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How to Handle the Reliever Market

Recent deals suggest teams are willing to give big deals to relievers. That shouldn’t change the Cardinals’ plans.

MLB: Washington Nationals at St. Louis Cardinals Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The offseason has barely started but a trend is already taking shape. And it’s one that doesn’t work in the Cardinals favor. There has been plenty of talk about the Cardinals adding swing and miss to their pitching staff, but the price of strikeouts may be at at a premium this winter.

Just look at the deals already signed. Edwin Diaz is returning to the Mets at a bargain price of $103 million over 5 years. Is that an overpay? Maybe. Probably. But it’s the Mets and it’s Edwin Diaz. They will spend and he has been amazing.

He did just have a 3 WAR season. That’s unheard of for a reliever. I’m personally not a huge fan of breaking 9 figures for a reliever, or 5 years for that matter, but if you’re going to do it, you would be hard pressed to find a better reliever to do it with.

Some top relievers are even worth big deals. Prior to the 2017 season, Aroldis Chapman signed a 5-year, $86 million contract with the Yankees. He then posted fWARs of 1.5, 1.8, and 2.1 in his first 3 seasons, leading the Yankees to restructure his contract and give him an extra year.

He then had a strong 2020 campaign, though he only threw 11.2 innings before dropping to 0.6 fWAR in 2021.

That deal didn’t blow up in the Yankees faces. Was it pricy? Sure, but it’s the Yankees. It was never going to stop them from spending on other areas of the team and they still got plenty of production from Chapman.

I wouldn’t have made the deal but it really wasn’t an awful contract for a large market team.

Then there’s Kenley Jansen who signed a 5 year-$80 million contract with the Dodgers following the 2016 season.

He then earned MVP votes in 2017 and was an all-star in 2017 and 2018. His worst single-season ERA over the life of the contract? 3.71. Worst FIP? 4.03. He was a solid pitcher the whole time.

I doubt the Dodgers regret the contract. They had the money to spend and they used it to lock up one of the best relievers in baseball. They were even interested in bringing Jansen back after the contract ended. That’s not something you do for a bust.

So, Edwin Diaz is making more money than I would be comfortable paying him, but he’s also on a team with an owner apparently willing to spend whatever it takes to win a World Series.

Will Edwin Diaz’s performace justify an $103 million contract? Probably not. But there is precedence for elite relievers continuing to be good after receiving long term contracts. Edwin Diaz may be the most dominant reliever in baseball and I expect him to keep performing at a high level, even if it’s not a $103 million level.

The Mets are going to keep spending. This really doesn’t hurt them like it would hurt a team like the Cardinals.

The spending doesn’t stop there, though. Robert Suarez also got a 5 year deal to return to the Padres and he’ll make $46 million over the life of the deal.

He’ll also be 32 years old next year. Oh, and he made his MLB debut in 2022. Consider me not a fan.

He’s not a bad pitcher, in fact he’s quite good, but I wouldn’t give Giovanny Gallegos 5 years and he’s younger and probably better and definitely more consistent than Suarez.

There’s really nothing I like about this deal.

To begin with, the Padres are paying him from age 32 to 37. I would never give a 5 year deal to a 32-year-old reliever. I also see a .248 BABIP and 84.7% stranded runner rate and see the possibility of regression.

This feel like an overpay. Plain and simple.

After Suarez, we descend back into the realm of reason. At least a little bit. The third big reliever signing so far this offseason has been Rafael Montero re-signing with the Astros. He got 3 years and $34.5 million after a year where he posted a 2.37 ERA, 2.64 FIP, and 1.5 fWAR. He’s also 32 years old and has a career 4.64 ERA.

The Astros are clearly betting that his breakout is sustainable. 3 years is more responsible than 5 and the AAV is better, but this is still an expensive deal for a reliever.

In total, that’s $183.5 million being spent on three relievers. What’s the common thread? Well, they were all great last year. But there’s more. Like most great relievers, they racked up the strikeouts.

Strikeout Rates of Recent Signings

Player K% ERA FIP fWAR
Player K% ERA FIP fWAR
Edwin Diaz 50.2% 1.31 0.90 3.0
Robert Suarez 31.8% 2.27 3.22 0.7
Rafael Montero 27.0% 2.37 2.64 1.5

My early conclusion is that strikeouts are expensive. That’s hardly shocking to any of you, but it brings us to an important conclusion - If the Cardinals want to add swing and miss, they will need to spend.

That begs the question - Will the Cardinals be willing to pay the price?

This is a complicated answer. I don’t think they will be, at least, not in the bullpen.

The Cardinals have some money to spend this year. How much is debatable, but you can read J.P.’s excellent articles about that if you’re curious. I think the Cardinals will spend, but they will spend on other priorities because there’s some big game available if the Cardinals want to upgrade the rotation or the middle infield.

