After improving its starting rotation with the acquisitions of Shaun Marcum and Zack Greinke, the Brewers have moved onto other aspects of team building. On offense the team appears set, as they’re returning seven of the eight starters who contributed to the team’s 110 wRC+ last season, which ranked third in the majors. Where the team could use some fortification is in the bullpen. It has addressed this by signing Takashi Saito to a one-year contract.
While Saito, who will turn 41 as spring training commences, has dominated opposing hitters since coming stateside in 2006, he represents a significant health risk. You might remember the story of how he pitched in the 2008 NLDS despite suffering a mid-July elbow injury that normally would have required Tommy John surgery. Saito instead had Dr. Neal ElAttrache inject platelet-rich plasma into his elbow, which helped spur the healing process. Saito was remarkably bad in that NLDS, allowing a hit to each of the three batters he faced. But he did appear to be a viable option for 2009.
The Dodgers non-tendered Saito after 2009, and the Red Sox took a chance on him. While he got off to a slow start during his American League debut, he improved after April and ended up as one of Boston’s more reliable relievers by season’s end. That earned him a one-year, $3.2 million contract with the Braves. There he flat-out dominated, striking out 11.5 per nine on his way to a 2.83 ERA and 2.43 WHIP. Still, the injury concerns persisted. Saito suffered a hamstring injury that kept him out for nearly three weeks in June, and then missed the final two weeks of the season, save for one appearance, with shoulder inflammation. At age 41 it’s hard to imagine that he’s going to hold up any better in 2011.
The Brewers had something of an underrated bullpen in 2010. While the unit ranked 26th in the league in ERA it fared much better in the peripheral categories: 8th in FIP, 5th in xFIP, and 10th in tERA. In other words, if not for a strand rate that ranked fourth worst in baseball, we might see the Brewers bullpen in a different light. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t use some fortification. Much of the pen’s success came from a pair of rookies, John Axford and Zach Braddock, so signing Saito helps hedge against either of them slipping in 2011. He can also more than capably fill a portion of the innings that Todd Coffey pitched in 2010.
When a team signals that it’s going all-in for a season, it can justify taking bigger risks than other teams. Saito’s age and health certainly present concerns, but the Brewers can certainly justify the signing. If the deal works out as hoped they’ll be on the hook for around $3.2 million. But since some portion of that $3.2 million comes through bonuses, if the deal busts then Milwaukee won’t be out quite as much. For a team with so much riding on a single season, signing Saito makes plenty of sense.