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2021 Arizona Diamondbacks Reviews, #30: J.B. Wendelken

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Wendelken joined the Diamondbacks late in the season as a waiver claim from Oakland and managed to be slightly better than a dumpster fire over 20 games.

Atlanta Braves v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Kelsey Grant/Getty Images
  • Rating: 3.78
  • Age: 28
  • 2021 Stats w/ AZ: 20 G, 2-2, 4.34 ERA, 18 23 IP, 13 K, 9 BB, 0.2 bWAR
  • 2021 Earnings: $580.5K (Pre-Arb 3)
  • 2022 Status: 40-Man Roster; likely a key component of the bullpen after signing a 1-year, $835k contract

Intro

Jeffrey Benjamin “J.B.” Wendelken was originally a 13th round selection by the Boston Red Sox out of Middle Georgia State, but got traded twice before making his debut with the Oakland Athletics in 2016. After missing 2017 with Tommy John surgery, Wendelken resurfaced with Oakland as a middle inning reliever and posted decent surface numbers across the board in 2018-20, en route to roughly 1.7 bWAR over that stretch.

2021 Recap

However things weren’t as good in 2021. With Wendelken out of options and Oakland facing a roster crunch trying to stay alive in the AL Wildcard Race, the A’s elected to designate him for assignment. Wendelken hadn’t pitched terribly but saw his strikeout rate drop from 29% to 22% while seeing his walk rate increase to 11% and hard hit rate to 35%. With how analytically inclined the A’s are, they saw that as a troublesome sign or simply that a replacement level reliever with more roster flexibility was better off keeping.

The Diamondbacks quickly claimed him off outright waivers on August 11th and inserted him into the bullpen. His overall peripherals improved a little bit, as his hard hit rate in Arizona was less than in Oakland despite seeing another drop in strikeouts. With the D-backs bullpen woes, stemming from a lack of power arms, the team quickly looked to him as a potential back-end option. Wendelken fared alright in the role, but nothing special as he had a 0.35 WPA/LI and a 8/3 shutdown to meltdown ratio. Given the dumpster fire of the 2021 D-backs bullpen, being simply OK felt like an upgrade.

2022 Outlook

In his first season of arbitration eligibility, the D-backs elected to sign Wendelken to a 1-year, $835k contract to have some bullpen versatility. Based on how last season ended, there’s a good chance that Wendelken could be asked to protect late leads ahead of Noe Ramirez in the 8th and the recently signed closer Mark Melancon, who will get the 9th. With no minor league options left the team does not have the flexibility to send him up and down, but you’re hoping he doesn’t need to be moved too much. In addition, the $835k salary number is not too prohibitive for the team to move on should Wendelken struggle to provide any value in the bullpen. Most projections have Wendelken as a league-average reliever, although I think there are ways the team can get some success out of him.

The key for the Diamondbacks will be to minimize his exposure to left-handed batters. Wendelken features an above-average fastball (4 and 2-seam) and a quality slider, which makes him a tough match-up against right handed hitters (.230/.294/.350) but also vulnerable against lefties (.292/.400/.403). With that in mind, Torey Lovullo probably needs to pick and choose his spots on when to utilize Wendelken as opposed to slotting him in the 6th or 7th inning and hoping for the best. Such opportunities will include using him to get out of jams with a right-handed hitter up at the plate or having him open up an inning with a string of righties set to bat. If they can put Wendelken in positions to succeed, he will provide decent value out of the bullpen.

Any sort of team improvement in 2022 involves better production out of the bullpen, which includes Wendelken coming in somewhere between his 2020 and 2021 production. He’s a likely lock to start the season the D-backs bullpen and provide somewhere around 50-60 innings for the team as a middle inning/match-up guy. If he can be anything above a dumpster fire, we’ll be revisiting this again as Wendelken goes through his second arbitration season.