Teams’ perpetual need for bullpen help turned into a bull market for relievers this winter. To date 17 relief pitchers have signed multi-year contracts, totaling $202.6 million. Only three of those pitchers — Mariano Rivera, J.J. Putz, and Kevin Gregg — will serve as his team’s regular closer. They account for $50 million, meaning that the remaining 14 middle relievers have combined for a $152.6 million pay day, and that just counts the multi-year crew. Finding value on the relief market has proven a bit tough this year, but there are a couple of remaining players who could provide a team with quality relief innings on the cheap.
There are, of course, no guarantees left on the free agent market. As Yankees GM Brian Cashman recently said, “If you’re still on the board, there’s a reason for it.” But that doesn’t mean there aren’t worthy gambles waiting for a deal. Two relievers jump out in this regard: Manny Delcarmen and Chad Durbin. Both have their flaws; if they didn’t they’d have signed by this point. But with other options dwindling, and perhaps gone, they represent two decent investments.
Durbin’s case is the stronger of the two. He’s coming off a season in which he pitched 68.2 innings with a 3.80 ERA, 3.97 FIP, and 4.19 xFIP, which plays nicely for a middle inning reliever. One key to his success was his strikeout rate, 8.26 per nine, which is considerably better than his 5.90 career K/9. Yet it is the second straight year in which he has struck out more than eight per nine. Even if he can’t sustain that rate, he proved in 2008 that he can succeed with a strikeout rate considerably lower. In that year he struck out 6.47 per nine and finished with a 2.87 ERA, 3.77 FIP, and 4.35 xFIP.
The biggest holdup with Durbin is his desire for a two-year contract. Given his track record and the amounts his peers signed for, this isn’t a surprising demand. But this deep in the hot stove season it’s unlikely that he’ll find a team willing to shell out for two years, especially considering his spotty track record, which includes a rough 2009 season in which he walked 6.07 per nine in 69.2 innings. But at one year around Chad Qualls‘s $2.55 million salary could be a bargain for a team still seeking relief help. At this point in the off-season, he might have to settle for even less, perhaps around Todd Coffey‘s $1.35 million. In any case, Durbin has shown that he can produce sufficient value in relief.
Manny Delcarmen’s case is a bit tougher, because he’s experienced two poor seasons in a row. Heading into 2009 it appeared he was on track to become one of Boston’s primary setup men. During the previous two seasons he’d pitched 118.1 innings to a 2.81 ERA and 3.34 FIP. He was striking out his share, keeping the ball in the park, and maintaining an acceptable walk rate. That changed in 2009, though, as he seemingly lost the strike zone and his ability to miss bats. After striking out 8.59 per nine in 2007 and 2008, Delcarmen struck out just 6.59 per nine in 112 innings during the last two seasons. His walk rate also jumped from 3.42 per nine to 5.30 per nine during that period.
How, then, does Delcarmen potentially represent a value signing? It’s all about the gamble. At age 29 he’s still young, and he still has some stuff to boast. His fastball velocity has dipped a bit in the last two years, but he still sits around 93. His problems have mostly centered on control, which is something he can, perhaps, improve. But the biggest factor is that he’s not going to earn much in 2011. He apparently has four teams interested, but I have to wonder if any are considering major league deals. If he does, chances are he won’t crack the million dollar mark. If he does mount a comeback, he’ll provide plenty of surplus value.
Both Durbin and Delcarmen have their downsides, and it’s clear that teams think the downside is the more likely scenario, or that the potential upside doesn’t match their contract demands. As we get closer to spring training that will change. Durbin and Delcarmen have the potential to outproduce many of the relievers who received two- and three-year deals this winter, and they can do it on the cheap. The risk level is higher, but so is the potential reward. A team wouldn’t do well to rely on one of these guys as a setup option in 2011, but as a middle reliever on a cheap contract, they could end up as two of the better value signings this winter.
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