The relief market is a hotbed for unusual activity during the off-season. This winter, the Philadelphia Phillies got the party started with its signing of Jonathan Papelbon to a four-year, $50 million contract. Since then, Philadelphia’s former closer, Ryan Madson, signed a one-year deal worth around $8 million with the Cincinnati Reds — and their former, former closer, Brad Lidge, just inked a one-year, $1 million agreement with the Washington Nationals.
In addition to that trio, Matt Capps received a $4.75 million salary to return to the Minnesota Twins, and Fernando Rodney got $2 million from the budget-conscious Tampa Bay Rays. But one of the few relievers who could not find guaranteed millions – or even a guaranteed contract – was Dan Wheeler, who signed a minor league contract with the Cleveland Indians.
Wheeler re-joined the Rays in late 2007 after spending a few seasons with the New York Mets and the Houston Astros. As a member of the Rays’ bullpen, Wheeler posted descending xFIP marks — beginning in 2008 with a 4.50 xFIP, but ending with a nice 3.72 in 2010.
Following the mass exodus from the Rays’ pen after the 2010 season, Wheeler landed with their American League East rival Boston Red Sox on a one-year, $3 million deal. While his ERA jumped a full run with Boston last year, his FIP dropped from 4.11 to 3.78 — and his xFIP dropped to 3.71.
A right-handed reliever with a fastball that lives around 89 mph, Wheeler has historically struggled with the long ball as well as going against the platoon split. His career HR/FB rate of 10.2% is significant for a reliever with a 45.5% flyball rate. Versus lefties, he has a 4.73 career xFIP (3.53 versus righties) and allowed a slash line of .275/.341/.487.
Rays’ skipper Joe Maddon did his best to control the platoon issue by limiting Wheeler’s exposure to left-handed batters. After using Wheeler against lefties 39% of the time in 2008, Maddon had him face them 29% in 2009 and just 23% in 2010. In fact, Wheeler pitched with the platoon advantage more than any other reliever in 2010 (minimum 40 innings).
For whatever reason, former Red Sox manager Terry Francona decided to increase Wheeler’s usage against lefties last year and had him face a left-handed batters nearly 40% of the time. Although he fared slightly better than his career numbers against the split, his K/BB rate dropped from a ridiculous 13.50 versus righties to 2.0 versus lefties. He actually allowed a higher HR/FB rate versus right-handers — though his 3.37 xFIP suggests it could have been a blip on the radar.
While Wheeler did not have a pile of saves heading into free agency, you could argue that he has been a better pitcher than a number of others who will be cashing guaranteed paychecks in 2012. In the past three years, Wheeler’s 3.84 xFIP is lower than several notable right-handed relievers: Octavio Dotel (3.85), Matt Capps(3.99) , Kerry Wood (4.08), Francisco Cordero (4.18), Jon Rauch (4.38, and Fernando Rodney (4.52) , who all signed one-year, major-league deals totaling $21.25 million this off-season.
Despite a performance that warranted a major-league offer, Wheeler joins the Indians with no guarantees. One rather large piece of information left out thus far is that the 34-year-old Wheeler was shut down in early September with right forearm stiffness. Although he has avoided major injury and averaged 61 appearances and 62 innings each season since 2003, that type of injury could scare off potential suitors. On the flip side, Joel Zumaya — who hasn’t thrown a meaningful pitch since June of 2010 — got a low-risk, major-league deal with the Twins just a few weeks ago.
Maybe Wheeler’s medical records are a bit murkier than they appear, or maybe teams are wary of putting his home-run rate in high-leverage situations. Whatever the reason, the lack of interest could pay dividends for the Indians if Wheeler is both healthy and Tribe manager-slash-stat-aficionado Manny Acta uses him to his strengths. If those things pan out, Wheeler could be a bargain in an unpredictable relief market.