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The volatility of relief

6/10/2011

Mariano Rivera plays baseball but doesn't watch it much, and he hasn't seen Jonny Venters pitch yet. When Venters' name came up in conversation with Rivera the other day, Rivera had a lot of questions -- about Venters' style (understated), about his stuff (a wipeout two-seam fastball that dives), about his attitude (Venters doesn't care whether he starts or closes).

Venters might be the most overpowering reliever in the game today -- as in, June 2011 -- and as the chat about the Atlanta Braves left-hander ended, the greatest reliever baseball has ever known smiled a bit and said, "We'll check back in four or five years and see where he is."

It was a telling remark, because Rivera knows, better than anybody, how relievers can flame out, from injury or overuse or confidence abandonment.

Within 24 hours of Rivera's remark, the Yankees learned that Joba Chamberlain -- the working definition of a comet reliever, given his first-year success -- will almost certainly require Tommy John surgery. At the end of last year, Joakim Soria was the most dominant reliever in the American League and now, just months later, he is working to pick up the pieces of his early season, having lost the closer's job in Kansas City; he had a shaky inning but got the save on Thursday. Brad Lidge has journeyed from dominant setup man to overpowering closer to demoted to World Series hero to (when he comes off the disabled list) a middle reliever.

So you can understand why Yankees general manager Brian Cashman isn't going to dive into the trade market ready to deal fistfuls of prospects for a Grant Balfour or some other veteran. He isn't going to redirect Phil Hughes into a bullpen role when he knows he might eventually need the right-hander as a starter, now that he's making progress; Hughes threw 90-92 mph in his work on Thursday. The GM was emphatic in a phone conversation Thursday night that he won't try to rush any of his prized prospects, like Manny Banuelos, into a bullpen role.

No, Cashman will try other solutions, like Kevin Whelan, who is having a strong season in Triple-A with an ERA of 1.67. The GM will hope that Lance Pendleton will continue to throw as well as he did in his first outings for the Yankees.

But being conservative only guarantees that assets will be preserved; it's a strategy that doesn't guarantee success. The Yankees went into this season believing they would have an overpowering bullpen in 2011, with Rafael Soriano and Chamberlain and David Robertson setting up for Rivera. Now Chamberlain is probably out for the year and Soriano might not throw another inning for the Yankees, and the Yanks desperately need bullpen solutions.

With relievers, with bullpens, the volatility doesn't require four or five years to manifest; rather, four or five days.

This could be the end of an aura with Chamberlain, writes Tyler Kepner.

• The firing of Oakland manager Bob Geren wasn't a surprise, but not just because a lot of his players didn't like him or because the Athletics were off to a terrible start that has been fueled by a wave of injuries to the rotation. Inevitably, there was going to be turnover with the Athletics because the franchise continues to rot day by day.

Eight hundred and two days have passed since the commissioner established a committee to study Oakland's ballpark future, and there is no end in sight. The Athletics don't know where they will be in three years, whether in Oakland or San Jose.

Part of the reason why Bob Melvin was hired was because he is highly regarded as a professional. Right now, the Athletics are working through this for the here and now, and Melvin will have at least 'til the end of the year to make a case to keep the job. But until the ballpark situation is resolved, the franchise will continue to rot.

Trevor Cahill got knocked around and the White Sox spoiled Melvin's managerial debut.

• Mike Moustakas, another part of the wave of talent that is reaching Kansas City, was called up by the Royals after Thursday's game, and he will play tonight. "We were looking for the right time to get him up here," said Royals GM Dayton Moore over the phone on Thursday evening, "and we felt now is the right time to do it. [Manager] Ned [Yost] wanted to get another bat in here, and our people feel like he's ready."

Moustakas struggled at the outset of this year, but even at a time when his overall production was down, the Royals' staff noted that Moustakas had a knack for run production -- he hit well with runners in scoring position and found a way to pile up RBIs. Moustakas started hitting a few weeks ago, and at the time of his promotion, he had a .287 average with 41 RBIs in Triple-A. Given the timing of the promotion, Moore noted, Moustakas will get about 400 at-bats in the big leagues the rest of this season, and like the other rising prospects already in the big leagues, he will have a solid chunk of experience in the majors heading into 2012.

Another star prospect, San Diego's Anthony Rizzo, made his debut and immediately produced for the Padres, writes Bill Center. Rizzo contributed right away, writes Nick Canepa.

• Knowing CC Sabathia, my guess would be that David Ortiz getting hit by a pitch in the fourth inning on Thursday was retaliation for Alex Rodriguez getting hit in the third inning. You hit A-Rod, so we're going to drill your hottest hitter, who happens to be the bat-flip guy.

But in the players' perfect world, all of this would take place without any discussion or dissection or debate from the media, which is why Ortiz (and other Red Sox and Yankees) are angry that it all has drawn a lot of attention; Ortiz blamed the media for his getting drilled by a 97 mph fastball from CC Sabathia.

The big picture of this series is that Boston closed out a sweep, writes Mark Feinsand.

• Think about these numbers: On the days that Jonny Venters is pitching with zero days of rest (like on Thursday night), opposing hitters are 1-for-40 with 16 strikeouts.

It's almost incomprehensible how good that is.

Venters got the save in relief of Jair Jurrjens, as the Braves finished off a sweep of the Marlins.

