Fuentes solidifies Angels bullpen
Brian Fuentes should fill the void left by closer Francisco Rodriguez
Jose Arredondo will be well served by acting as Fuentes' setup man
The Angels still need another big bat so they'll have leads to protect
When the Angels declined to participate in the K-Rod sweepstakes, they had their reasons. Some of them had to do with Francisco Rodriguez himself. First and foremost, his price tag was expected to be sky-high after breaking the single-season record for saves. And then there were the usual concerns about Rodriguez's awkward mechanics, which make him appear to be one pitch away from a major arm injury. Still, one imagines the Angels might still have made a play for Rodriguez had they not had his replacement on hand in 24-year-old fireballer Jose Arredondo, who posted a 1.62 ERA in 61 relief innings during the regular season last season and added 3 2/3 scoreless innings in the playoffs for good measure. It's thus a bit puzzling that the Halos decided to bring in the second-best free agent closer on the market by signing former Rockies reliver Brian Fuentes to a two-year deal worth $17.5 million with a $9 million option for 2011.
The issue isn't the money. The Angels' have been free-spenders under owner Arte Moreno and, having failed to re-sign first baseman Mark Teixeira, suddenly found themselves with roughly $160 million dollars (or $20 million in 2009 payroll) lying around. Besides, the $8.5 million annual average of Fuentes' contract is nearly a third less than the $12.3 million average annual value Rodriguez's three-year deal with the Mets. Rather, the issue is how they spent the money. Only four teams in the AL allowed fewer runs than the Angels last year, but there were also just four teams that scored fewer than runs than the Halos. With Teixeira and, most likely, Garret Anderson departing via free agency, the Angels are in desperate need of another bat, if not two, even if Teixeira was only an Angel for two months and Anderson is an average run producer at best -- and an aging one at that. Why they decided to first spend money on a player who could be considered redundant given the presence of Arredondo remains unclear.
That's not to say that Fuentes doesn't make the Angels better. An oft-ignored aspect of bullpen building is depth, and with Arredondo moving up to take over as closer, the Angels relief corps was starting to thin out. Even if Arredondo had sufficiently replaced K-Rod's dominant ninth-inning work, not an incidental "if," the drop-off in the setup role he vacated would have brought down the overall performance of the Angels' pen. There are still some doubts swirling around veteran setup man Scot Shields. Despite what looked like a rebound year in 2008, Shields walk rate has increased in each of the last two seasons, bringing down his strikeout-to-walk ratio, and injuries and bouts of ineffectiveness have contributed to a gradual erosion of his workloads, which were high enough at his peak (284 2/3 relief innings from 2004-'06) to cause concern about just how many miles Shields has left on his 33-year-old right arm. Justin Speier looked like a possible replacement for Shields entering '08, but he posted a 5.03 ERA last season and is a year and a half Shields' senior. The other member of the Angels late-game squad, lefty Darren Oliver, just turned 38. Anything less than a healthy, effective season from all four of those pitchers would have left the Angels' pen understaffed.
Even Arredondo comes with caveats, as his stellar rookie performancewas aided by a .239 opponents' batting average on balls in play (BAPIP). BAPIPs that diverge widely from the typical league average of .300 are typically the result of luck and are likely to snap back toward league average the following season, so Arredondo, though still an excellent relief prospect with a high-90s fastball, could be in for a significant correction in '09.
Enter Fuentes, who has quietly been one of the game's most consistent relievers over the past four seasons. Despite his three-quarters left-handed delivery, Fuentes is nearly as effective against right-handed batters as against his fellow lefties, and over the course of his seven years with Colorado he's been one of the few pitchers to consistently pitch as well if not better at Coors Field as on the road. He's the same age as Shields, but has never thrown more than 76 innings in a season and pitched between 61 and 66 in each of the last three. He also lacks the disturbing trends that cause concern about Shields. Fuentes' strikeout rate did decline in both '06 and '07, but so did his walk rate, and last year his strikeout rate lept back up to a near-career high while his walk rate continued to decline. According to Baseball Prospectus' WXRL (a cumulative win-expectancy stat that measures a reliever's direct impact on wins and losses and is adjusted for the strength of opposing lineups and measured against replacement level), Fuentes was the 12th most valuable reliever in baseball last year. K-Rod was third, behind Brad Lidge and Mariano Rivera. Arredondo was 28th.
While some Angels fans who were looking forward to seeing their hard-throwing youngster close games might be tempted to kick off a closer controversy, arguing that Arredondo should close while Fuentes should be used as a lefty setup man, Fuentes' superiority, at least for '09, is clear. This is not a Joel Zumaya-Todd Jones or even Carlos Marmol-Kerry Wood situation. Fuentes is legitimately one of the best closers in baseball, and Arredondo will be well served by acting as Fuentes' setup man over the next two seasons while working toward a possible ascension to the closer's job in 2011 (at which point Arredondo will still be three years shy of free agency). If Angels fans want a cause to get behind, they should lobby their team to add a bat so that Fuentes, Arredondo and company actually have some leads to protect. By signing Fuentes, the Angels have filled their cart, but they're still in need of a horse.
Cliff Corcoran is a frequent contributor to SI.com.
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