They also need a catcher and could be shopping for outfielders too. So, all I’m trying to say is that the Cardinals aren’t going to be spending $10 million a year on a reliever. They may not even go to $8 million.

This is a team that took the dumpster diving route to improve the bullpen last year and hasn’t made a big relief pitcher signing since Brett Cecil, and we all know how that turned out. Oh wait, they actually signed Andrew Miller prior to 2019. That went so much better.

Based off the early returns, it looks like teams are willing to spend on relievers, and especially relievers with swing-and-miss. They also aren’t being scared off by long term deals.

That’s not the Cardinals M.O.

As a general rule, the Cardinals don’t spend big on relievers and they don’t go more than two years. Sometimes they won’t even go two years. Or they won’t do whatever it was they didn’t want to do when they let Luis Garcia sign with San Diego.

At 2 years and $7 million, he would have added swing and miss to the bullpen, but that wasn’t a big priority last year.

Even if he’s not necessarily a “strikeout pitcher” his 2021 strikeout rate with the Cardinals was 4% higher than the cumulative strikeout rate of the 2022 Cardinals bullpen. His strikeout rate this year was more than 5% higher.

He is exactly what the Cardinals are, or should be, looking for.

Now, let’s compare his stats entering free agency with the above names (minus Edwin Diaz because he’s obviously in a tier of his own).

Comparing Luis Garcia’s Contract to Recent Deals

Player K% ERA FIP Innings Pitched fWAR AAV
Player K% ERA FIP Innings Pitched fWAR AAV
2022 Robert Suarez 31.8% 2.27 3.22 47.2 0.7 $9.2 million
2022 Rafael Montero 27.0% 2.37 2.64 68.1 1.5 $11.5 million
2021 Luis Garcia 25.2% 3.24 2.72 33.1 0.7 $3.5 million

Garcia’s strikeout rate is a tad lower than Montero’s and his FIP is a tad higher. Give him the same amount of innings, though, and his fWAR is 1.4. Basically the same.

Obviously there are other considerations such as age (Garcia was heading into his age 35 season) and recent history, but if Garcia was available now for that price point, I would expect the Cardinals to jump all over him.

He looks like a bargain when compared with the contracts signed so far this offseason.

The Cardinals may not find such a bargain this year if team continue to spend aggressively. Would it be nice to have Luis Garcia on the team? Absolutely. But he’s not. And now the Cardinals will need to find a way to add swing-and-miss to their bullpen at a similar price, if that is indeed their goal.

Lets figure out how many spots are open for new arms. Here’s where the Cardinals currently stand.

Right-Handed Locks: Giovanny Gallegos, Ryan Helsley, Jordan Hicks, Andre Pallante

Left-Handed Locks: Genesis Cabrera, Zack Thompson

Unclear: Alex Reyes, Jake Woodford, James Naile, Packy Naughton, JoJo Romero, Chris Stratton, Drew VerHagen, Dakota Hudson

That’s pretty bare.

By my count there are 6 locks. And that includes Genesis Cabrera. “Lock” probably isn’t the best way to describe him but I think the Cardinals will give him every chance to reclaim his spot in the bullpen, especially considering the lack of quality left-handers. So, maybe that’s 5 locks.

This is definitely an area of need. The Cardinals could let some minor leaguers compete for jobs in the spring, but the team will want more proven MLB options.

That should mean multiple signings this winter, and at least one left-hander.

Last year the Cardinals brought Drew VerHagen, Nick Wittgren, and Aaron Brooks into the organization while re-signing T.J. McFarland. Drew VerHagen is the only one still on the roster. And we’ll see if he makes it through the offseason on the 40-man roster.

Like last year, the Cardinals could use 3 of 4 more signings to bolster the bullpen. There’s simply too much uncertainty with the current group.

Gallegos, Helsley, and Hicks is a great high leverage trio, but the middle relief options are sorely lacking. This is where the Cardinals should be looking to add and that fits with their budget.

They aren’t going to throw big money at a reliever. Even if they wanted to, they will probably get priced out of the market. And that’s okay. The team shouldn’t be giving out big contracts to relievers who might be great one year and terrible the next.

Instead, they should be looking for guys who can reliably work the middle innings and add some strikeout punch. Strikeouts aren’t the only thing that matter but the team should be looking to improve on a staff that finished with the 4th lowest strikeout rate in baseball.

This is how they can improve the bullpen while saving money for other positions that can make a bigger difference.

Where might the St. Louis Cardinals find strikeouts on a budget? You’ll have to come back on Sunday to find out. For my next article I will analyze some available relievers who I think would fit nicely into the Cardinals bullpen.

Thanks for reading, VEB.