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A Look at the Top of the Reliever Market

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There are relievers on the market this year. These are the really expensive ones, most likely.

Divisional Round - Boston Red Sox v New York Yankees - Game Four Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Morning, all.

It’s a funny thing; if you were to ask a dozen Cardinal fans what the Cardinals need to do in this 2018 offseason, you would probably get at least a dozen different answers. Probably more than a dozen, actually; one or two of the people you ask might change their minds midway through and go a different direction, or else call you back later and demand to switch their answer in some way, like a bad Who Wants to be a Millionaire? contestant.

You’ll get people who think the offense has to be the primary target of improvement. You’ll get people who believe you have to double down on the rotation and get another ace-level pitcher. You’ll even get people who are convinced that what the club really needs is a good defensive shortstop, preferably one who can’t hit at all, because, well, I don’t really know why. Maybe because plus defensive shortstops aren’t supposed to be 6’1” and white, I guess. (To be fair, I’m extrapolating a bit calling Paul DeJong a plus defender at his position; we just don’t have enough years of data to say that for sure. I don’t think we have to extrapolate at all, though, to say Paul DeJong is a very good baseball player, and will be difficult to improve upon at shortstop.)

There is, however, one matter upon which pretty much everyone can agree: the bullpen. Ask a dozen Cardinal fans what they think of the relief corps, and I would set the over/under for the number who think it’s a huge issue at 11.5. Now, there may not be widespread agreement on how to fix the ‘pen, but I’m pretty sure nearly everyone will agree it needs to be fixed. I am, if anything, probably on the optimistic side of the opinion scale when it comes to the Redbirds’ bullpen; I think there are some very useful arms hanging around, I think health should be less of an issue in 2019 than ‘18, and I believe that the Cards could build a very good relief unit in large part by simply utilising players already in the system more wisely. Even with all that said, though, I think some outside help is a near necessity. And I’m only adding the ‘near’ because I enjoy equivocating.

The good news is this: if you’re looking to improve the bullpen, it’s a pretty good offseason to be doing so. There are plenty of arms out there who could, and should, be able to step in and up the ‘pen game in a meaningful way, whatever price point you’re looking toward.

However, I don’t want to cover the whole of the relief market today. We’ve got all offseason for minutiae. Today I just want to talk about the hammers. The nuclear options. The guys at the very top of the reliever market who really, truly strike fear into the collective hearts of both opponents facing them and front office types signing checks for them. We’re talking about the elites here.

Now I do want to say that ordinarily, investing heavily in relief pitching is inimical to my nature. My belief structure about how the game of baseball works, and how you should construct a team. I like a plan much like what the Cards shot for last offseason, i.e. try to collect as many high-strikeout arms as possible, without breaking the bank on any one big, dumb investment, and then try to deploy those arms in the best way possible to maximise what you get from them. However, even I am forced to admit there is a certain attraction to the idea of just paying one pitcher to lock down every game you get through 22 outs with a lead. It may not be rational, but the idea of the Proven Closer is a powerful one. Better yet, the idea of a Bullpen Ace is tantalising indeed; having one Fixer in hand could go a long way toward bringing home victories in danger of slipping away at basically any point, it would seem.

Admittedly, though, you generally aren’t shopping at the very top of the relief market for a Fixer, or a Fireman, or a Relief Ace, or whatever capitalised term you might wish to throw on a pitcher. The best reliever typically close games, whether it’s efficient or not. Now, that may be changing somewhat, with very smart clubs deploying their relievers in interesting new ways, but Kenley Jansen is still getting the last three outs of games. Ideally, you would be paying your best reliever to get the biggest outs of the game, but it’s incredibly hard to overcome the very natural human impulse to save your best guy to bring the game home, oftentimes letting the game get away before ever having a chance to activate your doomsday device.