Moves, deals and decisions

1. The scars from the firing of a coach did not heal overnight, writes Juan Rodriguez.

2. Prince Fielder hasn't been distracted by his impending free agency at all, as his manager noted.

3. Dan Uggla was benched again.

4. Charlie Blackmon is getting a chance to play.

5. The Phillies won't make a major move, says Ruben Amaro.

Dings and dents

1. Joe Mauer could be back, and it will be tough for him to battle injury and perception, writes Jim Souhan.

2. The Pirates joined the ranks of teams looking for catchers, in the aftermath of the announcement that Chris Snyder is out with a herniated disc.

3. Martin Prado wasn't able to start because of a knee problem.

4. Adam LaRoche doesn't know when he'll be able to play again.

5. Terry Francona expects Dustin Pedroia to play tonight.

6. Luke Gregerson landed on the disabled list.

7. The Tigers expect to get Magglio Ordonez back on Monday.

Thursday's games

1. Justin Verlander is putting on quite a show, writes Michael Rosenberg. Verlander has made 14 starts this year, and in 13 of those, he's allowed three earned runs or fewer. From ESPN Stats & Information: Verlander pitched eight innings as the Tigers downed the Mariners 4-1. It was Verlander's seventh game this season of 8-plus IP, the most in the majors.

Most games of 8+ IP this season:

Justin Verlander -- 7

Roy Halladay -- 6

Cole Hamels -- 5

Kyle Lohse -- 5

David Price -- 5

CC Sabathia -- 5

Most games with 10+ strikeouts (since 2009):

Tim Lincecum -- 18

Jon Lester -- 14

Cliff Lee -- 13

Justin Verlander -- 13*

* 10 strikeouts Thursday vs Mariners

How Verlander beat the Mariners:

A) Feel the breeze. Verlander recorded 24 swings and misses against the M's. That is the second-most in a game for any pitcher this season. Jered Weaver got 25 against the Blue Jays in April.

B) His breaking ball. On at-bats ending with curveballs, the Mariners were 1-for-10 (.100) with five strikeouts. That is the most curveball strikeouts for Verlander since he had six last Sept. 24. For the season, the opposition is hitting .111 against Verlander's curve.

C) Great starts. Verlander threw eight innings and retired the leadoff hitter in each frame.

2. Johnny Cueto was "the man" for the Reds.

3. The Diamondbacks won again on Thursday, with a lot of help from Micah Owings. Josh Collmenter, who started Thursday, is enjoying surprise success, as Doug Haller writes.

4. A questionable call went against the Rangers, writes Jeff Wilson.

5. Todd Helton and the Rockies rallied for a badly needed win, as Jim Armstrong writes.

6. Madison Bumgarner threw well but lost. The Giants need Pablo Sandoval back.

7. Lance Lynn picked up his first win.

8. Adam Dunn took a step forward, as the White Sox blasted Oakland.

9. Tyler Colvin came through for the Cubs, writes Paul Sullivan.

10. The Brewers had a rare hiccup at home.

11. The Phillies had one of those nights.

12. A Mets pitcher stepped up, as Andy Martino writes.

13. Matt Kemp did his part, again, but the Dodgers lost.

14. The Mariners had no answers against a dominant pitcher, as Geoff Baker writes.

15. Ricky Romero didn't get any breaks.

16. Alexi Casilla gave the Twins a chance to frolic.

The Patience Index

Other stuff

Jason Heyward will get some games in the minor leagues once he's ready to play, writes Jeff Schultz, who has Frank Wren's take on Chipper Jones' comments earlier this week. From the piece:

Braves general manager Frank Wren said Jones was merely "stating the obvious. We need Jason back in the lineup. I don't think he was calling him out."

He certainly did not suggest Heyward lacked toughness. But he chose his words carefully when asked if the club had any lingering concern that Heyward might not fully understand what injury he should or should not try to play through.

"I think that's the balancing act for all young players," he said. "Sometimes they're dealing with injuries and aches and pains they've never dealt with before. You don't want to mess with your career, so you've got to figure it out. That's one thing we're trying to help him work out - what can you play through and what can you make sure is healed before you play again."

I think what Chipper Jones has attempted to do, in this case, is what firemen might refer to as a controlled burn. He made a choice to say something he (and others) felt needed to be said to Heyward, but he also doesn't want five-alarm chaos, either. To repeat: The bottom line to all of this is that the Braves want and need Heyward back on the field.

Voters are selling Asdrubal Cabrera short.

Lance Berkman has lots of advice for the incoming Astros owner, writes Richard Justice.

Eli Whiteside is getting some support.

A new Rangers hitting coach is on the job.

Edgar Renteria picked up his World Series ring.

• Tony La Russa is set to manage in his 5,000th game.

• The Orioles' No. 1 pick has incredible talent.

• The Angels' offense is producing only frustration.

Joel Hanrahan measures success in cigars.

• The Pittsburgh dream staff may be reality, writes Ron Cook.

• A Dodgers reliever is trying to get a grip on his anxiety disorder, writes Bill Plaschke.

• The Nationals are looking into comments made by one of their draft picks.

• Playing hardball with Rays owner Stuart Sternberg will only lead to a problem, writes John Romano.

• Baseball needs to stop draft nepotism, writes David Haugh.

Vanderbilt expects to continue its march toward the College World Series.

And today will be better than yesterday.