At the end of my last article, I mentioned that the St. Louis Cardinals tied up nearly $80 million on a trio of underperforming bullpen arms - Brett Cecil, Greg Holland, and Andrew Miller. Combined, these three relievers provided just 0.2 fWAR in their Cardinal careers.
The Cardinals have clearly struggled with handing out long contracts to relievers or contracts with high average annual values. This may not only be a problem experienced by the Cardinals, though. Before I go any further, I want to give a shoutout to VEB reader and commenter LondonBird for the idea behind this article.
Following the 2016 season St. Louis gave Brett Cecil a 4 year contract worth $30.5 million. That divides to an AAV of $7.625 million. This was only the fifth largest AAV handed to a reliever that winter. The Yankees got Aroldis Chapman for a massive 5 year, $86 million contract ($17.2 million AAV) that is larger than what the Cardinals gave to Dexter Fowler in the same offseason. The Dodgers signed Kenley Jansen to a 5 year, $80 million contract ($16 million AAV) while both Mark Melancon (Giants) and Brad Ziegler (Marlins) also made more money on a per year basis than Cecil.
None of these contracts really aged well. That doesn’t mean that these pitchers were bad; they simply were overpaid. Let’s start with the least productive of the above names - Brad Ziegler. Ziegler had been a pretty good reliever throughout his career, with his best season, in terms of fWAR coming in 2016. So, the Marlins signed the 37-year-old to a two year contract worth $16 million. He was worth just 0.5 fWAR (with an unsightly 4.79 ERA) in his first year and -0.4 fWAR in his second year, the last of his career. Definitely not worth $16 million. Mark Melancon was actually pretty good, but his 2.4 fWAR over the life of his 4 year, $62 million contract clearly represents an overpay.
Jansen began his contract with a 3.4 fWAR season in 2017, and he looked to be well on his way to being worth his massive payday. That’s the thing with relievers, though, consistency can be hard to come by. Jansen never touched 2.0 fWAR in a season again and In total, he accumulated 7.4 fWAR over the life of his contract. With market value generally being around $8 million per unit of WAR, Jansen was paid over $9.2 million per unit of fWAR.
Chapman is a similar story. Like Jansen, he is a really good reliever, but he was also overpaid. Champan was only worth 6.3 fWAR over the life of his contract, which means that the Yankees paid him $12 million per unit of fWAR. He actually agreed to a contract extension halfway through his original Yankees contract, so he will be paid $18 million in the upcoming season.
Jansen was more deserving of his contract, but most of its value came in the first year and he was still slightly overpaid. Chapman was a much clearer overpay. For reference, the Cardinals paid Mike Leake $10 million/WAR.
Below Brett Cecil’s AAV, we have Joaquin Benoit ($7 million) who posted 0.2 fWAR, The highest paid reliever to perform better than $8 million/WAR was Greg Holland, who tallied 1.1 fWAR at the price of $7 million. He was the seventh highest paid reliever in the 2016/2017 offseason. Jerry Blevins and Koji Uehara are also success stories in that price range, but they were only on one year deals. Also in that price range were Junichi Tazawa ($6 million AAV) and Santiago Casilla ($5.5 million AAV), who were not good. There were a few successes in the $6+ million AAV reliever market in the 2016/2017 offseason, but for the most part, dropping money on relievers turned out to be a bad idea.
In the 2017/2018 offseason, things did not go much better for teams signing higher end relievers. This is the year that the Cardinals signed Greg Holland and Luke Gregerson and the Rockies signed the three headed disaster of Wade Davis, Bryan Shaw, and Jake McGee. The Rockies paid over an unbelievable $83 million for -0.9 fWAR of production. Besides the Rockies and the Cardinals failing at this position, the Cubs spent $21 million on Brandon Morrow, who was good when he was healthy but also was injured for half of his contract. Tommy Hunter (Phillies), Addison Reed (Twins), Pat Neshek (Phillies), and Anthony Swarzak (Mets) were also some notable overpays on mutliyear deals worth more than $7 million in AAV.