So anyway, what we have here today are four pitchers, at the very top of the free agent relief market this offseason, who will all command large contracts, but who could all also have a transformative effect on a bullpen. The rest of the market we have time to talk about later. For now, these are the guys you’re looking to if you want to make one giant purchase to try and change your relief fortunes in one fell swoop.

Two notes real quick: this list assumes Sean Doolittle stays with the Nationals going forward; the Nats have two option years left with their begoggled closer, and I assume they’ll keep him around. If Doolittle were to hit the market, though, he would immediately jump up near the top of my own personal list. The other pitcher not covered here who might fit into this category is Trevor Rosenthal, who has not been quite as consistent in his career as these other guys, but who at his best did fit into something like this category of pitcher. However, given Rosie’s returning-from-injury status and thus somewhat complicated contractual demands, whatever they may be, he’s a different animal this offseason. Besides, he’s going to Houston. Just saying. (Although if he doesn’t, he should 100% be a Cardinal again in 2019.)

Craig Kimbrel, RHP

Age on April 1st 2019: 30 y, 10 mos

2018 Stats: 62.1 IP, 2.74 ERA, 42/47 SV, 38.9% K, 12.6% BB

Craig Kimbrel has been, if not the single most dominant reliever of the past decade, then at least the most imposing. He came up late in the 2010 season with Atlanta, and proceeded to put up nearly unprecedented strikeout numbers pretty much every year thereafter. In 2012 he actually struck out over half the batters he faced. In 2017 he came close to doing so again, falling just short with a 49.6% K rate. If you want a reliever who will not just close the door on the other team, but make them feel and look utterly hopeless at the plate, Kimbrel is the guy.

In actuality, Kimbrel didn’t really even have one of his better seasons in 2018. Yes, his strikeout rate was still 39%, but for him that’s pretty ordinary. He actually struggled, relatively speaking, with walks this season. He gave up a couple more homers than he usually does. It all added up to the first FIP over 3 — 3.13, to be exact — of his career. Now, it’s hard to say that represents a decline, given his stuff is entirely intact and his down seasons are still among the best of any reliever in baseball, but it’s worth at least noting.

Kimbrel’s career ERA is 1.91; his career FIP is 1.96. He is one of the most unbelievable statistical anomalies we have in the modern game. Even heading into his age 31 season, he is one of the most intimidating forces in baseball.

The question, of course, is what he would cost, should the Red Sox even allow him to get away. Personally, I can’t see a club with obvious World Series aspirations over the next few years allowing their all-time great closer to walk away, but stranger things have happened, and given Boston’s payroll situation it’s at least a possibility. If Kimbrel were to hit the market, he is far and away the most nuclear of nuclear options.

Zach Britton, LHP

Age on April 1st, 2019: 31 y, 3 mos

2018 Stats: 40.2 IP, 3.10 ERA, 7/10 SV, 9 HLD, 20.1% K, 12.4% BB, 73% GB

First things first: no, Zach Britton did not have a particularly good year in 2018. He missed a sizable chunk of the season after rupturing his Achilles’ tendon last December, and struggled to get himself going once he came back in mid-June. It was the second season in a row Britton had had injury issues; he suffered from persistent left knee soreness and a mild forearm strain in 2017, as well.

The good news is that Britton got better and better as the season went on and he put the injury in his rearview mirror; in September he didn’t give up a single earned run, and only allowed hitters an .088 batting average against. In other words, Zach Britton at the end of the 2018 campaign looked a lot like the very scary version of Zach Britton again.

Of course, it cannot be ignored that Britton has had injury issues a couple years in a row now, and his performance in those seasons has been mostly very good, but not at the level of his incredible 2014-’16 run of dominance. Still, since becoming a full time reliever back in 2014, he’s never had a groundball rate below 70%, and he appears to be completely healthy now. Locking in Britton for the next few years could be a major coup for a front office looking to lock down the ends of games.

