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Futon Report: “Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right…”

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Twelve teams have at least 35 wins: White Sox, Cardinals, Orioles, Nationals, Twins, Angels, Red Sox, Padres, Rangers, Phillies, Cubs and Diamondbacks. Only eight teams make the playoffs, and although the season is only three-eights over, four teams can be pinpointed as teams that have the odds against them. The following stat, accurate as of June 15, will reveal them:

Bullpen ERA:

25. Rangers (5.08)
26. Red Sox (5.17)
27. Devil Rays (5.23)
28. Phillies (5.59)
29. Rockies (6.04)
30. Diamondbacks (6.26)

The average bullpen is active for three innings a game. If the aggregate ERA is 6.00, that means the pen is giving up 2 runs for every 3 innings. In short: you’re not gonna win the close games.

Over the weekend against the Royals, the Diamondbacks had difficulty keeping up with Kansas City’s relievers. With a comfy 11-3 lead, the bullpen took an eight-run lead into the 8th inning. The D-Backs’ Edgar Gonzalez gave up 4 runs while only retiring one batter. Teammate Matt Herges did twice as good — only giving up 2 runs in 1/3 inning. Lance Cormier blew the save in the 9th inning by allowing the final two runs, taking the 11-11 game into overtime.

Now, The Diamondbacks escaped with a 10th inning Troy Glaus home run. But they weren’t so lucky two days later against the same team.

The game went into extra innings again, by a score of 1-1. Both pitchers, Brandon Webb and D.J. Carrasco, pitched gems. The Royals had a suspect pen as well, with the corps ranking high in both innings pitched and blown saves. And with two shaky bullpens, the game got wacky.

Kansas City scored a run in the top of the 10th, but Arizona responded with a run of its own in the bottom half. In the 11th, Kansas City scored a run in the top and again Arizona responded in kind. But in the 12th inning, Kansas City let loose with 6 runs, while Arizona could only score one more run in the bottom half, losing the game 9-4 and the series 2-1 to the team with the worst record in the major leagues.

A CLOSER LOOK AT THE BAD PENS

When you look at Arizona’s bullpen, it is simply a mixture of bad pitchers and good AAA pitchers. After the injuries to closer Brandon Lyon, who had an amazing April as closer, and Oscar Villareal, the remaining talent was rather thin. The closer role was handed to Brian Bruney (5.93 ERA) until then-injured Greg Aquino returned, but Aquino has had a rough start back from injury, allowing 8 runs in 1 1/3 innings. The only left-hander in the pen is Javier Lopez (8.36). Mike Koplove (5.06) and Jose Valverde (6.35) are familiar faces to the Arizona pen, but they haven’t done as well as they’ve done in previous years. In fact, he only effective reliever for Arizona has been Lance Cormier (2.45). They tried to bolster the pen by trading for Herges (10.80), but that hasn’t quite worked out yet.

Boston’s pen isn’t much better. Although Mike Timlin (1.45) and Mike Myers (2.03) serve as a reliable right-and-left tandem, everyone else has stunk. Matt Mantei (5.40), John Halama (6.44) and Alan Embree (7.00) have each pitched at least 20 innings, and the three combine for only two losses, which explains why you can’t look at that stat for a reliever. Their heralded closer, Keith Foulke, has only blown two saves, but is shamed with a 5.59 ERA. Yuck.

Texas has been notorious in the past five years for bad pitching, but two starters — Kenny Rogers and Chris Young — have anchored the starting rotation and have combined for a 14-5 record. Imagine how many more wins they would have if their bullpen performed better. Kameron Loe and Brian Shouse each have sub-3.00 ERAs. The disaster comes from Doug Brocail (5.26) and Ron Mahay (8.38). Francisco Cordero is doing mediocre, converting 16 saves with a 4.21 ERA. And the pen situation got worse as Benoit (0.63 ERA) went on the DL Monday.

