Angels have weak link at closer

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Fuentes_Brian.standard[1].jpgThe Los Angeles Angels look like a solid championship contender this season.

They’ve got a good offense (1st in AL in hitting, 2nd in runs), speed on the bases (2nd in steals), a decent defense (6th in UZR) and a solid starting rotation that has improved with the addition of Scott Kazmir.

The weakness, if they have one, seems to be at closer, where the Angels replaced the record-setting (and expensive) Francisco Rodriguez with the crafty (and less expensive) journeyman Brian Fuentes.

Fuentes hasn’t been a disaster, saving 41 games. But he has blown seven save opportunities and been shaky enough at times to prompt manager Mike Scioscia to give rookie Kevin Jepsen some time in the ninth inning.

So, should the Angels replace Fuentes?

(Note: We’re not going to pin Wednesday night’s loss entirely on Fuentes, as he did have Nick Green struck out twice, only to be foiled by bad calls)

Eno Sarris breaks down the problem nicely over at Fangraphs, pointing out that Fuentes has pretty much given up on his curveball, and has lost velocity – and perhaps most alarmingly, a ton of movement – on his slider.

A case could certainly be made that Jepsen would make a better closer than Fuentes.

Jepsen does own the blazing fastball of a traditional closer (96.4 MPH this year), and with his two primary pitches coming down the pipe over 90 MPH (he owns a 90 MPH cutter that’s been worth 2.5 runs this year) he is a decent change of pace from Fuentes.

In fact, Jepsen profiles very differently from Fuentes in other ways. Fuentes is more of a fly-baller (46.9% fly balls), while Jepsen is inducing ground balls in bunches this year (58.6% ground balls). Jepsen is doing a great job supressing line drives (13.6%), and batters are centering Fuentes better (17.5%).

The big question is if Jepsen can continue to keep his walk rate down, as it was a bit of an issue in the minor leagues, and how well he can adjust to playoff pressure as a closer. For his part, he says he’s ready.

“Everybody has to have their first playoff experience — you’ve got to start somewhere,” said Jepsen, the setup man who has emerged as the team’s top reliever in the second half. “I can’t wait. I feel like I will feed off the energy, whether we’re home or away.”

I think it would be wise for Scioscia to take a long look at Jepsen down the stretch this month, and if he continues to look good, at least consider using both pitchers in save situations. Can’t hurt to have some insurance.

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Cubs won’t make Kyle Schwarber available in trade talks

Kyle Schwarber
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Bob Nightengale of USA Today reports that the Cubs won’t deal Kyle Schwarber this winter, despite multiple inquires from teams around the league. Schwarber is approaching his first year of arbitration and will remain under team control for another three seasons before reaching free agency in 2022.

The decision comes on the heels of one of the strongest seasons of the 25-year-old outfielder’s short career. Over 137 games and 510 PA for the Cubs, he proved a passable defender in left field and batted .238/.356/.467 with 26 home runs, an .823 OPS, and 3.2 fWAR in 2018. He also led the National League in intentional walks, with 20, and bumped up his total walks from 59 in 2017 to 78.

Despite his marked improvements from previous years, Schwarber’s performance still left something to be desired — specifically against left-handed pitchers, who held the slugger to a paltry .224/.352/.303 with four extra-base hits across 91 PA. Still, it’s evident the Cubs feel Schwarber is capable of strengthening his splits in the years to come, and they might stand to get more value from him on the field than they would in a trade this offseason.

Of course, that’s not to say the Cubs intend to pass the Winter Meetings in total silence, especially as they’ll be seeking bullpen and catching depth in advance of their 2019 run at the division title. As club president Theo Epstein remarked last week, “We’re certainly open and active in trade talks with a lot of deals that usually don’t come to fruition. So, we may make some trades. We could make big ones that transform the roster. We may make smaller complementary ones. But there’s certain things we’d like to accomplish.”