DIVISIONAL OUTLOOK: AL East—Uehara tightens grip on closer role

Boston Red Sox

When Junichi Tazawa (RHP, BOS) was previously tapped to fill in as the Red Sox closer, the team bypassed  Koji Uehara (RHP, BOS), saying they had to manage his workload. If the Red Sox ever harbored such concerns (and an “F” health grade suggests they should), they appear to be over them, as Uehara notched saves on three straight days June 26-28 in impressive fashion. In each outing, Uehara struck out two without walking a batter or allowing a hit.

Meanwhile, former closer Andrew Bailey (RHP, BOS) has entered games with one-run leads in his last two outings and promptly surrendered those leads, most recently on a solo HR by Edwin Encarnacion (TOR, DH).

One has to figure that the stark contrast cannot help but increase the distance between the two pitchers in manager John Farrell’s mind. There is plenty of baseball to be played in the 2013 season, to be sure, and a role reversal down the line is certainly a possibility. But chances are increasing that it may merely be a matter of Uehara’s body holding up to keep the saves rolling in.

The Red Sox got slightly favorable news about the injury to Clay Buchholz (RHP, BOS) this week. An MRI revealed that he has no structural issues with his shoulder, just inflammation in his bursa sac. Still, there is growing doubt as to whether Buchholz will return before the All-Star Break.

Allen Webster (RHPBOS) has been drawing starts in Buchholz’s place, most recently going 6 IP with 4 ER in a no-decision against the Blue Jays June 28. Alfredo Aceves (RHPBOS) looked poised to supplant Webster, but Aceves followed up a strong start at AAA-Pawtucket (8 IP, 1 ER, 7 K) with a mediocre one (5 IP, 5 ER), leaving the situation murky.


Baltimore Orioles

Given the way Kevin Gausman (RHP, BAL) earned his first major-league win—4.1 scoreless innings of relief (0 BB, 4 K)—a return to the rotation may be right around the corner. Gausman was backing up T.J. McFarland (LHP, BAL), who got the initial call to replace Freddy Garcia (RHP, BAL) in the rotation June 28.

Garcia, who was designated for assignment by the Orioles early last week, agreed to remain with the organization. He will provide organizational depth and pitch in AAA-Norfolk for now.

As evidenced by his 4.01 xERA, Gausman deserved better than the results from his first tour of the major leagues. He has been victimized by a 34% H% and 61% S%. A young pitcher with such promise might be hard to pry away in keeper leagues, but in deep single-year leagues, he might be an interesting buy low, given his ugly surface stats and perceived uncertainty in his role.

Also June 28, Tommy Hunter (RHP, BAL) was left in to get a two-inning save in a one-run game, which to outsiders suggested a a bit of shaken faith in closer Jim Johnson (RHP, BAL) after his June 26 loss.

After the game, however, manager Buck Showalter claimed that there is no closer controversy brewing, that he had told Johnson he was not going to use him, because Johnson had pitched three days in a row June 24-26. Nonetheless, the blown save was Johnson’s fifth of the season, matching his high water mark as an Oriole. Johnson had already exceeded the three blown saves he had posted in his stellar 51-save season last year.

Hunter has been helped this season by a 21% H% and 88% S%, but he has pitched well (3.55 xERA, 106 BPV). It’s not at all clear, however, that Hunter is the Orioles’ “Plan B,” given that Darren O’Day (RHP, BAL) has been equally effective (3.23 xERA, 129 BPV).


New York Yankees

As Playing Time analyst Matt Dodge suggested, Zolio Almonte (OF, NYY) seized the opportunity in the Yankees outfield. Entering Sunday, Almonte was 9 for 29 and started in all of the team’s games since June 21. While he has stolen two bases in that time, Almonte does not figure to be a prolific base stealer, having swiped 18 and 15 in his last two minor-league seasons over 400-plus ABs.

