AL All-Star Report: Picking A Bullpen

TheSportsNotebook’s Road To Kansas City ends today with a review of the American League bullpen, as we continue to pick the leaders in the All-Star race as baseball gets set to convene on KC for the July 10 All-Star game. We closed the National League yesterday with its bullpen, so now let’s finish off the American League. The rules are to create a true bullpen, not a compilation of top closers, so TheSportsNotebook’s team has two setup relievers and one closer.

A good setup man is in the neighborhood of 35 IP by this point in the year and there are three who are at that level with an elite ERA. Vinnie Pestano of Cleveland has a 1.85 ERA, Oakland’s Ryan Cook is at 1.50 and Pedro Strop in Baltimore has posted a 1.69 number. Of the three, Cook is the no-brainer choice as the league’s best. Not only is his ERA the best among these three, but with his 0.92 WHIP, he allows fewer baserunners. As noted in yesterday’s discussion, this is something I give more credence with setup men than starters or closers due to their propensity for entering or leaving a game mid-inning. Strop would then merit an edge on Pestano due to a lower ERA and three more innings pitched, though the Cleveland pitcher does have a little bit better WHIP.

Therefore we’ve established Cook and Strop as the pitchers to beat if you want a spot on the All-Star team. The pitcher with the most dazzling ERA is Los Angeles’ Scott Downs at 0.31. it’s hard to argue with that, but Downs has only 29 IP, a solid seven innings behind Strop and that’s just too little work for me to put Downs in the top two. A similar resume can be found with Toronto’s Darren Oliver (1.48 ERA in 30 IP) and Jake McGee in Tampa (1.86/29).

Five more pitchers have the reverse situation. They’ve logged the time and are having good years, but all have ERAs in the low 3s. That’s enough to make them an asset to their team, but not enough to be All-Star caliber. I refer to Phil Coke with Detroit (3.31/35), Chicago’s Matt Thornton (3.06/35), Joe Smith in Cleveland (3.22/36), Kelvin Herrera for Kansas City, a serious horse at (3.12/43) and Grant Balfour for Oakland, who’s also earning his money with a (3.29/41) line. Because Herrera and Balfour have so many innings, they are the easiest to see making a strong push at the top line when this topic is revisited at the end of the season.

But for right now, the moment belongs to Aaron Cook and Pedro Strop as the top two setup men in the American League. Now let’s shift our attention to the closer’s role.

There are six closers in the American League having seasons worthy of at least a shout-out in this space. Joe Nathan (Texas) and Rafael Soriano (New York) are each having comeback years with sub-2.00 ERAs and just one blown save apiece. Nathan has stepped in for Neftali Feliz when he was first moved to the rotation and then got hurt. Soriano had slightly bigger shoes to fill when Mariano Rivera went down. Now Nathan and Soriano are smart-money picks to be closing games against each other in the American League Championship Series.

Chris Perez (Cleveland) and Jonathan Broxton (Kansas City) have the volume in saves. Broxton’s got 21 saves and a 1.99 ERA, but the three blown saves drop him from consideration for the top spot. They won’t drop him from consideration in trade talks this month as Kansas City will have Joakim Soria back next year and needs starting pitching help. Perez is 24/25, with the 2.59 ERA being just a little too high for an All-Star selection process that only picks one closer.

There’s really one two candidates though, who can make a credible argument for the top line and that’s Baltimore’s Jim Johnson  and Tampa’s Fernando Rodney. Each has only one blown save. Johnson is one ahead on saves, 25-24, while Rodney’s ERA is narrowly better at 0.96 to 1.24. In a razor-close election, the fact Rodney’s WHIP is slightly better at 0.72 to Johnson’s 0.77 lead me to give the nod to the Rays’ closer.

Rodney has been a tremendous surprise this year. He’s 35 years old and spent eight years in Detroit (2002-09) mostly in setup, though he did close in ’09 and notched 37 saves. But even then, the ERA was at 4.40 and he went on to a couple pedestrian years with the Angels. Given the opportunity to close in Tampa, he’s seized the moment and holds a closer-than-close lead over Johnson to complete the American League All-Star bullpen, along with Cook and Strop.