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The Scratch, Ding, and Dent Club: Four Relief Options

Shopping the bargain bin has proven to be a big part of the Cardinals’ M.O. the past few years. Let’s look at the reliever section of the sale racks, shall we?

Kansas City Royals v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Watching this year’s playoffs, it’s impossible not to reflect on what an enormous place in the game relief pitching now occupies. The Indians are in the World Series almost entirely on the strength of their ‘pen. The Dodgers were largely undone by the abject failures of their relief corps.

This isn’t a 2016 phenomenon, either; the Royals of the past few years have been chiefly known for their airtight relief work, and owe their back to back World Series appearances in large part to their ability to shorten games. Dominance at the very back end of a bullpen has been a big deal since, well, a lot longer than we probably think; Rollie Fingers was doing the shutdown closer thing as far back as the mid 70s, and Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter weren’t far behind him. Of course, those guys were closing in a much different role than we typically think of the modern closer; not until Tony LaRussa codified Dennis Eckersley as a single-inning weapon in the late 80s would the idea of a closer being limited to the ninth inning — and a Save Situation, more specifically — take hold of the game.

Even the concept of a multi-headed monster in the bullpen isn’t exactly radical stuff; the Cincinnati Reds’ Nasty Boys of the late 80s/early 90s comes to mind immediately as an early example of a cadre of dominant relievers all plying their trade for the same team. Randy Myers closed, Rob Dibble and Norm Charlton set up, and 1990 Reds games basically only lasted six innings, if the Reds managed to grab a lead.

However, recently bullpens have become more of a focus than ever before, fueled by rising velocities, rising injury concerns, falling innings totals for starters, and more of a tactical emphasis coming down from front offices. (For instance, who remembers hearing about the third time through the order penalty say....ten years ago? Yeah, me neither.) It seems that tons of teams now are going out of their ways to build dominant bullpens, and suddenly the resources being poured into those endeavours has begun escalating recently.

Being that MLB is a copycat league, I wouldn’t look for the trend to reverse itself anytime soon. Particularly because, well, look around. When is all this bullpen success coming to the fore? October, that’s when. Baseball teams have been looking for the secret sauce to win in the postseason since time immemorial, and the fact that bullpens have been such a huge part of the narrative these past few years of playoffs is not likely to make clubs less likely to invest in the ‘pen, hoping to find that secret sauce.

The problem with such an idea, of course, is that this run of bullpen primacy has come even as sabermetrics has become more and more accepted orthodoxy, and one of the central tenets of the saber mindset is to not pay for relief pitchers if it can at all be helped. The innings numbers for relievers are so low that they not only don’t offer much real value, their performances can vary wildly from season to season, as they rarely have time for those numbers to stabilise. Add in the fact relievers as a class are also generally pitchers more prone to big variances from year to year, and investing lots of resources into a bullpen is just a much bigger gamble than many other ways to try and buy wins.

So we have a bit of a paradox here. We have bullpens playing a larger role than ever, seemingly sucking up even more of the air come the postseason, while at the same time our understanding of, and ability to quantify, player value would argue against investing in said bullpens too heavily. Paying for the absolute top of the heap elite reliever types is fine; anything short of that really isn’t worth paying big for. (See: Broxton, Jonathan.) What’s a front office to do?

Well, get creative, for one. Rather than paying through the nose for established relievers, many clubs are trying to be more creative in the pitchers they pursue for the ‘pen. Injury risks and failed starters are a potential market inefficiency that lend themselves to clever teams perhaps amassing their own cadre of dominant arms. In fact, that’s basically the way the Royals built up that dominant bullpen mentioned earlier; Wade Davis was a failed starter, ditto Luke Hochevar. Kelvin Herrera started through the minors most of the way up, while Greg Holland was actually a shortstop conversion to the mound. Not a one was signed for big money as a relief ace. There was certainly some luck involved in the group coming together, but there was also creativity in maximising what pitchers with high-octane arms could do in a limited role.

