Yesterday, Dave Cameron examined the grim history of 3+ year contracts dished out to free agent relievers over the past four off-seasons. The Cliff Notes version? Those ‘pen arms, save for the anomaly that is Mariano Rivera, have provided a paltry return on investment for their respective teams. After a few years of fiscal restraint, four relievers have received ample job security from clubs this winter: Joaquin Benoit (Tigers), Scott Downs (Angels), Matt Guerrier (Dodgers), and Jesse Crain (White Sox) all signed three-year contracts. If recent history is any indication, a few of these deals might elicit more forehead slaps than high-fives in front offices over the next three seasons.
In contrast to the long-term commitments given by the Tigers, Angels, Dodgers and White Sox, the Cubs and Rays each added a talented reliever for peanuts on Thursday. Kerry Wood will reportedly return to Wrigley Field on a one-year, $1.5 million deal. Joel Peralta, curiously non-tendered by the Nationals after a season in which he posted a 3.02 FIP and a 3.64 xFIP, is on the verge of signing a one-year contract with Tampa Bay for $900,000. Take a look at the 2011 Bill James projections for Wood and Peralta, compared to their much pricier free agent peers:
There’s not much separating the guys who are locked up through 2013 for a hefty sum of money from the guys who signed for table scraps. It’s true, Wood and Peralta are far from sure-fire success stories. In a 2010 season split between the Indians and the Yankees, Wood was limited to 46 innings pitched due to DL stints for a strained muscle in his upper back and a blister on his index finger. He has been placed on the DL 14 times during his career. Peralta is one of the most extreme fly ball pitchers in the game — his career ground ball rate is 32.5 percent — and he’ll likely surrender more homers next season.
But it’s not as though the three-year relievers are without their flaws: Benoit has a history of shoulder and elbow problems, Downs has missed time in recent years with ankle, toe and hamstring issues, and Crain has a labrum surgery and another DL stint for shoulder tendinitis in his past. Guerrier has pitched above his peripheral stats, but do you really want to wager that his BABIP will remain below .240 in Dodger Blue? There’s uncertainty for both the bargain-basement and big-money relievers. But if Wood and Peralta get hurt or fizzle out next year, their teams can move on without much pain. If injury or performance issues creep up for the three-year guys, their teams have long-term headaches to deal with. Not that the money involved would cripple them, but no one likes to burn payroll on an employee who contributes about as much as Stanley Hudson on The Office.
And, in the case of Peralta, there are circumstances that could mitigate some of the worries over his fly ball tendencies. Peralta will be backed by an outfield featuring some permutation of Desmond Jennings, B.J. Upton, Matt Joyce and Ben Zobrist. Carl Crawford‘s gone, but these guys have plenty of range. Plus, Tropicana Field takes the juice out of power hitters: according to StatCorner, the land of the cowbells decreases lefty home run production by 11 percent and righty homers by six percent.
Given the information that we have at our disposal, there’s little separating Wood and Peralta from the three-year reliever club, other than cash and commitment length. Kudos to the Cubs and Rays for adding quality bullpen pieces without paying a premium price over a number of years for a volatile type of free agent.