Ben Nicholson-Smith is a staff writer for MLBTradeRumors.com. This piece is a continuing series of guest posts he’s written for the site. You can check out the rest of his work over at MLBTR on a regular basis.
Andrew Friedman knows all about the market for relief pitchers. Rafael Soriano, Grant Balfour, Randy Choate and just about every other one of Tampa’s late-inning options recently left via free agency, so the Rays executive VP of baseball operations spent much of the winter restocking his bullpen. And to hear Friedman tell it, the market for relievers went “out of control” this offseason. The numbers back it up. Eight relievers signed multiyear deals last winter. More than twice as many relievers – 17 – have already signed multiyear deals this winter.
So who’s responsible for the jump in multiyear deals for relievers? The owners have been spending big in general this winter and they’re probably largely responsible for the increased spending on bullpens. If owners are willing to spend more, all players, including relief pitchers, benefit, even if relievers don’t generally make good long term investments.
Along with owners, players and agents can shape offseason spending, so it’s tempting to argue that Joaquin Benoit and his representatives at ACES set the market for relievers this winter. Benoit, after all, signed for an unexpectedly large guarantee early in the offseason. Just three days after Jose Contreras became the first reliever of the winter to sign a multiyear deal, Benoit agreed to terms on a three-year, $16.5 million contract with the Tigers.
Many similar relievers went on to sign multiyear deals, so Benoit gets his share of the credit for the burst in spending on bullpens, but it’s hard not to wonder if Brandon Lyon might have set his fellow relievers up, too. Last offseason, Lyon signed a three-year, $15 million deal that turned out to be the biggest deal a reliever signed that winter in terms of guaranteed money.
When the Astros signed Lyon, the move was widely panned (including at FanGraphs and at MLBTR). This winter, Lyon’s deal would have stood out less, since middle relievers obtained multiyear deals left and right and many of them signed deals that compare with Lyon’s.
Like Lyon, Benoit, Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain and J.J. Putz are right-handed relievers who hit free agency after completing strong seasons as non-closing relievers. None of them were tied to draft pick compensation and they all secured multiyear contracts.
Back in his 2009 walk year, Lyon was lucky with batting average in balls in play. Opponents posted a .226 batting average on balls in play against him, and he posted a shiny 2.86 ERA. Lyon was lucky again in 2010, this time with his home run to fly ball ratio. No pitcher with as many innings pitched as Lyon (78) allowed fewer home runs per fly ball (Lyon allowed homers on a career-low 2.1% of fly balls he induced last year).
Lyon was durable in 2010 and his numbers look good, if not particularly sustainable. Lyon wasn’t looking for a new contract, but his solid numbers likely helped free agent relievers like Benoit, Guerrier, Crain and Putz. If Lyon had underperformed and made the Astros’ $15 million investment look like a glaring mistake, he could have become a cautionary tale for teams considering spending big on middle relief. But with another healthy season and some luck, Lyon posted a 3.12 ERA and assisted some fellow relievers.