Monday, June 22, 2009

By Zach Stoloff - Columnist

It is impossible to replace someone like Francisco Rodriguez. That needs to be said before I go any further. There is nothing quite like seeing home grown players succeed, and one of the reasons the 2002 Championship was so satisfying for Angels fans was because the team was composed entirely of lifelong Angels and journeymen fillers.

That being said, General Manager Tony Reagins’ acquisition of Brian Fuentes, and the closer’s subsequent performance holding together an otherwise collapsing bullpen, have gone wholly underappreciated.

The Angels had been connected to Fuentes at two prior trading deadlines before ultimately signing him as a free agent for (more or less) 2 years and $18 million dollars, so it was no secret the team has been interested in his abilities for a while. However, the general consensus has seemed to be that Fuentes, though an established closer, is a distinct downgrade from Rodriguez, despite the savings over K-Rod’s 3 year $37 million contract with the Mets.

Although, to reiterate, Rodriguez can never be fully replaced in Anaheim, it is a false assumption (which I, too, made) that Fuentes is not in his same, elite, class of reliever. In fact, as both became full time closers in 2005, their number since are extraordinarily similar:

Converted 194 of 216 save opportunities (89%)
Struck out 356 batters in 276 IP (1.28 K/IP)
Allowed 201 hits (.195 opponents' batting average)
Walked 128 batters (WHIP of 1.19)

Converted 111 of 131 save opportunities (84%)
Struck out 302 batters in 263.2 IP (1.14 K/IP)
Allowed 202 hits (.203 opponents' batting average)
Walked 105 batters (WHIP of 1.16)

I was astonished to discover how close their stats are. Though Rodriguez is probably the more consistent of the two (as Fuentes lost his closer job for a period in 2007) and has more saves overall -- Rodriguez played for generally better teams, and thus received more save opportunities -- their peripheral numbers are virtually identical, despite the fact that their pitching styles could not be more different.

As for this season, thus far, Rodriguez has been nearly untouchable for the Mets. However, this improvement was not completely unforeseen, as he has moved to the inferior offensive league, and Citi Field has proven to be the polar opposite of the wind tunnel known as New Yankee Stadium. Fuentes, despite finally escaping Coors Field, struggled initially for the Angels, but has since lowered his era over three and a half runs since May 1, and in terms of the essence of the closer’s duty has 19 conversions in 22 save opportunities -- granted with some help from Torri Hunter. Rodriguez, by comparison, is 19 for 21.

So while, admittedly, it was difficult to see Frankie depart given how many great moments he enjoyed in Angels red, in terms of plain wins and losses and dollars and cents, Tony Reagins should be absolutely lauded for allowing Rodriguez to depart, acquiring Fuentes, and saving three to four million dollars in the process. The Angels, despite beliefs to the contrary, are not the Red Sox, Yankees, or Mets, and while Arte Moreno has shown a willingness to increase payroll for the right player, these sorts of shrewd personnel moves are integral for a team which -- gasp! -- actually has a finite operating budget.

Fuentes may not be the most orthodox closer in the game, but he is one of the most effective. His contributions holding the Angels bullpen (barely) together, and Reagins’ acquisition of him, need to be recognized more than they have been.

-Zach Stoloff
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