Rarely does a pitcher grow up with the dream of working as a reliever, but as baseball evolves and the role of the bullpen becomes increasingly important, that may be starting to change. Many games are seemingly won or lost during key moments in the late innings, and a team that can trust its relief men -- whether left-handed specialists, enigmatic righties or fireballing closers -- has a great advantage over other teams.
These are the players who got their teams out of sticky situations time and time again, who soothed their fans when cardiac arrest seemed most imminent. Now those fans have the opportunity to pay their favorite top relief pitchers back, via casting a ballot in the 2010 MiLB Awards voting.
Yankees prospect Jonathan Albaladejo headlines the crop of Triple-A relievers after having set an International League record with 43 saves. The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre closer held opponents to a 1.70 batting average, finished with a 4-2 record and 1.42 ERA, and he closed out the Triple-A All-Star Game for good measure. The Rays' Winston Abreu enjoyed yet another phenomenal year out of the Durham 'pen, striking out 82 and walking 21 while going 0-4 with a 2.28 ERA and 23 saves. Abreu struck out the side in the ninth inning to pick up the win in the Bulls' only victory in the IL Finals. Craig Kimbrel was a rock for Gwinnett -- and Atlanta. The 5-foot-11 righty went 3-2 with a 1.62 ERA and 23 saves over 48 appearances in Triple-A and then 4-0 with an astounding 0.44 ERA over 21 games with the Braves. Kimbrel earned a save in his only Major League opportunity. Joel Peralta dazzled for Syracuse, walking just seven over 28 appearances and finishing with 20 saves, a 2-0 record and a 1.08 ERA. Norfolk's Dennis Sarfate struck out 72 and allowed just four home runs over 56 innings, and he saved 20 games while working toward a 2-2, 2.73 season. In the Pacific Coast League, Ernesto Frieri stood out as a feared bullpen presence before being promoted to San Diego. Frieri recorded 17 saves over 34 appearances, earning a 1.43 ERA and picking up 49 strikeouts along the way.
Daniel Moskos' 6 1/3 shutout innings and five saves in five chances in the playoffs helped the Altoona Curve claim the Eastern League title, and his 21 regular season saves helped them make it to the postseason in the first place. He went 3-1 with a 1.52 ERA over 37 Double-A appearances. Richmond's Rafael Cova beat Moskos out for most saves in the EL, though, closing the door 23 times. Unlucky Cova wound up with an 0-6 record, but his 2.35 ERA and .157 average against puts the blame for that on his team's shoulders. Pedro Beato sported a 4-0 record and 16 saves for Bowie while maintaining a 2.11 ERA. Southern League hitters were frustrated late in games by Montgomery's Matt Gorgen and Chattanooga's Jon Huber. Gorgen led the circuit with 22 saves, and he allowed a total of two home runs in 49 innings -- one factor in his 1.65 ERA. Huber, who was originally drafted in 2000 and is spending the winter pitching in Venezuela, struck out 48 in 36 appearances, earning 18 saves while going 3-3 with a 2.23 ERA. Brandon Gomes coasted out of the bullpen in the Texas League. The Missions reliever wasn't a closer -- he saved just one game -- but he ate up 72 1/3 innings over 51 appearances and walked away with a 7-2 record and a 1.87 ERA. He fanned 93 and issued just 25 free passes.
Charlotte's Zachary Quate was a big factor in the fact that the Stone Crabs led the Florida State League in ERA (3.06 as a team) and saves (49). The 2009 Draft product had a 1.49 ERA and saved 25 games, striking out 90 while walking only 18. Elsewhere in the Sunshine State, Matt Daly had a big season for Dunedin and ambidextrous Tampa reliever Pat Venditte continued to show incredible ability. Daly saved 31 games and had a 2.50 ERA. Venditte struck out 85 in 72 2/3 innings, going 4-1 with a 1.73 ERA and picking up six saves in 10 chances. In the the Cal League, which is often a challenge to young pitchers, Brad Brach set a record with 41 saves. He held hitters to a .207 batting average and was 5-2 with a 2.47 ERA. Carolina League hitters surely frowned when they saw either Kinston's Cory Burns or Lynchburg's Jordan Hotchkiss warming up. Burns saved 30 games for the K-Tribe, posting a 1.83 ERA, and Hotchkiss had a 2.30 ERA over his 31 appearances, which included 15 starts. He struck out 90 and walked 31.
Rays prospect Scott Shuman needed only 71 2/3 innings to pile up 111 strikeouts in the Midwest League. The Bowling Green righty also limited hitters to a .195 average and saved 14 games. Meanwhile, Steven Ames joined Great Lakes for his first stint above Rookie-level ball. Ames saved 16 games, posted a 2.54 ERA over 23 games and struck out 44 while walking just three. Cedar Rapids' John Hellweg and Fort Wayne's Miles Mikolas were also go-to guys in the Midwest League. Hellweg ended up with an anomalous 4.33 ERA, but he saved 16 games and limited opposing hitters to a .133 batting average. Mikolas was 6-3 with 13 saves and a 2.20 ERA. Jose Casilla posted a 1.16 ERA while picking up 14 saves for Augusta in the South Atlantic League. He was 4-1 over 46 appearances. Josh Zeid had 111 strikeouts over 107 1/3 innings of relief for Lakewood, and he struck out six over four crucial near-perfect innings in the BlueClaws' Sally League title clincher.
The Yakima Bears enjoyed knowing they could go to two dominant relievers in almost any situation: Kable Hogben and Eury De La Rosa. Hogben, a right-handed 20-year-old Australian, had an 0.72 ERA and 43 strikeouts over 28 appearances and earned 10 saves. De La Rosa, a 20-year-old Dominican southpaw, was 1-1 with nine saves, 56 strikeouts and a 1.00 ERA over 27 appearances. Ogden's Shawn Tolleson held Pioneer hitters to a .175 average, and he wound up with 16 saves and an 0.63 ERA. Staten Island's Chase Whitley turned some heads in the New York-Penn League, going 4-2 with a 1.31 ERA and nailing down 15 saves in 17 chances. The Appy League champion Johnson City Cardinals relied on Hector Corpas, who saved 17 games, had a 2.13 ERA and struck out 27 over 25 1/3 innings. Bruce Rondon smothered the Gulf Coast League, putting up a 0.70 ERA over 24 games. He had 15 saves.