With that in mind, we turn to the Cardinals’ offseason plans, and we see that they are likely going to be cruising the relief market. Partially because that seems to be one of the front office’s weaknesses, and partially because they just lost Zach Duke, who they had been counting on to handle some high-leverage innings in 2017, to Tommy John surgery.

So let’s go take a look in the scratch, ding, and dent department, shall we? See if we can’t find a couple names on the free agent market who could represent creative investments for the Redbirds in 2017. All four have warts, certainly, but all four offer some sort of intrigue.

I’ve got one name who in spite of his warts and concerns would still be a somewhat large investment (relatively speaking), two who are more in the grey area of possibly receiving a major league deal and possibly not, and one complete flyer who won’t represent much of a risk at all. And we’ll go in that order.

Greg Holland, RHP — Already mentioned in this column as part of the Royals’ wrecking ball of a bullpen two years ago, Holland missed the entire 2016 season recovering from Tommy John surgery.

Before his elbow issues began, Holland was legitimately one of the most dominant relievers in all of baseball. In 2013 and ‘14, he produced a cumulative 5.2 fWAR, struck out over 40% of batters faced in ‘13 and nearly 40% in 2014, put up back-to-back FIPs of 1.36 and 1.83, and just generally struck fear into the hearts of hitters everywhere. He had a much rougher 2015, pitching through elbow discomfort for much of the season, but still managed to strike out better than a batter per inning and help hold the Royals’ relief corps together. Since he went down, Wade Davis has done an admirable job closing games, even though his own performance slipped some this past season.

Holland, in spite of coming off an arm injury, should still be able to command a decent contract from someone if he looks to be healthy. I doubt he will get many good multi-year offers this offseason, as I think clubs will hesitate to invest long term in him until they see his health and performance back on display, but he should be able to pull a one year deal for solid money without a problem.

I’ll be interested to see how hard the Royals try to resign him; it’s possible he’ll see his old club as the best landing spot for a contract to reestablish his value. But if he does go out on the market to find a job for 2017, he could potentially end up a real steal for the team that picks him up before he’s shown he’s all the way back and ready to dominate again.

Felix Doubront, LHP — The only lefty on my list here, Doubront would represent the closest thing to a direct replacement for Duke. A former promising starter for the Red Sox, Doubront has struggled to find any kind of consistency in recent years, and ultimately came down with elbow issues of his own that led to Tommy John surgery this past April. He was outrighted by the A’s after the season, and elected to become a free agent.

The bad news about Doubront is that, since he had TJ in April, there’s a very good chance he won’t be ready to begin the 2017 season. However, a club willing to sign him and help him along in the rehab process could end up with an intriguing relief upgrade come midseason. I’m not sure the risk and hassle would be worth the payoff, but then again, it just might.

Doubront was a monster against lefties in 2015, holding them to a .558 OPS and, better yet, striking out nearly 30% of same-handed hitters he faced. He struggled against right-handed hitters badly, but hasn’t shown nearly so much of an issue in the past. As a pitcher who’s started more than he’s relieved in his career, Doubront has a wider repertoire than many relievers, and you would be counting on that factor to perhaps help his stuff play up, in much the same way Duke’s stuff did upon his bullpen conversion.

Henderson Alvarez, RHP — Another Oakland injury reject, Alvarez was, as recently as 2014, kind of an awesome pitcher. That season, pitching for the Miami Marlins, Alvarez posted a 2.65 ERA in close to 190 innings, and while fWAR has never loved him, due to a low strikeout rate, runs allowed-based models of value liked him a whole lot more.

The bad news is, Alvarez has now had two shoulder surgeries in less than a full calendar year, and was barely able to pitch at all in 2016. So again, you’re looking at a huge injury risk on a former starter, hoping to convert him to the bullpen.

On the other hand, the fact Alvarez was basically always a one pitch pitcher, relying almost entirely on one of the nastier sinkers in the game to have success in Miami, would seem to suggest he might be an ideal conversion project. He’s now had enough injury issues that the conversion should make sense to him, and the repertoire would suggest a simplified, concentrated approach could be a good fit.