David Robertson, RHP

Age on April 1st, 2019: 33 y, 11+ mos

2018 Stats: 69.2 IP, 3.23 ERA, 21 HLD, 32.2% K, 9.2% BB

David Robertson has been, to put it lightly, one of the most freakishly consistent relievers in baseball over the past near-decade. Beginning in 2010, the season Robertson really began to establish himself as a force in the late-Rivera-era Yankee ‘pen, he has:

  • appeared in between 60 and 70 games every season,
  • thrown between 60 and 70 innings every season,
  • struck out more than 30% of batters faced six times,
  • posted an FIP- below 80 seven times,
  • never posted an FIP- above 84, and
  • has been worth at least 1.5 fWAR in eight of nine seasons.

In other words, if you’re looking for the safest bet of any reliever you can possibly go out and buy, David Robertson would seem to be your man. For my money, he’s probably the relief ace type I personally would be most likely to invest in, were some billionaire actually mad enough to hand me the keys to a baseball front office.

On the downside, 2019 will be Robertson’s age 34 season, he’s had occasional walk issues in his career, and while he’s been consistently consistent, as well as a strikeout machine in general, he’s not necessarily ever had a moment where he was the most intimidating, notable, frightening, dominant reliever in baseball. Robertson has just been consistently excellent for nearly a decade now.

Kind of feels like a Cardinal, doesn’t he?

Andrew Miller, LHP

Age on April 1st, 2019: 33 y, 10 mos

2018 Stats: 37 G, 34 IP, 4.24 ERA, 29.2% K, 10.4% BB

It was not a very good season for Andrew Miller, making him the second reliever on this list to actually be coming off a down year looking for a big contract. As with Zach Britton, the culprit with Miller was, in large part, injuries, as Miller spent three separate stints on the disabled list. He went down with a hamstring strain early, missed almost two months with a left knee issue midseason, and then hit the DL again in August with a shoulder impingement. Obviously, the shoulder is the most concerning injury of the three, though to his credit Miller did return down the stretch for the Indians and pitched well in ten outings, with the exception of a rough game on the final day of the season in Kansas City.

So slightly diminished velocity, multiple injuries, the first sub-30% K rate of Miller’s recent career (literally the last time he struck out less than 30% of hitters faced was in 2011), and a worrisome shoulder issue late in the season. That’s quite a lot of baggage for a pitcher to overcome in free agency, I would think.

And yet, if any pitcher in baseball might be worth taking that chance for, it just might be Miller. His 2014-2017 run of relief pitching is one of the greatest in any era, and Miller himself was so dominant over that stretch that he essentially attached his name to this bullpen role we’re gradually seeing emerge from the mists of late, as baseball returns to its old ways of the fireman. Only, of course, this time it’s called the Andrew Miller type. It would seem like a pitcher who manages to get a type of reliever named after him would be a pretty decent investment, no?

As much as I love watching Andrew Miller perform, though, I have to admit the 2018 season brought some red flags that are pretty tough to ignore. The shoulder, in particular, scares me quite a bit, and the fact he’ll be pitching 2019 mostly at 34 is concerning as well. Pitchers generally do not get healthier as they age, nor more effective. It’s very possible we’ve seen the best days of Andrew Miller come and gone, and the team that pays for his next three seasons is going to get only a fading vapour trail of the magnificent shooting star of his career.

In general, I tend to believe putting all your eggs (and dollars), in one relief basket is a very bad idea. Given the amount of money the Cardinals could very well have to spend this offseason, however — particularly if they find some way to move most or all of Dexter Fowler’s contract — I find myself more intrigued than ever by the prospect of making a huge investment in a bullpen hammer. I’m still not at all sure it’s the best use of resources, but something like Britton/Hicks/Robertson at the end of a game is awfully hard not to love. On the other hand, Britton/Robertson also looks a lot like what the Rockies just tried to do last offseason, and I think we can pretty much all agree that didn’t go so well. So maybe don’t do that.

But then again....