year.  He would probably be a good setup man.  And I can’t really fault Gary Glover, as he has been a surprisingly decent pickup after his failed venture to Japan with the Yomiuri Giants.  But beyond them, the very noticeable flaws start popping up everywhere.  Juan Salas was good, but he was busted for performance enhancement, so his future is very uncertain.  Ruddy Lugo became the next Esteban Yan (on the same career path with frighteningly similar stats), then the A’s claimed him off waivers and he saw no improvement.  Our top two leaders in games pitched are the masters of the walk-off home run, Shawn Camp and Brian Stokes.  Stokes has an ERA of 6.18 and a 2-6 record in 45 games this season, giving up seven home runs in 43 2/3 innings pitched.  He surrendered four–four–game-winning home runs in the first month and a half of this season, two with the game tied and two with the lead.  He was not so bad as a minor league starter, and was decent when he was called up last year, but he just can’t do late-inning relief pitching.  It’s time for him to try something different.  Camp is 0-3 in 47 games with a 5.89 ERA and, like Stokes, has two blown saves without one successful save.  He, too, has lost games in the late innings and is a detriment when used in the ninth inning or later.  The one that hit the hardest for him was when Cleveland’s Ben Francisco tagged him for his first career home run, a walk-off shot that was replayed on highlight shows for days.  He’s not the answer for shutting games down, either.  Casey Fossum is left-handed, and just by that alone, he has a spot on the team.  After giving up mountains of first-inning runs as a starter, a move to the bullpen sounded like a good idea, since he’s been better there in the past.  Not so much this year, as his ERA is 7.60 and he has four blown saves with zero actual saves–he only has two in his entire career.  He, too, is prone to giving up home runs (13 in 68 2/3 innings pitched).  Out of all of them, he might be the worst.  Guys like Chad Orvella, Jon Switzer, and Tim Corcoran have underachieved this season and have been limited in their action, greatly narrowing the Devil Rays’ options.  We have a few guys who can do the job, but we can’t ride them like ponies and expect them to drag us through the rest of the season with all of the other less productive pitchers, especially since many of our starters have a tendency to leave games early.  Want any more proof that we need a new bullpen?  Watch that game in Toronto where they blew a five-run lead in the ninth inning and only got one out before losing.  That was the worst implosion of a pitching staff that I’ve ever watched live.  This team needs to make some deals and improve the relief corps ASAP if they want to win before 2010.

Starting pitchers this year have been a little better, but of course, could be a lot better, and the lower end of the rotation needs much improvement.  There are the aces, Shields and Kazmir, who deserve their recognition.  James Shields is 8-5 with a 3.91 ERA after his 6-0 start, and has thrown the only complete game for the Devil Rays this season.  His 120 strikeouts compared to only 21 walks are a sure sign of a pitcher who can keep opposing hitters off base.  Scott Kazmir (7-6, 4.02) has over one strikeout per inning, and despite high pitch counts, has been able to win some games.  He has the right tools to be an All Star again in his future.  But that’s just about where it ends and the rotation goes downhill.  Unfortunately, we can’t have two or three starters–this isn’t Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson’s game anymore, so we need more, but we just don’t have it.  Devil Rays pitching has become a punchline.  Andy Sonnanstine pitched very well at AAA, but is 1-5 in the Major Leagues.  He might need a little more time to adjust, so we shouldn’t harp on him yet.  J.P. Howell was supposed to be the next left-handed starter for the Devil Rays, but with a 6.62 ERA in seven starts this season, he hasn’t delivered much good so far.  Edwin Jackson has become a story in himself.  He is now 1-9 with an inflated 7.19 ERA in 18 games, 17 of them starts.  One game against San Diego was notable for Jackson giving up five runs while only getting one out.  He hadn’t won since 2005 before finally recently winning a start, but it hasn’t happened again.  I’m not sure that it will, either.  His arm is too strong and he’s too young to just throw to the wolves at this point, but a little work is obviously needed.  Pitching coaches need to jump on this guy and find ways to refine his pitching before it actually gets worse.  44 walks in 80 2/3 innings, along with a staggering 105 hits, are just too much to bear.  Are there any more guys (hint: Jeff Niemann) who can come up and try their hands at this in Jackson’s spot?  We can’t run through many more guys, but for this season, Edwin Jackson needs to get the hook.  We’ll re-evaluate him in 2008, as it’s possible he can turn around.  But not this year.  It’s never been "this year" for the Devil Rays.  Just ask Jae Seo, who had an 8.13 ERA in 10 starts out of 11 games before he was mercifully designated for assignment.  He has been called baseball’s worst pitcher by several outspoken Internet fans, and their claim is backed up.  I hope minor league time can return him to the ways of his good 2003 and 2005 seasons.  Not everyone will pitch greatly, and there will be ups and downs, but the downs have once again become too much to take.

After my overanalysis/stat regurgitation on the pitchers for the Devil Rays, the conclusion is no different from the hypothesis: this team needs pitching help, pronto.  I sincerely hope we can get a starting pitcher and some relief aid.  Unfortunately, there is a weak starters market this year, and Mark Buehrle isn’t leaving Chicago.  Bullpen-wise, Eric Gagne still isn’t bad barring injuries, and he may become available, as could the hard-throwing Octavio Dotel.  One of those guys would almost automatically upgrade the bullpen just by their appearances.  Why not try it?  We need a pitching staff to beat the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Blue Jays, and yes, the Orioles.  Our offense is good for the most part, so we just need to complete the team.  And that is something management has consistently failed to do.  Well, except for the Kazmir-Victor Zambrano trade.  Hey, Mets, you can’t have a mulligan on that one.  Until next time, go Devil Rays.

If you can’t get help on the free agent market, please, get help somewhere.