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March 16, 2011
Painting the Black
Relievers and Arbitration
On Sunday afternoon, I took part in my first fantasy draft of the spring. It’s a keeper league with an auction selection process featuring some fellow Baseball Prospectus contributors, including Marc Normandin, Tommy Bennett, Mike Petriello, and former intern Chase Garrity. At some point during the proceedings, Jake McGee went up on the bidding block. When the dust settled, McGee was acquired at a price similar to the ones paid for some of the game’s better closers. This was obviously a risky move, since McGee is not guaranteed to make the Opening Day roster and forget any thoughts about being named the team’s closer.
By now, the Rays’ economic limitations are common knowledge. With the exception of Rafael Soriano, the Rays have proven unlikely to pay for a fancy name-brand reliever. Troy Percival signed a two-year deal back in the winter of 2007, and he made roughly $8 million over two seasons. Otherwise, the team has either gone to arbitration with their relievers, or locked them up to deals voidable by a plethora of club options. In short, they want all of the leverage and none of the risk.
The inherent upside risk with McGee—perhaps best filed under “nice problems to have”—is that he will become a batter-eating, saves-spitting machine. That's hardly a bad thing, except when it comes to money. If the team assumes that McGee will pitch at the same level of quality regardless of the inning or whether he has a save or a hold up for grabs, then it may behoove them—financially, at least—to keep him in a seventh- or eighth inning capacity. The Rays could employ that strategy this season, because after signing Kyle Farnsworth, Juan Cruz, and a host of other middle relievers, they have guys who could snatch up saves of the three-run variety by the handful.
Or, the Rays could of course unleash McGee on the ninth inning and risk having his eventual wages outweigh the benefits should he prosper, thus having to move him before his six seasons are up. The optimal solution would include an extension sometime before his arbitration years, but it takes two to talk, and who knows whether McGee’s agent would delay a free-agent shopping spree to sign a deal that would (probably) favor the team. The question, then, is just how much money is at stake with the Rays’ decision.
To find out, I compiled the service time and salary data from the 2011 arbitration-eligible relievers, then grabbed their career ERA and saves totals. Groan if you must, but arbitrators take those numbers into consideration, thus a reliever with a good ERA and high saves seems more likely to have a good case (in their eyes) than one with a decent ERA but zero saves. I threw out all cases of multi-year extensions, and swingmen too, in an attempt to focus on the true relievers as much as possible.
Here are the five highest paid relievers who were eligible for arbitration this offseason:
Perhaps unsurprisingly, those five would also make up the list of most saves by arbitration eligible relievers, with Nunez, the fifth-place finisher, holding a 24-save lead over the sixth-place competitor. It’s not that simple, though, as service time matters a lot in arbitration, as does racking up counting stats like saves. The final year of arbitration looks to be the big one for closer paydays, at least in 2011, as those three are making nearly double of the next closest. Service time is definitely not the be-all, end-all though, as showcased here:
If not service time, maybe ERA is the key to experiencing a payday:
Maybe not. Joey Devine has missed serious time with injuries. Even his replacement, Darren O’Day, is another middle reliever who has a right to be unsatisfied with his pay after looking at a comparison like this:
The complexities of bullpen chaining means that 50 innings do matter in ways beyond the obvious. However, the ERA differential matters too. Adams could make up the difference in innings pitched between the pair (55) with an ERA of 13.00 (no, really) and still find himself tied with Nunez in the innings and ERA department. The only difference would be saves, as no team in their right mind—imaginary or otherwise—would place him in those situations. (And he would blow a fair share of saves even if they did.) Yet, Nunez will make about a million more than Adams and nearly double what Moylan is making under similar circumstances.
There is a dollar sign on the saves statistic. This past winter featured numerous teams giving too many years and perhaps too many dollars to middle-relief types, but the reality is there are fewer dollars in being a set-up man or specialist than being a closer or starter. That reality can strike pitchers buried on the closer depth chart, like Daniel Bard (or his agent), and lead to him opining about how he may want to give starting a try. The Rays are going to face the same cost/benefit analysis our aforementioned fantasy owner did: Is having peace of mind in the ninth inning worth having fewer pieces of coin available later on?