MSTI’s 2009 in Review: Relievers, Part 2

Back to the bullpen – part 2 of 3!

85toppsjeffweaverJeff Weaver (A++)
(6-4, 3.65, 1.519 WHIP)

Here we have another case where keeping in mind how our judging system works is very important. It’s based on what we expected from a guy before the season, not on how he stacks up against anyone else.  Expectations for Jeff Weaver? Well, remember how bad his 2008 was; he put up a 6.07 for the Indians and 6.22 for the Brewers, allowing astounding HR/9 averages of 2.12 and 1.47, respectively. Those are the kind of numbers that get you sent to the glue factory, especially if you’re a soft-tossing righty on the wrong side of 30.

Oh, and did I mention that those 2008 numbers were put up for the AAA teams of the aforementioned squads? So you’ll forgive me for not being excited at all by his signing

Why stop there? What’s Kelly Wunsch up to? Derek Thompson? Hell, let’s go get the whole gang back together. Rob @ 6-4-2 was the first place I saw this, so let’s give him the scoop:

Dodgers Sign Jeff Weaver To Minor-League Deal
According to MLB.com. You can’t have too much pitching, unless it’s bad.

That’s right: I’m so sick of Manny-mania and A-Rod’s pharmaceutical helpers that the signing of a washed-up veteran pitcher who was never really all that good in the first place to a minor league deal is what passes for news right now. I’m not going to get too worked up over a minor league invite, because there’s really no risk involved, but holy jesus was Jeff Weaver awful in 2008. If you saw a pitcher who put up ERAs of 6.07 and 6.22, with WHIPs of 1.62 and 1.53, for his two teams last year, you’d say something like, “Woof. That guy got eaten alive. What the hell is he doing in the bigs?” – and you’d be well within reason to do so. Now, what do you say when you find out that those numbers came in stops for Buffalo and Nashville in AAA?

Hey, maybe there’s a chance that Jeff Weaver is the 2009 recipient of the Aaron Sele/Scott Erickson/Chan Ho Park Memorial “I’m Not a Corpse Just Yet, Bitches!” Award.

And maybe I’m a Chinese jet pilot.

Funny I mention that award (why didn’t I keep naming it that?) because after spending most of April back in AAA, Weaver came up to claim that very award after just a few short weeks

Which brings us to the 2009 recipient of the “I’m Not Dead Yet, Dammit!” Award, given annually to the over-30 Dodger pitcher plucked off the scrap heap in hopes of recapturing some glimmer of his past glory, even if that “past glory” was never all that great to begin with. Oh, I know it’s just May 6 and it’s only been 9 innings, but A) hey, it’s been a great 9 innings and B) if we award this now, we can avoid having to consider Eric Milton or Shawn Estes for it later.

So ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present to you, Jeff Weaver. Mr. Weaver is more than qualified for this award, having not had a league-average season since 2004, and bottoming out last season by toiling away in the minors all year long – and even failing at that, putting up a 6.17 ERA for two AAA teams. While it’s not a requirement that the recipient be a former Dodger, it does seem to be tradition, which Weaver fulfilled by pitching in Blue in 2004-05. It’s also a requirement that the idea of his signing seems so ridiculous that it’s all we can do to not laugh out loud.

Though it was probably a bit premature to hand out the award so soon, Weaver proved he was the best candidate by stepping in whenever the Dodgers needed him all season. Need a starter? Weaver filled that role 7 times, going 2-1 with a 3.13 ERA. How about a long reliever? 47.1 more innings, 3.99 ERA.

Now, let’s not make the mistake of thinking Weaver was good, because a 1.519 WHIP is actually kind of lousy. Still, that’s besides the point here. Weaver’s career was officially DOA, and he managed to at least be a valuable contributor to a playoff team, including nice work in the NLDS. So you better believe he deserves his A++.

For next year, I won’t mind at all if he moves on. If he’s so intent on being a Dodger that he’ll come back for a non-guaranteed invite, then by all means, but he’s not worth giving any real money to. Here’s a thought, though; let’s sign him as a part-time player who only pitches at home. How much does this guy like Dodger Stadium? At home, he allowed just a .681 OPS for a 2.93 ERA. On the road? .947, 4.64. Yikes.

85toppshongchihkuoHong-Chih Kuo (B)
(2-0, 3.00, 1.133 WHIP)

I don’t know why I bother writing something new for Kuo every year. We all know the story by now; he’ll be great when he’s available, but he’ll always miss at least a few weeks with his held-together-by-spit-and-duct-tape left elbow.

2009 was more of the same. After an April that wasn’t as bad as the 6.75 ERA made it seem (scoreless outings in 5 of 7 chances), Kuo missed all of May and June, and most of July, with soreness in that elbow – as though it could possibly have been anything else. Don’t forget how that happened, of course – when he tried to warm up in the bullpen, only 4 of 15 tosses were catchable by the receiver, and 2 actually ended up on the field, interrupting the game.

Kuo finally returned on July 27, and from then on was his usual unhittable self. No, really – hitters had just a .188/.266./271 line against him. The Dodger trainers actually started calling him “Cockroach”, a term that’s much more respectful than it sounds, referring as it does to his seeming ability to overcome anything.