The player most impacted by Almonte’s emergence figures to be Vernon Wells (OF, NYY). Wells has shown faint signs of snapping out of his prolonged funk recently, though it may be wise for the team to set Wells up to face LHPs (+28 points of BA in his career).

There may be a perception in some quarters that Andy Pettitte (LHP, NYY) is “struggling,” but his last two starts have actually been PQS-DOM. There are plenty of reasons owners maybe down on Pettitte, including his recent results, his age and the looming shadow of Michael Pineda (RHP, NYY), who had a tantalizing rehabilitation start for AA-Trenton June 25 (6 IP, 0 ER, 2 H, 2 BB, 4 K).

The Yankees’ offensive woes notwithstanding, they are likely to hang around the playoff picture at least for a while longer, meaning they are likely to continue to rely on their remaining healthy veterans like Pettitte. Given that Pettitte’s skills look fine (3.79 xERA, 89 BPV), it might be worth checking in with your league’s Pettitte owner to see if a buy-low opportunity exists.


Tampa Bay Rays

After ripping through a rehabilitation appearance at High-A Charlotte on June 26 (5 IP, 0 ER, 2 H, 1 BB, 8 K), David Price (LHP, TAM) will reportedly be activated in time to face the Astros July 2, in what figures to be a favorable matchup.

Before missing a month and a half with a triceps injury, Price had experienced poor results.  But aside from a slight dip in strikeout rate, his skills were right on par with his recent history. If Price is as healthy as he seemed to be in his most recent rehab outing, there is every reason to expect a big second half.

Price’s return is likely to supplant one of two young pitchers, Chris Archer (RHP, TAM) or Alex Colome (RHP, TAM), and owners should not be surprised if it is Colome who is sent back to the minors for more seasoning, despite a stellar 2.25 ERA. As noted in this space last week, Colome was spared ERA damage in his first start by some excellent relief work by Alex Torres (LHP, TAM). Archer, meanwhile, showed improved control in his most recent start June 23, notching a win with a PQS-5 against the Yankees.

An intriguing injury situation to watch is the plantar fasciitis of Evan Longoria (3B, TOR), which caused him to sit out this past weekend. Until news of the foot injury surfaced a couple of weeks ago, it appeared that Longoria was poised to deliver finally on the “40-HR potential” highlighted in the Baseball Forecaster. The new concerns are yet another reminder that fantasy owners often look past “F” health grades to their peril.

If Longoria is forced to miss any significant amount of time, it could allow Kelly Johnson (2B, TAM) to recoup some of the playing time he has lost due both to the arrival of Wil Myers (OF, TAM) and his own struggles (7-for-69 since May 30).


Toronto Blue Jays

Lost a bit in the resurgence of the Blue Jays is that they have resurrected their season largely without the help of one of their best hitters, Jose Bautista (OF, TOR). Bautista is mired in a deep slump (19-for-114, .167, over the last month; only two extra-base hits since June 4). A 17% h% is certainly part of the reason for the dry spell, but Bautista also seems to be pressing a bit, as his normally double-digit walk rate has dipped to 8% this month. And, while no one has suggested that Bautista is hurt, a power outage like the one Bautista has experienced in after off-season wrist surgery does tend to plant a bit of a seed of doubt that he can recover.

Brett Lawrie (3B, TOR) has made it back to the field, starting a rehabilitation stint at High-A Dunedin on June 26. However, the team is said it will take it slow with Lawrie, bringing him back only after his rehabilitation assignment ends, and even then, only if he was hitting well. As a result, the earliest Lawrie will be back is after the All-Star break.

Until then, there will continue to be spots in the infield for both Emilio Bonifacio (IF, TOR) and Maicer Izturis (IF, TOR) at 2B and 3B. Izturis’ bat has begun to come around of late, and a .283 xBA says that further favorable correction may be ahead. Bonifacio’s low BA is more “deserved,” given his skills, but unlike Izturis, whose SB total is still stuck at 0, Bonifacio is at least running (41% SBO%, 60% over the last month).

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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.