Philadelphia’s pen actually looks pretty good, mainly because bulk of trouble pitchers have been either designated for assignment or sent back down to AAA. Aaron Fultz, Ryan Madson and closer Billy Wagner — who have ERAs under 4.00. They also traded for Ugueth Urbina from the Tigers to add depth, and his combined ERA on both teams is a decent 3.64. In fact, Rheal Cormier is the only reliever currently on the staff with an ERA over 5.00. Tim Worrell had a rough start, but he is on the DL for what the team calls “personal psychological issues.” Also, with starter Randy Wolf possibly out for the season, Robinson Tejeda will move from the pen to the rotation, weakening their depth.

While these four teams with good records are in dire need of relievers, nobody can have enough pen members. The problem is, and always has been, a shortage of quality pitchers who aren’t already starters or closers. Middle relief is the most underappreciated pitching role today, and the spot is often reserved for young pitchers making their league debut or so-called “demoted closers” who can’t keep a lead late in the game. A person may be able to make a career out of pitching a perfect 6th inning, but the role is more a proving ground for young pitchers than anything.

TEN MIDDLE RELIEVERS TEAMS SHOULD CONSIDER ACQUIRING

In the meantime, teams who want to win now would rather have a veteran pitcher fill that role. Perhaps teams should look at these players, in no particular order:

Jose Mesa, Pirates: The 39-year old can still do it. While his 4.56 ERA isn’t attractive, he does mix four pitches to get batters out and can help out any team looking to make a postseason run. Hopefully teams forget his past: Mesa is notorious for blowing the a lead in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series, allowing Florida to come back and beat Cleveland in extra innings.

Rick White, Pirates: This guy might hold the record for most times traded in mid-season that nobody has heard of. White has over 450 relief appearances with only 14 saves — proof this kind of role can be a career.

Scott Eyre, Giants: With San Francisco pretty much done, they should consider unloading Eyre, a rare left-handed reliever. Opposing batters are hitting only .178, and that number stays pretty constant against right and left-handed batters, home and away. He also averages a more than a strikeout per inning. Teammate reliever Jason Christiansen is also a possibility.

Brian Fuentes, Rockies: What? A Rockies reliever? Are you kidding me? Not at all. In the hitter-happy Coors Field, Fuentes boasts a 2.14 ERA with 5 saves and none blown. He, also, is a lefty who can get out batters from either side of the plate.

Lance Carter, Devil Rays: You’d think somebody not even good enough to be the Devil Rays closer wouldn’t be good enough for any other team, but the former All-Star has enough stuff for long relief — possibly even as a setup man — for a lacking bullpen.

Kyle Farnsworth, Tigers: Detroit got a good reliever for this year, but it looks like they really won’t need him. He will overpower batters as his fastball has reached 100 mph. With 37 strikeouts in 27 1/3 innings — as well as only 9 walks — he has the stuff to definitely set up, perhaps close, for a winning team.

Kent Mercker, Reds: Another left-hander, Mercker has a 2.00 ERA at home. And that’s impressive when your home field is the size of a matchbox. Also, Mercker has thrown a no-hitter in his career, back in 1994 with Atlanta — his only career shutout.

Dan Wheeler, Astros: Houston acquired him in last year’s stretch run, and his 0.98 WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) is quite attractive for him to be Rick White-d for the second straight year.

Ron Villone, Mariners: The 35-year-old lefthander has alternated between starting and relieving all his career, and with his ERA as low as it’s been since 1997, he could come out from the pen or spot start for your team.

Miguel Batista, Blue Jays: The former carpenter, who won a ring with the Diamondbacks in 2001, has found a role as a closer in Toronto. If the Blue Jays feel they can’t compete (even though they have a better record than the Yankees), they should consider stockpiling some talent for this man, whose 2.60 ERA and 12-for-13 saves could give him a chance to earn a closer job for a better team.

More baseball at the Futon Report. Silly behavior at the Obnoxious Couple.

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