Last night in Los Angeles, closer J.J. Putz came in for the bottom of the inning, after Paul Goldschmidt's two-run homer put the Diamondbacks ahead in the top of the ninth. But it was a brief appearance. Four pitches, all up, none of them near the strike-zone, and he had walked the lead-off hitter. A meeting on the mound also included the team trainer, Ken Crenshawm and after a discussion, Putz left the game accompanied by Crenshaw. Heath Bell, who had already warmed up to come in if the scored had been tied, took over quickly, and after opening with a wild pitch, retired three batters in order for the save.
Is it time for the annual Putz visit to the disabled list? That's a little cynical, as Putz got through last year without such a trip. But only a little: he has had five DL stints since the start of 2008, averaging 48 innings per full season since. Whatever happened, seems to have happened quickly. According to Putz, "Just felt stiff in my elbow and zings down my fingers, and I knew something wasn't right. It happened on the second pitch. I didn't know what that was. After it happened two more times, I figured probably should say something." Tests at the park were inconclusive, so a more detailed examination will happen today, which will hopefully shed some more light on things.
It was J.J.'s first appearance of May, Kirk Gibson having expressed concern about Putz's early-season workload, and saying he was "going to be more pro-active" about resting him, hinting that this might have been part of the reason for Putz's early-season struggles. While he has certainly had longer layoff before - he had three last year - those are usually ended with J.J. getting work in a non-save situation: could that possibly have been the difference here? You have to go back to August 2011 to find the last time Putz had such an extended break, then was asked to come and nail down the victory.
There's no shortage of possible replacements: I guess we can chalk up another win to Kevin Towers' policy of depth acquisition. It would seem likely that, in the event of an extended Putz absence, the bulk of any save opportunities will go to David Hernandez or Heath Bell, with the latter perhaps seeming more likely. Hernandez has experience - he notched 11 saves in 2011, during Putz's last trip to the DL, but things haven't gone as well for him this year. Hernandez has blown three saves, and has an ERA over seven in eight save situations, compared to 1.13 elsewhere.
Bell doesn't show the same split, and as noted previously, if you cross oft the performance on Opening Day, Bell has been solid. 10 scoreless appearances in 13 since then, a 2.77 ERA (even with a BABIP of .400 over that time) and a K:BB ratio of 18:2. Mentally he seems to be ready, saying "I feel like I'm back to my old self... Sliding right into a save opportunity. I've done it for four years. It's like getting on a bicycle or getting behind the wheel of the car, something like that." It may well depend, to a certain extent, on match-ups. We may even see Matt Reynolds, now possessor of the second-lost scoreless streak to open a season in D-backs history, if left-handed hitters are up.
As well as requiring some shuffling at the front of the bullpen, should Putz hit the DL, that would open up a slot at the back. Assuming we would go for a reliever, already on the 40-man roster, the four possible candidates are as follows, with a few thoughts on each.
- Eury de la Rosa: LHP, Reno - Got to be impressed with a 2.81 ERA in the Pacific Coast League. He has pitched 16 innings there, giving up five earned runs with a K:BB ratio of 16:5. Most of his appearances have been more than one inning.
- Will Harris: RHP, Reno - Claimed off waivers from the A's in April, Harris does have major-league experience, with 20 games for Oakland last year. He has 4.63 ERA over 12 games for the Aces, and a very impressive K-rate, with 23 strikeouts in 11.2 innings.
Joe Paterson: LHP, Reno - In mid-March, Kirk Gibson said of him, "He's certainly somebody that's going to play for us this year. Definitely." So, could that be now? He has been solid in Reno - a 4.20 ERA in 15 innings, with a 14:5 K:BB ratio.
- Eric Smith: RHP, Mobile - Smith has struggled in Double-A, with an 8.49 ERA over 11.2 innings of work, allowing 15 hits and two walks, with 11 strikeouts. Last year was his first full one as a reliever, and he had a good spring training, allowing one earned run in 6.1 innings.
We can likely cross Smith off at this point, but which of the other three gets the call may depend on what Gibson and Towers see as the team's needs. They may not wish to add a third left-hander to the bullpen, which would favor Harris - though, on the other hand, de la Rosa's ability to be extended could help with the relief corps' workload. It may also depend on the prognosis for Putz, and whether his replacement is here for only a couple of weeks, or the duration. It's definitely something on which we'll be keeping an eye.