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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Tanner Scheppers
Tanner Scheppers

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

Tanner Scheppers
Tanner Scheppers

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