The Candidates for Lefty Relief

Much is being and will be made of Ruben Amaro’s need to organize his team’s outfield – and, subsequently, his team’s lineup – this winter. The departure of a high-profile player like Jayson Werth (imagine saying that in 2007) only makes this issue even more prevalent.

What’s being pushed to the back burner as a consequence, however, is perhaps an even greater hole left to be filled: left-handed relief. J.C. Romero, whose $4.5M club option for 2011 was bought out for $250k, is unlikely to return. Cole Hamels doesn’t pitch in relief, Jamie Moyer’s long career may finally be coming to an end, and J.A. Happ was traded to Houston in the Roy Oswalt deal. Antonio Bastardo, then, is the only lefty in the organization returning to the Major League club. While Bastardo is still young (he turned 25 in September), he’s yet to see enough time in the Bigs to really be considered “proven,” and the Phillies will certainly need a fellow southpaw for backup.

So, who’s the best left-handed relief option out there? The list of lefties available in free agency is far from impressive, but there are a few pitchers would still be fine additions to the Philly relief corps. The best/most-bandied among them – Scott Downs, Pedro Feliciano, Brian Fuentes and Hisanori Takahashi – all represent varying degrees of upgrade, and each carries different baggage.

Scott Downs

2010 Overall: 61.1 IP, 48 K, 14 BB, 0.995 WHIP
2010 vs. LHB: .152/.247/.241, 20 K, 7 BB, 89 PA

Downs, who will be 35 on Opening Day, is the only Type A free agent in this group. Every Type A signing represents a fair deal of risk, as it requires the forfeiture of the signing team’s first unprotected draft pick. The Phils, who pick at 33 this coming June, would have to surrender that pick to the Toronto Blue Jays if they sign Downs.

The value of a first-round pick, especially in a draft class being widely touted as one of the deepest in years, is significant. Signing a relief pitcher at the cost of such a pick is often risky business, but Downs provides a bit of assurance with his track record. Not only was Downs extremely efficient against left-handed batters in 2010, he was also able to retire right-handed batters with relative ease, too, holding righties to a collective .243/.283/.354 line in 152 PA. A lefty reliever who faced more than half-again as many righties as lefties and was quite effective in the process is a fairly rare commodity.

Downs would likely be the most expensive to sign of these four relievers, even before his Type A status is factored in, but he appears to be worth the marginal wins he would be expected to provide. Remember, too, that Jayson Werth’s departure is all but assured, and he will net the Phillies a draft pick, as well. The Angels’ first-round pick is protected, but major suitors like the Tigers and Red Sox have first-round picks before the Phillies. Something to consider.

Pedro Feliciano

2010 Overall: 62.2 IP, 56 K, 30 BB, 1.532 WHIP
2010 vs. LHB: .211/.297/.276, 35 K, 10 BB, 139 PA

What an ironic twist a signing like this would represent. Feliciano, the perpetual, omnipresent Mets lefty who so regularly faced Chase Utley and held Ryan Howard in check for years, signing on to pitch for the Phillies? It would almost seem extra beneficial to sign him, just so Howard (.194/.237/.306 with 14 K in 38 PA vs. Feliciano) wouldn’t have to face him again.

Feliciano’s Type B status does not affect the Phillies’ draft situation – nor any other team’s – and so he may appear to be a more appetizing option than a pitcher like Downs, especially at a (likely) lower price, thereby raising competition for his services. Feliciano has proved to be very durable, leading the Majors in appearances for three straight seasons with at least 86 entrances in each. He’ll turn 36 in August, and his control may present some concern, but unless he’s signed for more than two years, he should provide plenty of value, too.

Brian Fuentes

2010 Overall: 48 IP, 47 K, 20 BB, 1.063 WHIP
2010 vs. LHB: .128/.222/.149, 18 K, 4 BB, 55 PA

Fuentes, also a member of the mid-30s crowd, split time last season between Anaheim and Minnesota. The 35-year-old has more of a power approach than either Downs or Feliciano, and his career 9.8 K/9 easily outpaces Feliciano’s 8.2 and Downs’s 7.0 marks while not being exceptionally wild (career 3.8 BB/9).

Fuentes, like Feliciano, earned Type B status, but the market for his services may prove more limited. Dating back to 2005 with the Rockies, Fuentes has often been placed in the “closer’s” role, limiting his action to the ninth inning. As such, he’ll probably only be courted by teams looking for someone to accumulate numbers in the save statistic category, not those looking for general relief (like the Phillies). This could be one such instance where the limitation of the “closer” role could diminish a player’s marketability, and the Phillies will not be players unless Fuentes opens up to the possibility of utility relief.

Hisanori Takahashi

2010 Overall: 122 IP, 114 K, 43 BB, 1.303 WHIP
2010 vs. LHB: .217/.274/.270, 37 K, 9 BB, 126 PA

Takahashi will turn 36 on the second day of the season (sensing a pattern?), and he may just be the most intriguing prospect among this group. As a 35-year-old rookie with the Mets, Takahashi started 12 games, finished 21 more and appeared in utility relief in 20 others. He comes with no Type A or B distinction, and is rumored to be seeking a three-year contract.

The 2010 season is the only book anyone has on Takahashi in the Major Leagues, though his career with the Yomiuri Giants in Japan shows some back-and-forth between effectiveness and mediocrity. In all, there isn’t much defense for a man of Takahashi’s age asking for a contract of that length. How would he be used? Can he handle the workload of being a full-time starter, or is he destined to repeat the pure utility role like the one he had with the Mets in 2010? At the same time, if he can be talked down from his three-year demands, Takahashi would appear to be a valuable asset in relief.

It seems a little early to make a declaration about Takahashi, and that alone is a reason to be a bit wary. He’s a bit of an enigma, and in the face of three other players who have had proven success in the Majors, Takahashi seems to be the fourth-best option.

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