Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Borowski Back Soon; Masa for 2009?

I have good news and bad news. The good news is that Joe Borowski should be ready to go by the end of next week. The bad news is…well, Joe Borowski will be the closer again. Before you start stocking up on antacids, keep in mind that this is not the same Borowski as earlier in the season. Whether or not he was ever completely healthy to start the season is unclear, but the Tribe believes Borowski’s loss of pitch velocity was a direct symptom of his injury. The injury had apparently been nagging the Indian’s closer since Spring Training, but was not considered serious at the time.

Joe was sent to the disabled list with a forearm strain once the injury started to hinder his velocity and control. Borowski had only had four save opportunities this season and his two blown saves can now be attributed to the injury. After spending almost a month on the DL, Borowski has noticed “a huge difference” and that “[his] arm speed, compared with the way it was before, was decidedly better." This is good news for the Tribe, as you can never have too much depth in the bullpen. I know I give Borowski a hard time because of his Wickmanesque pitching style, but there’s little reason to think Joe won’t revert to his 2007 form when healthy.

Borowski’s track record as closer and mental toughness (not a term I use often, but if you can post a 5.07 ERA and 45 saves you must have pretty tough skin) in 2007 cemented his spot in the bullpen. The day Borowski hit the DL, Wedge made it clear that he would have his closer job waiting for him upon return. Part of this is just Wedge being his usual stubborn self, but there’s really no reason to bench a healthy Borowski. Where is he going to pitch out of if he’s not closing? Joe posted a solid 3.75 ERA in save situations and a frightening 11.07 ERA in non-save situations last season. Do you really want to unleash Borowski anywhere except the ninth inning? I suppose that’s a unique way of maintaining one’s job security; just be horrible at everything else.

Betancourt has done fairly well as interim closer, going 4 for 5 in save opportunities with a 1.80 ERA. He’s has taken some flak for two blow-ups where he gave up three earned runs each, even though these were in non-save situations. Unlike Borowski, the large majority of Raffy’s appearances are in non-save situations, so don’t think this is indicative of a trend. By the end of the season, I’m sure Betancourt’s numbers will be back to normal. Either way, that 6.89 ERA is being blown way out of proportion by some analysts.

The bullpen hierarchy now reverts back to Borowski, Betancourt, Kobayashi, and Lewis for late inning situations. With how hot the Tribe’s starters have been lately, the bullpen has been almost a non-issue. Cleveland’s pitching staff has given up just four runs in its last five games, including three shut-outs. The team went 4-1 in those games, losing in extra innings on Monday to complete a double-header with Toronto.

Looking Ahead

Cleveland could have an interesting situation at closer for 2009 with the (assumed) departure of Borowski once his contract expires. In a recent interview, Kobayashi stated: "Closing would be my highest goal. To have that responsibility would be nice. But I'm not thinking about that right now. I'm just concentrating on the job I have." This is total speculation on my part, but it sounds like Cleveland may have guaranteed him the closer’s role once Borowski departs. It may be a stretch, but it makes sense. There were a lot of teams scouting him in Japan and knowing what his role with the team would be could have tilted him in Cleveland’s favor.

Kobayashi has had no problem adjusting to Major League hitters and has been the best pitcher out of the pen so far. After earning his first save Tuesday against Oakland (Betancourt was resting), Masa’s ERA dropped to 1.93 with a 1.15 WHIP and a 5.5 K/BB ratio. A late inning combo of Kobayashi and Betancourt would be pretty filthy, although I’m not sure how much Betancourt really cares about closing. He’s been setting up for so long, you’d think he would be more comfortable in the 8th inning. Raffy’s save percentage of 47% (16 of 34 over his career) suggests he may be better suited to setting up, but he also had a breakout role as an elite reliever last season, so who knows what his thoughts are on that.

If Betancourt agrees to waive his veteran status with Cleveland and defer to Kobayashi’s substantial closing experience (227 saves in Japan), then Kobayashi will likely be the closer for 2009. It all depends on how Wedge and Betancourt feel about his future role though.

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