After the Cubs shuffled him between the bullpen and the rotation for four seasons, Sean Marshall finally found his home in the bullpen. In 80 relief appearances, Mashall allowed only 25 runs, striking out nearly 11 batters per nine innings en route to a 2.28 FIP and 2.2 WAR. The Cubs see Marshall as their setup man of the future behind closer Carlos Marmol. To that effect they handed Marshall, eligible for arbitration the first time this season, a two year contract worth $4.7 million ($1.6 million in 2011 and $3.1 million in 2012).
Using the model that the first, second, and third arbitration seasons pay players 40%, 60%, and 80% of their market value respectively, this deal would be the equivalent of a two year, $9.17 million dollar contract on the free agent market. That figure would place his contract value almost exactly between the two bullpen arms most recently bought by the Oakland A’s: Grant Balfour (2 years, $8 million) and Brian Fuentes (2 years, $10 million).
Interestingly enough, two years ago both players posted similar seasons to Marshall’s 2010. Balfour was a key cog in the 2008 Rays postseason run, posting a strikeout rate above 12 per nine innings and 2.22 FIP in 58 innings. Fuentes was excellent for a Rockies team which finished well out of contention, striking out just under 12 per nine innings and recording a 2.24 FIP. Both seasons bear eerie similarities to Marshall’s breakout 2010.
Given that Balfour and Fuentes are two years removed from their excellent seasons and haven’t been nearly as good since, Marshall’s deal looks good, coming at age 27 and immediately after the excellent season. But the relatively poor performance seen from Balfour and Fuentes (2.8 WAR in the four total seasons) in the two years past tell the rather predictable tale of just how fungible relievers can be.
Sean Marshall showed excellent peripherals in 2010 and appears to be much more suited to a relief role than a starting role (even moreso than the typical starter). He should put together a solid relief career, although it’s possible that we may never see him reproduce this career year. The Cubs probably should have simply gone year-to-year and hedged their bets on a drop-off in performance or an injury. But if Jim Hendry and the Cubs value the financial security this deal presents, they probably aren’t losing out on too much surplus value by pulling the trigger on Marshall’s second year of arbitration early. The market clearly values middle relievers highly enough to the point where teams are paying seven figures for the afterglow of years like Marshall’s 2010. If a team is going to go multiple years with a reliever, better to do so with young, arbitration eligibles like Marshall than veterans like Balfour and Fuentes.