Free Agent Market: Relief Pitcher

By my count there are about 55 relievers that are set to hit free agency this offseason (depending on how many options are exercised). I’m not sure it makes sense to analyze all 55 relievers so instead I will take a look at a handful of interesting cases.

Over the last five years only two relievers have averaged more than two wins above replacement; one of them is the greatest closer of all time (Mariano Rivera), the other is Jonathan Papelbon. This can be read two ways: 1) Relievers in general are not that valuable (and are often overpaid), and 2) relievers are volatile and struggle to stay significantly above replacement for an extended period.

Elite Reliever(s) (Worthy of multi-year multi-million dollar contracts)

Jonathan Papelbon is far and away the best reliever to hit free agency this offseason. Papelbon posted three wins above replacement for the second time in his career. In addition to his three WAR, he had a career best 1.53 FIP. At 31, he is still very much in his prime (he is throwing as hard as ever) and is one of the few relievers set to hit free agency worthy of a long-term deal. After Papelbon, the list of free agents drops off.

Good Relievers (Potential to put 2+ WAR season, but very unlikely to sustain that production over multiple years)

Ryan Madson is perhaps the second best reliever on the free agent market this year. Over the past three years he has posted an impressive 2.74 FIP (better than Rivera, Papelbon and Brian Wilson over that span). At 31, he is still young enough to justify a multi-year deal. His velocity has taken a bit of a dip since 2009, but this should be of little concern considering he still throws the ball in the mid-90s.

Coming off of two consecutive 2+ WAR years, Heath Bell was barely above replacement this past year. It is far too soon though to write off Mr. Bell. Relievers are volatile, and Bell has enough of a track record that there is no sense in discounting him for one down year. Fortunately for him, he got his saves and kept his ERA low, meaning that a team will likely award him a healthy contract.

Question Marks

One of the most interesting free agent relievers this year is Francisco Rodriguez. His actions off the field could make teams hesitant to sign him. He is not the pitcher he used to by as Ryan Martin wrote earlier, but he is still effective, and capable of giving a team a lot of innings out of the pen.

Joe Nathan should also prove to be an interesting free agent this year. Before undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2010, Nathan was widely considered one of the best closers in baseball. In his brief stint this year, he showed some signs of his old self, though his velocity was not what it used to be. At 36, Nathan should have a couple more productive years left in his tank. He could prove to be a steal for some team.

Jonathan Broxton could potentially be a sleeper this offseason. I’m not sure where he belongs in terms of category, but he has had amazing success in the past, and though he is coming off of a terrible year, and elbow surgery, for the right price he could be a great buy.

The players below should not get long-term deals, but inevitably some of them will.

Near replacement level RHRs

Jeremy Accardo, Luis Ayala, Danys Baez, Miguel Batista, Shawn Camp, Todd Coffey, Francisco Cordero, Juan Cruz, Octavio Dotel, Chad Durbin, Jeff Fulchino, Frank Francisco, Juan Gutierrez, LaTroy Hawkins, Aaron Heilman, Ryota Igarashi, Jason Isringhausen, Brad Lidge, Scott Linebrink, Mike MacDougal, Guillermo Mota, Micah Owings, Tony Pena, Chad Qualls, Jon Rauch, Fernando Rodney, Takashi Saito, Dan Wheeler, Kerry Wood, Jamey Wright, Michael Wuertz and Joel Zumaya.

Near replacement level LHRs

Jeremy Affeldt, Mike Gonzalez, John Grabow, Javier Lopez, Trever Miller, Hideki Okajima, Arthur Rhodes, J.C. Romero and George Sherrill.

Other Notes:

Rafael Soriano has a player option with the New York Yankees, and could opt for free agency this year. This seems highly unlikely given the fact that if he doesn’t opt out he stand to make $11million next year. This is a classic example of teams way overpaying for relievers (though in Brian Cashman’s defense he didn’t like the signing from the beginning).

Brian Tallet should probably not be signed.




