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Multi-Year Deals for Relievers: An Ugly Retrospective

Today, the Reds placed Jonathan Broxton on the disabled list with an elbow injury that will require season ending surgery, bringing to an end a disappointing year that began with a pretty nifty paycheck over the off-season. Broxton is hardly the only relief pitcher who got paid last winter and hasn’t quite earned his salary this season, however. Below is a table noting the performances of the 13 relievers who signed mutli-year contracts over the winter.

Jason Grilli 2 $3,375,000 $6,750,000 42.1 2.34 1.62 2.07 1.6 1.2
Randy Choate 3 $2,500,000 $7,500,000 28.0 2.25 2.46 3.30 0.5 0.8
Tom Gorzelanny 2 $2,850,000 $5,700,000 36.2 2.45 4.26 3.97 -0.1 0.7
Joel Peralta 2 $3,000,000 $6,000,000 53.0 3.23 3.54 4.09 0.5 0.6
Sean Burnett 2 $4,000,000 $8,000,000 9.2 0.93 4.17 3.54 -0.1 0.6
Rafael Soriano 2 $14,000,000 $28,000,000 53.1 3.71 3.93 4.14 0.2 0.3
Jeremy Affeldt 3 $6,000,000 $18,000,000 33.1 3.51 4.44 4.49 -0.5 0.2
Joakim Soria 2 $4,000,000 $8,000,000 13.0 3.46 3.42 4.59 0.2 0.2
Mike Adams 2 $6,000,000 $12,000,000 25.0 3.96 5.23 3.79 -0.4 0.1
Kyuji Fujikawa 2 $4,500,000 $9,000,000 12.0 5.25 2.78 2.85 0.2 -0.1
Jonathan Broxton 3 $7,000,000 $21,000,000 30.2 4.11 4.66 4.50 -0.4 -0.3
Brandon League 3 $7,500,000 $22,500,000 44.2 5.24 5.18 4.23 -1.0 -1.4

You may note, perhaps, that the low AAV guys are at the top — the good half, since the list is sorted by RA9-WAR — and the high AAV guys are at the bottom. The two worst performers on the list are two of the four guys who got three year deals, as Broxton and Brandon League have been nothing short of unmitigated disasters. The guy with the highest salary, by far, has also been pretty disappointing, and Rafael Soriano is one of the reasons why the Nationals haven’t been particularly good this season.

Basically, of the 13 multi-year deals for free agent relievers, you could point to four of them that seem like good ideas in retrospect: Grilli, Choate, Peralta, and Soria. You could also maybe throw Gorzelanny into that mix if you wanted, especially given his service in the rotation. All of them were low salary guys, getting a second year (or a third in Choate’s case) at a rate that wasn’t so far above the league minimum that the risk was still minimal, and each one has performed pretty well overall, with Grilli being one of the steals of the winter.

The high cost guys, though, have been pretty much atrocious across the board. League has been perhaps the worst relief pitcher in baseball. Broxton was bad and is now hurt. Adams was bad and is now hurt. Affeldt has been okay, but nothing special. Soriano has been mediocre and wildly overpaid, plus he cost the Nationals a draft pick. Burnett and Fujikawa both got hurt and have hardly pitched. The failures clearly outweigh the success stories.

All told, these 13 pitchers have combined to throw 382 innings this year, putting up +0.8 WAR/+2.9 RA9-WAR. Even if we take the more favorable runs allowed number, that’s a total of +3 WAR for a combined 2013 cost of $65 million, or about $22 million per win! That’s, uhh, not a very good price.

None of this is news, necessarily, but the numbers paint a stark picture of the risks of spending real money on free agent relief pitchers. They’re the worst deal in baseball. Their performance is unpredictable, and even the guys we think have established themselves with some kind of track record are capable of just turning into total lemons.

It is possible to sign a smart multi-year contract for a relief pitcher. It just probably shouldn’t be for a significant amount of cash.