Kuo’s acknowledgement of the work the Dodger medical staff does for him is actually of tantamount importance, because he’s arbitration-eligible this offseason. It’s hard to imagine the Dodgers wanting to commit many millions of dollars to a guy who might be injured as much as he’s available, but if Kuo is intent on staying, he might be willing to sign a lower-salaried deal to remain under the care of the trainers and doctors who know him so well. You never know how many more pitches are left in that arm (he’s still just 28), but I think we’d all like to see him remain in Dodger blue for as long as possible.

85toppsguillermomotaGuillermo Mota (B…ish)
(3-4, 3.44, 1.179 WHIP)

For a mediocre 35-year-old reliever with an up-and-down history who didn’t even get consideration for the playoff roster, we sure did have a lot to say about Guillermo Mota this year. First there was the utter apathy at his signing in January

As for the actual signing, it gets a solid “meh”. I don’t know what the contract details are, but it’s unlikely to be a huge amount of money, and Mota was basically average last year. But do we really have a shortage of guys who could do exactly what he could, for less money and without his history? I suppose we can hope that he’s going to be the next Giovanni Carrera-type who only pitches well as a Dodger.

Then, once the season got going, we spent a few weeks wondering how long he’d last, which is what carrying an ERA over 6 into June will do for you…

At the moment, I don’t care whether Mota is hopped up on steroids, PCP, or Yoo-Hoo, because whatever he’s doing, it just isn’t working. After giving up 6 hits and 3 runs in just 2 innings to blow yesterday’s game in extra innings, his ERA now stands at 7.42 and he’s given up multiple runs in 5 of his 14 appearances. He’s 35, and his WHIP is 2.175. I don’t care about his contract – it’s over. Really, if the team ever gets down below 13 pitchers, he ought to be the man to go. Will he be? I doubt it.

Indeed he was not, for just a week later

There’s one thing I’d like to touch upon: the continued employment of Guillermo Mota. We’ve mentioned how horrible he is before around here, and I’ve hardly been alone in that – even before Sunday’s disaster raised his ERA to 9.00, with 11 ER in his last 8.2 IP.

But whether or not Guillermo Mota is a terrible pitcher right now isn’t really the issue, nor is the thought that he hasn’t really been effective in nearly five years – or one steroid suspension ago. No, the question is, why haven’t the Dodgers done anything about it?

The “Sunday disaster” I referred to above was the May 17th debacle in which Mota allowed 4 ER in 1.2 IP, getting to that nice round 9.00 ERA. I still don’t know how he managed to last as long as he did, but there was one Dodger who did do something about it: Brad Ausmus, of all people.

And you had to figure that, sooner rather than later, the axe was going to fall. But then a funny thing happened; in his next appearance, 5 days later against the Angels, Mota threw a scoreless inning. Then another, two days later, also against the Angels, and another the following day in Colorado. Before you knew it, Mota had run off 11 scoreless outings in a row – a streak which has now made it to 18 of 19. In those 19 games, Mota’s ERA is a miniscule 0.41, allowing just 10 hits and a .406 OPS in 22 innings – with a remarkable 17/4 K/BB ratio. An ERA that was 9.00 after 15 games is now 3.89 after 34.

So what the hell happened? It’s not the first time Mota has ripped off a hot streak after hitting the skids – unfortunately, the last time that happened, it was immediately followed by a 50-game steroid suspension. (Seriously, check out the timeline. It couldn’t be more incriminating if he had called a national press conference to show people exactly how he injected.) For a pitcher turning 36 this month, showing no ability to be successful whatsoever, and with his history, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think he’d made a desperate attempt to stick in the bigs, no matter what the cost.

Fortunately for us, there’s a far less sordid answer to this turnaround – Brad Ausmus, pitching coach extraordinaire. For you see, Ausmus was the catcher on that disastrous night in Miami…

Mota said teammate Brad Ausmus told him that when Ausmus faced Mota in the past, he had trouble picking up the ball until it was almost being released. But in catching Mota this year, Ausmus said he picked up the ball sooner.

“That was a good tip right there,” said Mota, who huddled with Honeycutt and bullpen coach Ken Howell. Honeycutt went to the archives, digging up video of Mota pitching for the Dodgers in his first stint in 2004 and ‘05.

Mota viewed the video at home and on the plane during the club’s recent trip and discovered that he no longer was swinging his leg or holding his left arm high.

Hard to believe that such minor changes could have such dramatic effects, but there it is. Mota wasn’t even a big-league quality pitcher beforehand, and since he’s been one of the most effective relievers in baseball.

The turnaround is just insane, if you look at it. As I said, the ERA stood at 9.00 on May 17th. Between that day – the day that Ausmus “fixed” him – and Mota being placed on the DL with an ingrown toenail on September 1, Mota was dominating. In 42 games, he had a 1.53 ERA and allowed opponents the miniscule line of just .168/.233/.292.

Oh, and he threw at Prince Fielder, causing Fielder to attempt to storm the Dodger clubhouse. So there was that.

