When the Phillies signed Contreras last winter, it was not the most newsworthy signing of a Cuban defector blessed with a thunderbolt arm, but it may have turned out to be the most consequential. Contreras, who turned 39 last week, is the latest in a series of starting pitchers the Phillies have successfully converted to relief stalwarts, including Chad Durbin, Brett Myers, and Chan Ho Park.
Contreras had last been a top-line starting pitcher in 2006, when he went 13-9 for the White Sox. With his fastball velocity in free fall, he caught on with Colorado in late 2009, and was excellent in seven appearances, five from the bullpen. Those 17 innings were enough to convince the Phillies to plug Contreras into Park’s old spot in middle relief.
Contreras, despite originally stating a desire to start, took to his new role in middle relief with gusto. Contreras’ fastball averaged 94 mph in 2010, up 3.5 mph from 2008. With his velocity back, Contreras was able to work in hard breaking stuff to great effect, including a high-80s slider that was worth 8 runs above the league average. This translated to better than a strikeout an inning and, despite a midsummer hiccough (caused in part by some bad luck with strand rates and BABIP), the Big Truck finished second among Phillies relievers in innings pitched, third in ERA, and third in strikeouts.
With so much of the Phillies’ payroll tied up in a few superstar players, the key to building a successful team is filling in the gaps on the cheap, and this Big Truck certainly delivered.
Grade: 7.8/10–Contreras was an dependable, if not spectacular reliever all season long and earned his contract extension. He wasn’t Mariano Rivera, but it’s hard to go far in baseball without decent middle relief.