Monday, June 27, 2005

Don't think twice, it's all right (I hope)

I guess I took yesterday's series-ending loss to the Toronto Blue Jays a bit hard---and not just because the defeat ended a long home winning streak---because I'm feeling all kinds of apprehensive today.

Tony Armas the Younger was face-planted for the second straight start, failing to escape the fifth inning. There exist two overriding concerns relating to Armas' contributions to the team:

1) can he pitch well?
2) even if he pitches well, can he ease the stress on the top half of the bullpen?

At the risk of overgeneralizing, I surmise that the Nationals must receive affirmatives on both questions in order to remain a contender (heck, a division leader) two months from now. Take his last good start, the one I saw in person on June 12. Armas held the Seattle Mariners scoreless over five innings; on the other hand, they were five of the more torturous innings of scoreless ball I've yet seen, and at the end of the day here was our pitching ledger:

Name . . . .IP . .H . R . ER .BB .SO
Armas . . . . 5 . . 5 . 0 . 0 . . 3 . .6
Majewski . 1.2 . 4 . 2 . 2 . .0 . .1
Ayala . . . . 1.1 . 1. .0 . 0 . .0 . .1
Cordero . . .1 . . 0 . 0. . 0 . 0 . . 0

So? We won the game; what's the problem?

The problem, of course, is that Frank Robinson had to use his top-end relievers (Cameron Poe, Ayala, and the Chief) to finish out a game in which his starter was throwing shut-out ball---in extended outings, worse yet, for Majewski and Ayala. (Armas's previous start, also a win, required five relievers---including the Big Three.)

Cordero is still uniquely impervious (he even makes perfect innings thrilling----and, if you're Ryan Church, painful), but Majewski and Ayala have both shown signs of stress.

Majewski scares me more than a bit, I confess. He was rock and stock from the get-go, and---if you rule out a disasterous June 21 outing---he's been pretty steady ever since his struggles relieving Armas on June 12. Still, looking at the statistical record, the guy is not overpowering hitters (opposition batting average of .269, more than a hit per inning pitched), his control is not fastidious (nearly a walk issued every two innings), and his strikeouts are almost even with his walks. Majewski's saving grace has been keeping the ball in the park---literally and without exception: zero homers in 34.1 innings pitched. That stat likely---well, let's not hedge it: almost certainly; nope, I'm still hedging it . . .

It can't continue. Majewski's going to blow up at some point; I predict that, if the Nats are still thick in the race by mid-August, Robinson will have relegated Majewski to the back end of the bullpen.

Ayala concerns me, too---see Chris for why. To update the numbers, Ayala is now on pace for 93 appearances and 99 innings pitched. The innings are not really of historical value (in the recent past, Scott Sullivan hurled over 100 relief innings in four straight season, and in the season directly preceding the streak, he threw 97.1 innings), but the appearance would rank third all-time. (His 81 appearances last season rank fiftieth all-time.)

Ayala's statistical profile is perhaps not as alarming as Majewski's; plus, Ayala has a track record of success. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that Ayala is down to 4.5 strikeouts per nine innings pitched, the same as Majewski. I don't want to be dour, but it seems exceedingly difficult to remain in "bullpen lock-down mode" when your two main bridges to the bullpen ace leave the ball in play (and leave things up to chance) so much.

There are other options, including Hector Carrasco, as Rocket Bill notes.Carrasco is on fire, of course; he hasn't allowed a run in his last ten appearances, and only a bombing on June 1 deprives him of a perfect month so far. How do you evaluate this guy? He was pitching in Asia last season, and he's been strickly non-roster invitee material the entire millenium (yes, the entirety of it!). On the other hand, he's in better shape than, if you believe the article, he has been since Doggie Perez managed the Reds.

There's also decent swing man-type material like Sunny Kim and perhaps Travis Hughes, but what I'm getting at is why need another bullpen arm---someone reliable and durable and able, should we need it, to fill much of the Ayala/Majewski/Carrasco for a solid month, should it come to it.

Alternatively, we need an innings-eating fourth starter who can keep us in most games and chew the game into the seventh inning on a regular basis.

Preferably, we'd get both.

Chris, who beat me on this angle by a good forty-eight hours, has already provided us a list of possible acquirees. Unfortunately, I can't say I'm particularly inspired.

Every year, a team or two will cobble together an incredible bullpen out of spare parts, and it sustains success over the entire season. Let's hope Frank Robinson continues to manage such a team, and Ryan Drese (or a rejuvenated Zach Day) provides us with what TA2 apparently cannot.
Otherwise, we might really rue Tomo Ohka's exile.
On a related note, I hesitate to mention this, but evil lurks---and only grows stronger.

Who needs Tomo, Basil?

There's harmony in the clubhouse! He was seriously cramping the feng shui of the place.

Part of the problem is that Frank's managing with a win-at-all costs mentality.

Take the last Drese start, for example. He was clearly struggling, but the bullpen was running on fumes. He had given up three (?) runs through three innings and let the first batter on in the fourth. When he fell behind the pitcher, Frank gave him the hook.

Sometimes you have to let your pitchers work through things, and sometimes you need to leave him out there to get his ass beaten in.
That's a good perspective . . . as long as it's consistent. We could just as soon turn around and say, "Old man Frank's giving this game away!"

Then again, that's why we blog. ;-)
Dont ever, ever count the Braves out.

Such is life in the NL East.
"Tony Armas the Younger" -- My favorite nickname, reminiscent of Hans Holbein the Younger, who painted portraits of Erasmus and St. Thomas More.

See, now people looking for Erasmus in Google will get your blog.
I have a friend who calls his brother rather than "Smith the Younger" something like "Smith the Lesser", to indicate the clear drop in overall ability. Any calls out there for "Armas the Lesser"?

Did you know the Braves had a lineup earlier this year where the oldest player was Andruw Jones? The way thes guys win the Nats better get their NL East title when they can.
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