I have to admit – I’m intrigued by his turnaround this year. Still, he’ll be 36 in 2010. If he’s willing to come back on a non-guaranteed contract, I’m all for giving him a shot. If someone else wants to toss him another guaranteed million, let him walk.

85toppsjamesmcdonaldJames McDonald (C-)
(5-5, 4.00, 1.492 WHIP)

You may remember back in spring training, there was a pretty hilarious battle for the fifth starter’s role, including such luminaries as Jason Schmidt, Shaun Estes, Eric Milton, Eric Stults, Claudio Vargas – and our man James McDonald. We made no secret of our preference for McDonald at the time, saying…

James McDonald. I know, Rick Honeycutt all but announced that McDonald would start off in the bullpen, just like Chad Billingsley. It doesn’t change my opinion that he’s the man I’d like to see in the role more than anyone else listed here, so I’m still including him for comparison’s sake. The thing to remember here is that, even though most casual fans have been hearing about Billingsley and Clayton Kershaw about ten times longer than they have McDonald, James is just three months younger than Billingsley and 3.5 years older than Kershaw. The point is, he’s not that young, and we all remember how impressive he was in his stint in the playoffs last year. He’s off to somewhat of a rough spring start, allowing 4 earned runs in 5.2 innings, but that 5/0 K/BB ratio is tasty. I don’t really mind starting off our young pitchers in the bullpen, but I also don’t think that making him the 5th starter is really unfair to his development, either. Odds: 100,000-1, despite probably being the best candidate.

Of course, as the old and busted among that herd quickly got thinned out, McDonald’s chances skyrocketed, to the point that just over a week later, I was painting him as the favorite, saying…

* James McDonald is the man! I’ve been hoping that McDonald would win this competition for some time (see: here and here) but I never really thought he’d have a prayer. But after blowing away Cleveland yesterday, facing the minimum nine batters over three innings, he’s squarely put himself in the mix – and if you believe Tony Jackson, McDonald’s actually in the lead. I’ve always felt the reason that they didn’t want McDonald winning the spot is that the team preferred to not have 3/5 of its starting rotation being under 25, though of course I would love that. Besides, as I mentioned previously, McDonald’s not that young – just a few months younger than Billingsley. He’s been the Dodger Minor League Pitcher of the Year in each of the last two seasons, and considering that the 5th starter spot comes up only four times in April, isn’t that the perfect time to get him going? Let’s go James!

Win he did, and he launched his major league career by being the immediately successful pitcher we all knew he could be. By which I of course mean, “was so bad – in 13.1 IP over 4 starts, allowed 13 ER and 14 BB against just 6 K – that he was out of the rotation by the end of the month and back in the minors by mid-May.”

So, it didn’t start out that smoothly. Still, there’s much more to the James McDonald story this year. He resurfaced in the bigs at the end of June, remaining in the bullpen for the rest of the year. The turnaround was startling; after a 8.78 ERA in his short time as a starter, he put up an excellent 2.72 as a reliever. Where he’d walked more than twice as many as he’d struck out as a starter, he completely turned that around out of the bullpen, striking out 48 to 20 free passes allowed.

For a player who didn’t turn 25 until after the season ended, that’s a pretty impressive stretch, and it shows that the talent is still there. He certainly wouldn’t be the first rookie to falter after being thrown directly into the Opening Day rotation. I’d still like to see him get another crack at the rotation, but if not, you at least know you’ve got a quality bullpen arm or a nice piece of trade bait.

85toppsscottelbertScott Elbert (C-)
(2-0, 5.03, 1.322 WHIP)

Here’s a case where the stats are very misleading, because Elbert’s line looks pretty lousy, giving him a 6.66 career ERA over 25.2 IP. Elbert’s year is a lot more complicated than that, though. He had four seperate stints with the Dodgers, and the first one was disastrous – three April outings ended up with five runs allowed in 6.1 innings. He got three more appearances in July, three more in August, and ten more in September.

ERA is useless in a situation like that, because the small sample size means that any runs allowed are skewed far too highly. No, what’s important is what Elbert did against the men at the plate, and in that regard he fared better, because anytime you have a 23-year-old lefty striking out more than a man per inning, you know you’ve got some real talent there.

What’s more in question is how that talent is going to be used in Elbert’s future. Despite appearing only out of the ‘pen in LA, he was a starter in the minors, and very nearly picked up a start for the Dodgers in August. Either way, he should be in the bigs full-time in 2010, another year off of major 2007 arm surgery. Like McDonald, you know he’s got the skills to succeed in the bigs, and whether that’s as a starter or reliever remains to be seen.

Next! Will Ohman’s failure! Cory Wade’s trail of tears! Claudio Vargas was apparently a Dodger this year!  And MSTI tries vainly to write something about Brent Leach and Travis Schlichting!

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  1. [...] larger roles in 2010. Most people remember James McDonald’s huge failure as the #5 starter (as I said in our review pieces, he “was so bad – in 13.1 IP over 4 starts, allowed 13 ER and 14 BB against just 6 K – [...]

  2. [...] piece of the bullpen last year, which is why he earned his well-deserved “A++” in our yearly review. I’m actually somewhat surprised that he couldn’t get even a sniff of a major-league [...]