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38 Responses to “Free Agent Market: Relief Pitcher”

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  1. Tanner Scheppers says:

    Where does Darren Oliver fit? Despite his age, he seems to be one of the top LHR options.

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    • Tanner Scheppers says:

      To put him in context of the names mentioned, his WAR over the past two seasons (the common stat of the article) is right in line with K-Rod, Heath Bell, and Ryan Madson at 2.9

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    • Noah Isaacs says:

      He is 41, but honestly he has been (emphasis on been) one of the better lefty options over the past couple of years. There is no denying his past performance, but I’m not sure which category a 41YO reliever that throws in the mid-high 80s belongs. It’s a great question, I wish I had the answer.

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  2. Chair says:

    Um, Jonathon Broxton?

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    • Noah Isaacs says:

      Could be a sleeper, but last year was very concerning. His velocity was way down, and coming off of elbow surgery, it is hard to trust him until we see him pitch again.

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    • Noah Isaacs says:

      Point taken – see bottom note.

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      • Chair says:

        Sorry if I seem too critical. I like how everything else in this article was formatted and organized. Makes sense to split up the left handed and right handed relievers, since that’s how interested teams are going to be looking at them. I would have done the same for the outfield free agent piece, as most of the free agents are no more than 4th outfielders/platoon men, teams are going to be paying attention to their handedness.

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  3. Josh says:

    be careful with the following.
    You said:
    “In addition to his three WAR, he had a career best 1.53 FIP.”

    This above is a mistaken statement. He had 3 WAR because he had 1.53 FIP in his innings pitched.

    Doesn’t Fangraphs base WAR on FIP?

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    • Noah Isaacs says:

      He had a 3 WAR because he was able to sustain a 1.53 FIP over 67 innings. Romo had a .96 FIP this year, but was less valuable because he didn’t pitch as much. FIP does not equal WAR. Also, I think WAR is any easier stat to internalize, but both are important in evaluating pitchers.

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  4. barkey Walker says:

    “[Joe Nathan] could prove to be a steal for some team.” Uh, no. The Twins are closer obsessed. They will probably resign him and two other closer for a grand total of $25M/yr.

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    • James says:

      I would prefer that to the White Sox anti-closer approach, which resulted in a number of blown saves to start the season and set the tone for a disastrous season.

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      • barkey Walker says:

        You think I’m joking but the Twins payed $17.5 M in 2011 for 29 saves from Capps and Nathan and then thought about trading Denard Span for the second best relief pitcher on the Nats who was, “a closer”.

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  5. Robbie G. says:

    Why any team would spend a massive sum of money on an individual relief pitcher after witnessing Tampa Bay throw together a cost-effective and overall effective bullpen is beyond me, but it will surely happen. All owners of MLB teams should be pointing to what Tampa Bay is doing on a small budget and ask management, “Why can’t we do that?”

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    • Dekker says:

      Teams are getting better about overpaying for relievers. Heath Bell didn’t even get traded in his walk year.

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    • vivalajeter says:

      Robbie, the difficult part is figuring out if TB is really good at putting together a cheap bullpen, or if they just got lucky. Every year there are scrap-heap relievers that do well. Hit on 2-3 of them, and you look great. Don’t hit on them, and you look like fools.

      Some deals are downright stupid, like paying good money for average relievers. But I can see why a contender would pay a premium for a known quantity.

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      • Bill says:

        I read an article here one time about this very situation. Relievers are freely available. A team like Tampa will throw them out to pitch and if they aren’t any good, they go with another cheap asset and hope it works out. Eventually, they will assemble a pretty good bullpen. The problem is that they could lose a lot of games before they get to this point. A team like New York does not want to lose these games because, with their team salary, they can throw away money on relievers if only to get relievers that have an increased chance of being good.

        A team like Baltimore or KC has no business buying relievers as losing a few more games while building their bullpen is not really a problem.

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      • vivalajeter says:

        Bill, I agree with you on that. It doesn’t make sense for a bad, low-budget team to overpay for a closer. For a contender it’s another story.

