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November 8, 2010

So You Need

Relief Pitchers

by Marc Normandin

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Relief pitchers are always the most volatile commodity on the free-agent market, but a smart shopper with a discerning eye can separate the bad from the good and make the most of his opportunity to upgrade. Like the starting pitchers available, it is difficult to find much youth on the reliever market, and while the track record of a veteran can boost a club’s confidence in a bullpen arm, it can also come at a premium cost.

Proven™ Closers

Rafael Soriano got a lot of press this year because he racked up 45 saves for the American League East champion Rays, but in many ways he was worse this year than in 2009. Soriano’s strikeout rates fell from an absurd 12.1 per nine to 8.2, but he made up for this by cutting down on his walks, which resulted in a slightly better K/BB ratio despite the dip in punchouts. His cutter and four-seamer just didn’t induce swings-and-misses like they did in 2009 with the Braves, which lopped off a sizable number of strikeouts. The worry going forward is whether that low walk rate will stick—if he hands out free passes at a league average rate in 2011 and doesn’t hike his strikeout rate back up, he’s an effective reliever, but not a dominating one. And he will be paid like a dominating one given his last two seasons. Soriano also has quite the injury history—he has just under 400 career innings despite nine seasons in the majors—and on a long-term contract, that could come back to bite a team that invests too much of their budget in him.

A team signing Octavio Dotel knows they are getting two things: a whole bunch of strikeouts and far too many walks. Over the last three years, Dotel has compiled 193 innings in relief with 11.3 strikeouts per nine and 4.5 walks per nine for a K/BB of just 2.5. It’s better than league average, but in 2010 the walks climbed and the strikeouts dipped ever so slightly, which shouldn’t be a surprise since we’re talking about a 36-year-old. Dotel’s velocity has dropped with age, and he now sits under 92 mph with his fastball, which is still his pitch of choice. At his age, with his occasional home-run issues and constant control problems, Dotel won’t get anything outside of a one-year offer, and it will probably be from a team on the bubble or a non-contender that plans to flip him at midseason to one of those bubble teams. He is a Type-B free agent for a reason, despite a long history of impressive strikeout totals.

Before 2010, Chad Qualls would not have been a reliever anyone expected to fall apart. From 2004-09, Qualls had a respectable 7.3 K/9 combined with good control that gave him three times as many strikeouts as walks. He also kept the ball in the park, despite pitching in two stadiums that favor hitters. It was a vastly different story in 2010 . He had a WHIP of 2.00 over 38 innings, thanks to 14.4 hits per nine and 3.6 walks per nine. While a significant portion of that was the fault of a terrible defensive team in Arizona, Qualls wasn’t helping himself either. A move to the Rays fixed his walk problems, but the hits kept on coming despite pitching in front of one of the major leagues' best defensive teams, and Qualls managed to post his worst strikeout rate since 2006 (granted, it occurred over a 21-inning stretch). Qualls has always been a fastball/slider guy, and his velocity didn’t plummet on him, so there is a very good chance he will rebound in 2011. At the worst, he can avoid a repeat of his .399 BABIP and help someone in middle relief, and at a low cost thanks to a 2010-induced discount.

Jon Rauch held the closer job for nearly four months after Joe Nathan went down with an elbow injury in spring training, then yielded the position to trade acquisition Matt Capps in late July. Rauch performed well enough that someone may roll the dice on him as a Proven Closer, a term which has little to no meaning but still dictates some teams' decisions when it comes to who pitches the ninth. Rauch’s strength is his ability to avoid walking the opposition—he has had four straight seasons with BB/9 under 3.0, and his career rate is 2.8. That is why he is able to strike out just a few more batters than average but still succeed. Despite being 6-foot-11, Rauch induces very few grounders—there is not much natural sink on his fastball, though the downward plane does help him keep his HR/FB rate fairly low (just 7.7 percent for his career). He doesn’t have a dominating out pitch to lean on, which is why his numbers as a reliever don’t look overly impressive, but he has the stuff to get the job done, and should come cheap relative to some of the other former closers on this list.

Wood pitched (relatively) better with the Yankees than he did with the Cleveland Indians in 2010, and his time in New York may have breathed another year of life into his career. The 33-year-old pitched 26 innings with New York and posted an ERA of 0.69, but don’t let that fool you—he walked 6.2 per nine, but managed to give up just one homer and two runs overall despite allowing 32 baserunners. Wood’s last two years (101 innings) feature a 2.0 K/BB, 10 wild pitches, and six hit batsmen. He is the riskiest of the former closers since he doesn’t always know where his fastball (which still sits in the mid-90s) is going, but a team looking for a Closer In Name Only who intends to flip him in July could do worse than putting up with four months of Wood—assuming the price is low.