The bad news is I don’t really know what Alvarez’s timetable looks like at this point. Shoulders are so much more complicated than elbow injuries that it’s a little scary contemplating a guy with a history of the shoulder breaking down; it would be easy to see another Jordan Walden situation popping up. But the investment should be relatively minimal; a guy with this serious an injury risk should be a minor league deal/NRI candidate, I would think. And the payoff, I think, could be pretty significant. If there’s any pitcher I could see some small chance of turning into Zack Britton, it just might be Alvarez and his super sinker.

Jacob Turner, RHP — And now we come to the final name, the pitcher who would require the least outlay of any listed here.

Look, there’s really no way around it: Jacob Turner was bad in 2016. Like, really bad. There’s no way to cut up his numbers to get around that fact. And, for the most part, Jacob Turner has been at least pretty bad, and oftentimes much worse than that, for basically his whole career. However, there are some things about Turner I really like, and think could make him an intriguing relief conversion project.

I liked Turner a whole, whole lot when he was coming into the draft back in 2009. At the time, he was a high school righthander from St. Charles, and looked like the next Max Scherzer. He was selected by the Tigers ninth overall, signed to a big bonus, and sent off to hone his craft. Well, sort of.

What actually happened is that Turner was not, in fact, sent off to the minors to hone his craft. Detroit rushed him through the minors in a way I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before, even more than they did Rick Porcello. (And Porcello, you may remember, at least had that Sword of Damocles contract Scott Boras got him hanging over the Tigers’ head to partly justify how quickly he was pushed through.) And much like Porcello — but to a far greater extent, because Turner simply didn’t have the kind of polish Porcello did coming out of high school — the lack of development time badly stunted Turner’s growth. He mostly performed well in the minors, but was up pitching for Detroit in July of 2011, barely two years after being drafted.

He was then traded to the Marlins at the deadline in 2012 in the Anibal Sanchez deal and became a fixture in the Miami rotation, still just 21 years old and badly underdeveloped. Since then, he’s changed organisations twice more, pitching for both Chicago teams, had injury issues, and still never really developed as a pitcher. I look back at the guy he was coming out of high school, and seven years later Jacob Turner hasn’t really improved all that much. He’s a huge cautionary tale for how not to handle a pitching prospect.

All that being said, Turner is also still just 25 years old, and a free agent. He started a couple games for the White Sox this past season, but mostly pitched in relief, and there were stretches when he was relatively effective. Not long stretches, mind you, but there were some intriguing signs.

He still throws hard; in fact, after moving to the bullpen for Chicago, Turner saw his velocity jump up in a major way. He’s also moved over to throwing a two-seam fastball more often than the four-seamer he started off with, and the pitch has some impressive running life to the armside at times. He’s abandoned the cutter he featured with the Marlins, and mostly abandoned the slider as well. In their place, he’s brought back the curve I was quite enamoured with when he was drafted and recommitted to it.

At this point, Turner should be the lowest risk of low risk pitchers, requiring only a minor league deal and a non-roster invite to spring training. He’s not at all a present solution, but I think there’s enough in the arm that he could be an interesting reclamation project. Invite him to spring training, take a look, and then send him down to Double- or Triple A, wherever you feel most confident in the coaching staff to help him hone his stuff, and have him focus on just the fastball and curve.

There were times this past season when Turner pushed his fastball up to 96 and even 97 on the gun, and it showed really nice movement. He looks to be healthy, is young enough that there’s the potential for a second act, and where better to do that than with his hometown franchise?

Admittedly, this may not be a sexy column, talking about what amounts to nearly-freely available talent on the relief market. But these are also the sorts of moves that can define a club’s bullpen, making small investments in compromised assets that pay off in a big way. Recent history tells us bullpens are enormously important; modern player valuation tells us not to invest too heavily in them.

Given those conflicting imperatives, these are just the sort of pitchers smart teams should, and likely will, be looking at. There’s a decent chance any bets you place on these guys will not pay off at all. But the risk is so low you can make those bets all day long, and it’s worth it just to hit once.

And hell, if Daniel Bard at 30 was worth a minor league contract, surely Jacob Turner and Henderson Alvarez are, too.