The story is the same in each of the following offseasons. There are very few successes on highly paid relievers. Some teams, like the Dodgers and the Yankees, have the payroll to stomach a high cost for a good reliever. Teams without the spending power of LA and New York can ill afford to throw large sums of money at a reliever, because even if he is good, he almost certainly won’t be good enough to be worth his salary.
In the 2018/2019 offseason, the Cubs overpaid Craig Kimbrel, the Yankees overpaid Zack Britton, the Cardinals overpaid Andrew Miller, the Mets overpaid Jeurys Familia, the Phillies overpaid David Robertson, and the White Sox overpaid Kelvin Herrera. These were the six highest paid free agent relivers in that winter. Only Britton was even a good pitcher, while Craig Kimbrel finally came around in 2021.
The Dodgers had a clear win in the offseason before 2020 when they signed Blake Treinen to a one year contract. He put up 0.5 fWAR in 2020 while getting paid $3.7 million and then re-signed and tallied 1.8 fWAR in 2021. This victory is one of the few victories that any team has had in the high end reliever market in recent years. For the Padres, Drew Pomeranz has been a good player when he is healthy, but that is also a risk of giving a long term contract to a reliever. These success are not the norm. The Braves spent a lot of money prior to 2020 by committing $54 million to Will Smith and Chris Martin. Their returns have been a bit of a mixed bag as Smith was really bad in 2020 and decent in 2021 as the closer for the World Series champions while Martin has provided decent-ish value for his contract (1.0 fWAR for $9.5 million).
The Cardinals are not the only team that has waded into the high end reliever market and come back disappointed. In fact, that has been the story for pretty much every team. It is hard to find clear wins as even relievers that are actually pretty good are still overpaid. The Dodgers did well with Blake Treinen and they got a good pitcher in Kenley Jansen, even if he wasn’t worth $80 million. Still, the Dodgers have the money to afford overpaying a good player, so for them, that deal was a lot less costly than it would have been for the Cardinals or another team.
The Braves also got decent production from their free agent relievers, even if they didn’t completely justify their contracts. Still, coming out of this market with relievers who are actually good is not a foregone conclusion, so the Braves could have done much worse.
Most other teams came nowhere close to getting enough bang for their buck. It is easy for a team to convince itself that making a splash in the reliever market came help it solidify its bullpen, but that is rarely the case. Sure Chapman and Jansen are great pitchers, but how many teams can break $80 million to sign them? Beyond that, it is not a guarantee that your shiny, expensive new reliever will even be good, much less justify his contract. Relievers can be wildly volatile and when that is added to injury risk, it makes more sense to steer clear of expensive relievers.
This is something that has clearly been demonstrated by the Cardinals, who have been among the worst teams in the league at getting value out of pricey bullpeners. The Cardinals would be much better off sticking to the bargain bin and promoting from Memphis in order to prevent disasters like Cecil, Holland, Miller, and Gregerson. The Cardinals front office certainly made a mistake when it signed these players, but this is not a problem that is unique to the Cardinals, it is a problem that every team who has signed an expensive reliever has experienced.
The only teams that don’t deal with this problem are the teams that don’t splash the cash on relievers. Under the radar signings and strong internal pitching depth represent the best ways to build a bullpen.
There are a few ways to limit risk if a team does want to sign a marquee reliever. The first is to limit the length of the contract. One year contracts don’t hamper a team long term. Two year contracts have a little more risk, but it is the three and four year contracts that really hurt when they go awry, which historically has been quite often. Look no further than Brett Cecil and Andrew Miller for proof, whereas Greg Holland was gone in the blink of an eye without any negative effects beyond 2018. Also, if possible, incentive laden contracts can protect a team from risk by increasing the size of a contract if a pitcher proves to be effective or used often.