Righty Relievers

Grant Balfour has quietly been one of the most productive relievers in baseball the past three seasons. Over that stretch, the righty tossed 181 innings with over 10 K/9 and 3.7 BB/9—while not the best ratio, 2.8 is fine, especially for someone who keeps the ball in the park (just 12 homers allowed). He made just $2.05 million in his final year of arbitration with the Rays, and since he had a strong season, he is likely to make more than that on the open market and potentially sign a multi-year contract. Balfour can bring it—he touches the mid-90s, but sits a few ticks below that on average—and though he features two breaking balls, he tends to utilize the heater the most. If he loses his control—as he did in 2009—he won’t be worth whatever his new team pays him. But when he has the fastball in check and hits his spots, seasons like 2008 and 2010 happen, and that’s going to be too much for someone to resist paying for.

Joaquin Benoit is another former Ray who has hit the market, and though Soriano got all the credit as the closer, Benoit was the better bullpen arm. Benoit missed all of 2009 after undergoing surgery on his rotator cuff—the injury had kept him from attaining full speed on his fastball, but the Rays got to see the life on that pitch when his arm healed. Instead of the 90 mph fastball that Benoit had as a starter with the Rangers or the slightly faster heater he had out of their pen, the Dominican righty averaged 94 on the pitch. This resulted in a career high of 11.2 K/9, which was paired with a level of control he had never showed in the majors. The Rays didn’t call Benoit up until the end of the April, and they didn’t ride him too hard with 63 appearances, but in a situation where he is The Man out of the pen, he could reach triple digits in punchouts given his nasty fastball (unless someone makes him a closer and limits him to 65 innings, of course). It’s a shame he doesn’t have more of a track record in terms of control, but an increase in walks would just mean he wouldn’t post a sub-2.00 ERA in 2011.

Koji Uehara had some intriguing numbers as a starter in his first year in the majors in 2009 with the Orioles. Though his K/9 was just 6.5, he displayed control worthy of hyperbole, allowing just 1.6 BB/9. His ERA was 4.05, right around where SIERA expected despite the fantastic control, because Uehara rarely allows ground balls. The Orioles moved him into the bullpen in 2010, initially as a set-up man and then as a closer. The 35-year-old excelled overall: in 44 innings, his strikeout rate was 11.3 despite an 88 mph fastball, and he just missed out on walking fewer than one batter per nine innings pitched. Uehara’s changeup is masterful, and the reason for the strikeouts—batters had swings and misses on nearly 19 percent of his off-speed offerings, and though he didn’t induce nearly as many whiffs on his fastball, it was still hard to make strong contact on, as 24 percent were fouled off. His future is in the bullpen, and though he may not appear to be someone who can dominate in relief, Uehara’s changeup and command make him potentially the most appealing option on the market.

Lefty Relievers

Randy Choate is a left-handed specialist who very much needs to face only fellow lefties. He allowed an OPS of just 529 to them in 2010, but righties crushed him to the tune of .410/.521/.641. Rays manager Joe Maddon realized the issue, though, and opposing right-handed hitters had just 39 at-bats against Choate all year. This isn’t new, as Choate allowed an OPS versus lefties of 474 from 2007-09, and 1003 against righties. A team looking for someone who will assuredly shut down lefties could do worse than Choate, but if a team’s chief rivals are loaded with right-handed bats on the bench, they may want to shop for someone who can get batters out from both sides of the plate.

Scott Downs is one of those lefties that can get anyone out, as evidenced by his 488 OPS against fellow lefties in 2010, and his 637 mark against right-handers. From 2007-09 he was closer to even in terms of platoon splits (580 vs. LHB, 635 vs. RHB), but there is nothing wrong with that when the alternative is a lefty like Choate who may appear in 80 games, but can pick up only half as many outs over the course of the season. Over the last three seasons, Downs has a 2.7 K/BB and just 0.5 homers allowed per nine allowed, despite pitching in the Rogers Centre, which favors hitters and dingers, specifically. Downs is a known commodity, so he will not be cheap and may merit multiple years.

Pedro Feliciano mixes grounders (four straight years with twice as many ground balls as fly balls) and punchouts in order to get lefties out, and though he doesn’t have the extreme splits of Choate, his new team is going to want to keep him away from right-handers (831 OPS allowed in 2010, 898 from 2007-09). He does seem to pitch worse in the second half of the year, which may have something to do with the number of appearances he makes—Feliciano pitched in 344 games for the Mets over the past four seasons, though in 239 1/3 innings—so if his new club takes its foot off the gas a little, he may hold up better over an entire season. Either way, he’s the go-to option over Choate for a left-handed specialist, especially since letting him face a right-hander doesn’t equate to waving the white flag.

Arthur Rhodes is a Type-A free agent, which may make signing him problematic. He will be 41 years old in 2011, and though he has performed very well even at his advanced age, he can’t keep it up forever. A team signing him to a one-year deal in order to limit its risk still has to give up a first-round pick to acquire him (assuming the Reds offer arbitration), which is a hefty cost for a reliever. Rhodes also looks better than he has been thanks to his 2.32 ERA over the last three seasons. His adjusted numbers aren’t quite as shiny. Rhodes has thrown just 108 1/3 innings over the past two years despite 136 appearances. It isn’t due to his left/right split either, as Rhodes is capable of getting anyone out from either side. It may be a concession to age, as Mariano Rivera can’t pitch in the same number of games he used to, and he is younger than Rhodes.

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