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  6. SC2GG says:

    I’m pleasantly surprised that Brian Tallet got a mention, because it was a mention of ineptitude. That guy has cursed the Jays long enough!

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  7. LTG says:

    What evidence is there that Madson won’t sustain his current production over a reasonable multi-year contract? Since this seems to be the only thing that separates Madson from Papelbon in your analysis, it would help if you gave an explicit reason (especially since Madson’s FIP is better than Papelbon’s over the last 3 years). Is it just that Madson has gone from being a mid-90s thrower who occasionally hit the upper-90s to a mid-90s thrower who doesn’t get any higher?

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  8. Aaron says:

    Is Koji Uehara a free agent? He could make for a fantastic acquisition for somebody, especially a team in a big ballpark where his FB tendencies would be less dangerous.

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    • Noah Isaacs says:

      He has a vesting option for 2012 based on games finished. I think (based on the fact that he is not listed on some Free Agent lists) that his option vested and that he will not be a free agent in 2012.

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  9. gus says:

    So, I take it Brandon League falls into the “near replacement level” bin. Or middle of the road?

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    • Nathaniel Dawson says:

      Brandon League is not a free agent, at least not at this time. He’s headed into his final arbitration season, and will almost certainly be tendered by Seattle.

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  10. kick me in the GO NATS says:

    As a NATS fan since day one, it is sad to see Luis Ayala listed as replacement level. Prior to the fist WBC he was an outstanding reliever, but he injured his arm at the WBC. We could have one a game or two more most of the last 5 seasons had he stayed healthy.

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  11. ray says:

    very good article and I agree closers and Bull pens are very hard to get right
    plainly though Papelbon is a good choice–Broxton could be a sleeper also for the right price and maybe Krod but I would have to see that he is ok mentally as well as phisically and no more than 2 years @ 5 million per year at the most-Madson could be good but about 5.5 million at 2 years also–Bull pen is tuff and sometimes its better to go with rookies and no-names–After you have a good closer and setup guy it is a crapshoot–I would consult everyone of my coaches and GM to

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  12. valencia says:

    Didn’t the playoffs show why contenders like to overpay for relievers? Relievers matter more in the post-season than they do in the regular season, and if you’re a contender it might be a good idea to get a few top-tier relievers.

    Also a lot of teams have no idea how to build an effective bullpen. Those teams tend to also spend a bunch of money on bullpen arms. These teams are also usually small-market and bad (*cough* Houston *cough*)

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    • gu03alum says:

      The only reason relievers matter so much this year is because the team’s with good starting pitching got knocked out early. What worked this year will not necessarily be a template of success next season.

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  13. Silencio says:

    According to Cots both the Rockies pitchers you mentioned are not free agents.

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  14. Noah Isaacs says:

    It appears that you are correct. Sorry for the mix-up. They’re both set to be Free Agents in ’13, I must’ve jumped the gun – I won’t let that happen again, but good catch.

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  15. aj says:

    Spending money on elite relivers is smart spending much of anything on average->barely good relievers is retarded. Growing them is far more logical, look what the padre’s do they constantly have among the best bullpens put together by spare parts and arb eligible players. The plan they run is not “luck” either since towers went to Arizona and put together a pretty good bullpen after the huge mess Arizona’s was last year. Hell if you grow enough you can trade a few of your extra’s to desperate teams for players like Maybin or (Nats traded for him) Ramos.

    Step 1 collect live arms(usually flawed ones teams undervalue), step 2 run them as starters til upper minors then let them loose in ml bullpen, or convert failed starters with good stuff to relievers. step 3 collect nearly free above replacement lvl bullpen work.

    Like honestly if i was a team i would take a shot on Kyle Davies from the royals put him in the pen and see if it works, guy has decent stuff im sure he would be replacement level atleast. Pretty sure he’ll get non tendered this offseason too.

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  16. aj says:

    Best thing about the entire “plan” if you fail on 10+players in this mold you will still spend millions less then the O’s are paying for Gregg and his “closer mentality”.

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