Thursday, April 24, 2014

By Chuck Richter, - 

I don't know about you, but last night's late inning meltdown by Ernesto Frieri against the Washington Nationals have left an excruciating sting inside. Typically I'd turn pages faster than Mike Scioscia and focus on silver linings, so naturally the next morning I was ready for the next contest, optimistic as ever. The way that the bullpen has performed so far have chipped away at my optimism and my overall excitement, despite a team that leads the majors in home runs and boasts a very good starting rotation for the first time in a couple years. It has been four years since we had a solid bullpen and its been even longer since we had BULLS in our pen. The days of Percival, K-Rod, Shields, Weber and Donnelly seem like ages ago.

What's incredibly frustrating this particular season is the Angels could easily be tied for first place with the Texas Rangers or at worst just a 1/2 game out and tied with the Oakland A's in the AL West if it wasn't for the bullpen struggling thus far. Angels closer Ernesto Frieri is 0-2 with a 9.35 earned-run average and two blown saves in 10 games this season, and he's given up five home runs in 82/3 innings.

It's well known that the Angels manager favors veteran and gives them a long rope when struggling, but Mike Scioscia needs to listen to his mind and not his heart and fix the mess that is the bullpen. After all this is a game in which wins dictate success, not clubhouse friendships. I mean, how many games do you have to lose in April before you make a change? The mind set from the front office down to the coaching staff was to get off to a better start in April so that the Angels are not chasing several games back from May through September. The Angels need to act fast and make changes yesterday. These games in April are very important, so the length of this proverbial veteran rope that is issued by Scioscia should be much shorter after four straight dismal campaigns. 

Without appearing to have all the answers and outsmarting Scioscia, to me it's a simple solution that will require just four in-house moves to reduce the amount of late inning debacles going forward. 

Step one:  Promote Joe Smith to the new closer role. Outside of one bad appearance for the Angels, he's the one guy that can get outs late in the ball game. Smith has been solid over 10 innings. He's posted a 3.60 ERA, with 11 strikeouts and three walks. 

Step two: Release Kevin Jepsen. I get it, he throws 94-95 MPH and has a curve that breaks hard. But stuff shouldn't buy you time on a major league roster if results contrast your abilities. Jepsen is the proud owner of a career 1.45 WHIP and 4.39 ERA over seven seasons and 250 games. Guys, that's just not good, especially as a late inning guy trying to hold score and keep the opponents off the bases.

Step three: Demote Frieri to take Jepsen's spot in the bullpen order until he figures shit out and gets his fastball command back. Clearly Frieri has no idea where his fastball is going. A quote from Frieri himself: "I'm missing with everything — my fastball, my changeup, my slider," Frieri said. "My arm feels good. My fastball is coming out good too. I'm just missing. … Even when I'm ahead in the count, man. I can't be leaving balls down the middle, because I'm going to get hurt." 

Do we really want a guy to close out a ball game that is "missing with everything"? The Angels starting pitchers have been fantastic and the Angels offense leads major league baseball in home runs and has put us in a position to win ball games despite the absence of Hamilton and Calhoun. It is a shame to have 8 innings of well pitched ball and runs put on the board, only to have it all erased by one player who cannot seem to locate his pitches. 

Step four: Promote one of Michael Morin, RJ Alvarez or Cam Bedrosian (more on them below) and have either one take the 7th inning spot in the bullpen. Michael Kohn who has been very effective can take the 8th inning while Joe Smith closes out ball games. After seeing 2-3 innings of fireballers, Joe Smith is even tougher to hit in the 9th.

As I mentioned above, Ernesto Frieri has given up 5 long balls across 8 2/3 innings already this season, something not even Joe Blanton could match. But just to bring some clarity as to how bad that is my friends, Angels top relief prospect RJ Alvarez has allowed less dingers over his three year career in the minors with 4.

Why are home runs allowed something we should look at? Well when you're calling upon your closer to enter the game with a one-run lead, all it takes is a solo blast to tie it up and a bloop and blast to blow the game.

Let's take a closer look at the big three, equipped with some recent scouting reports I've captured this month.

R.J. Alvarez has allowed just 4 home runs in 86 1/3 innings. He has also struck out 131 batters across 86 1/3 minor league innings, while only giving up 59 hits. Alvarez has yet to be scored upon this season and boasts a .103 BAA (batting average against)

Scouting take: Alvarez has the best 1-2 combo of the three, with a fastball that reaches 97-99 MPH and a devastating slider that is a true major league out pitch. Alvarez has big league closer stuff. A slight change to his pitching mechanics have seen better results for Alvarez fastball command this season, resulting in just two free passes with the Travelers.

Michael Morin has allowed just 7 home runs in 112 2/3 career minor league innings. Morin has struck out 116 across 112 2/3 innings. The former UNC closer recorded 22 saves in 2013 out of 23 opportunities. 

Scouting take: Morin has the most experience in pressure situations late in the game, going back to his college days. Morin's fastball reaches 95 MPH, but generally sits at 92-93 MPH that he locates well and keeps down in the zone. His changeup is one of the best in the minors and is on the same level as Jered Weaver's. Morin's curveball is nothing spectacular, but he can get it over for strike and give the hitter something to think about. Morin is even better after facing hitters after his first appearance against them, which is usually the opposite. Morin will probably get the first shot of the three when the Angels reach down to their farm system for talent this season. 

Cam Bedrosian has not allowed a home run since his promotion to High-A last summer where he worked exclusively out of the bullpen. Combining his 2013 IE 66er's numbers with his work this season, Bedrock has struck out 30 batters across 16 1/3 innings. He's also given up just 5 hits over those 16.1 innings of relief. Bedrosian has yet to be scored upon this season and boasts a .42 BAA. 

Scouting take: Eddie Bane drafted Cam because of his arm and bloodlines, son of former big league closer Steve Bedrosian. Bedrock like his dad has a filthy slider that generates ugly swings and misses and a hard fastball that's tough to center because of the movement on the pitch. Cam is consistently in the 95-96 MPH range with his fastball, but since moving to the bullpen it touches 97-98 MPH when he wants to reach back for something extra. Cam also has a curveball and changeup, both of which are improving, but nowhere rival his fastball/slider combo.

Ladies and gents, these kids are good. Reminds me of the type of numbers we've seen in the minors from former Angel Francisco Rodriguez and current flamer thrower Michael Kohn who a year removed from Tommy John surgery had a decent return in 2013, only to return to his former self so far this season by sporting a 1.53 ERA, fanning 13 over 11 innings.

Dipoto, you've built a solid team to compete and do some damage in the playoffs. Please do not waste the talent on this roster by letting gazelle's out of the bullpen, it's time to round up some bulls like the Angels once had to buck this trend of late inning losses. 
Love to hear what you think!

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