January 10, 2011
The Middle Relief Squeeze
Relief pitching can be a particularly volatile sector in baseball’s open market. More than position players or starting pitchers, relievers can see their year-to-year production swing from good to bad and back again. For clubs, that makes constructing a bullpen a tricky business. For relievers themselves, it places a premium on timing the market.
Right-hander Frank Francisco, for example, established himself as a legitimate candidate to close games in Texas, recording 25 saves with a SIERA of 2.84 in 2009. When C.J. Wilson shifted to the starting rotation before the 2010 season, the closer’s role seemingly belonged to Francisco, who was slated to earn $3.265 million in 2010, his final year of arbitration. But after a rocky start, Francisco assumed an eighth-inning setup role, with rookie Neftali Feliz taking over as closer.
Francisco rebounded nicely in his new role, striking out 60 in 52 2/3 innings with a 3.03 SIERA, but after straining a rib-cage muscle landed him on the disabled list in late August, he did not pitch again during the regular season or the Rangers’ run to the World Series. As a potential free agent at the end of the season, it was not the sort of platform season Francisco might have wanted.
Francisco’s prospects on the open market took an additional hit after the World Series, with the release of the Elias Sports Bureau’s 2009-10 player rankings, the statistical system used to compare players and determine compensation for free-agent signings. Though the exact formula is not public, the rankings for pitchers combine statistics such as innings, ERA, saves, and strikeouts. Under the system, Type-A players are defined as those in the top 20 percent at their position. Compensation for a Type-A player is the signing club’s first-round draft pick and a supplemental or sandwich pick between the first and second rounds. Type-B players are those who rank between 21 and 40 percent; compensation for those players is a sandwich pick.
Francisco’s two-year totals were enough to vault him to Type A status, reducing his leverage on the open market. Any club interested in making him an offer would have to surrender a draft pick to Texas in addition to working out a deal with the reliever. As Francisco surveyed the free-agent landscape, Texas offered him salary arbitration, a pre-requisite for the club to receive the compensatory draft picks if he chose to sign elsewhere. Rather than taking his chances on the open market, Francisco chose to accept the Rangers’ offer. The two sides now have several weeks to work out a deal before arbitration hearings begin in February.
Among the Type-A free agents this offseason are eight relievers who are not full-time closers: Francisco, Grant Balfour, Scott Downs, Jason Frasor, Matt Guerrier, Arthur Rhodes, Takashi Saito, and Dan Wheeler.
While several from that group have signed new contracts, Frasor chose to go the arbitration route. He hit the open market in November after compiling 15 saves and 121 strikeouts in 121 1/3 innings over the last two seasons. Frasor had been seeking the security of a multi-year contract, but did not find a deal to his liking, and ultimately elected to accept Toronto’s offer of arbitration. Though he should receive a raise from his 2010 salary of $2.65 million, he will not have the luxury of multiple bidders for his services.
Choosing arbitration over free agency, however, does not necessarily preclude the possibility of a long-term deal. A year ago, Colorado declined its club option on reliever Rafael Betancourt, who ranked as a Type-A free agent. The Rockies subsequently offered him arbitration, he accepted, and the two sides agreed on a two-year, $7.55 million contract.
Betancourt was not the only potential free-agent reliever for 2010 weighed down by a Type-A ranking. Octavio Dotel, John Grabow, Kevin Gregg, LaTroy Hawkins, and Darren Oliver also ranked as Type-A free agents in the 2009-10 offseason. A year earlier, in the winter of 2008-09, middle relievers Doug Brocail, Juan Cruz, Damaso Marte, Oliver, and Russ Springer had a Type-A ranking.
Most middle relievers are, almost by definition, replaceable. They generally cannot command the same high salaries and multi-year contracts as closers, starters, or players at other positions. At the same time, clubs are valuing draft picks more than ever, a point illustrated by recent comments from Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, who said he would not surrender his first round draft pick to sign any free agent other than starter Cliff Lee. When a Type-A ranking acts as a drag on the market for even an All-Star free agent closer like Rafael Soriano, it’s clear that the compensation system’s disproportionate burden on relievers is an issue that should be addressed in negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement between the owners and players.