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January 13, 2011

Free Agent Bargain Bin

Relief Pitchers

by Dan Wade

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Relief pitchers and designated hitters have more in common than it appears at first blush. Sure, when they face off they are tasked with opposing goals, but at a basic level both are asked to sit for large sections of the game, then hop up to ply their trade at a moment’s notice.

The free-agent market also provides some common ground for sluggers and LOOGYs alike, as both classes tend to keep more of their top talent until later in the offseason than starters or position players. Jeff Euston addressed the possibility of changing the compensation system to better address these issues on Monday, but until that time, teams can wait until February or even into March before completing their bullpens. 

Unlike the stock of starters or position players, which have thinned since Christina Kahrl took inventory of them last month, the relievers haven’t changed much. The top names are still there for the taking, and some could be in for a long wait as teams decide if a bit more security in the seventh and eighth inning is worth giving up a draft pick.

All five of the relievers profiled here earned either Type-A or -B status, though Brian Fuentes and Jon Rauch won’t yield the Twins any compensation picks, as neither was offered arbitration.

Grant Balfour (57 G, 2.28 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 1.4 WARP, 2.70 WXRL)

Balfour’s 2009 campaign was a significant disappointment after his tremendously successful 2008 season. He struck out fewer batters, walked more hitters, allowed far too many hits, and regressed in about every way. Another year like that in 2010 would have made him substantially less valuable, though paradoxically, it may have gotten him signed sooner, since at least then he wouldn’t have cost his signing team a pick.

But Balfour didn’t stumble again in 2010. Instead, he gave up fewer hits, walked nearly two batters fewer per nine, and while his strikeouts were still down, it didn’t keep him from posting a strand rate of nearly 80 percent. He held opponents to a .216 batting average, and pinned opposing righties to the tune of a .174/.230/.266 line. Lefties faired a bit better, but not so much as to call Balfour a ROOGY.

Balfour is a perfect example of what Jeff was talking about on Monday, as he is almost surely still available because of his Type-A status. Few are the bullpens that wouldn’t benefit from his presence in the late innings. The fact is that teams are, and always have been, reticent to give up a first-round pick for a middle reliever. While he probably won’t remain unemployed until February 28, the way that Juan Cruz did in 2009, Balfour could nevertheless find himself teamless until someone decides to bite the bullet and give up the pick to sign him. Alternatively, with news already coming out that his price is falling, he could return to Tampa and try his luck again next offseason.

Brian Fuentes (35 G, 2.81 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 1.6 WARP, 3.62 WXRL)

Fuentes doesn’t have the same compensation-related struggles that Balfour does, as he missed Type-A status this year and wasn’t offered arbitration by the Twins, who were doubtlessly afraid that he'd accept. Whether he actually would have is nevertheless debatable, as Fuentes has made it known that he really wants to close again in 2011 despite losing his job with the Angels to Fernando Rodney, and then never getting a crack at the role in Minnesota.

Fuentes’ raw stuff has decayed from his days with the Rockies, when he used to boast a swinging strike rate around 20 percent. He’s now down around league average, and his strikeout rate has declined as a result. That isn’t to say that he’s no longer capable of getting hitters out; he is, but he may be headed for a situational role as he ages. For his career, Fuentes has been tougher on lefties (.211/.301/.306 versus .226/.322/.379 against righties), a trend that became even more extreme in 2010, when he held his fellow Flanderses to a robust .128/.222/.149 line.

Like Balfour, Fuentes would be miscast as a one-sided specialist, since he’s still effective enough against righties to leave him in his games, but he is an absolute nightmare for lefties. Fuentes only hurts his market by insisting upon closing; if he can accept a middle-relief or set-up role, he may be in line for a multi-year deal. If he takes his desire for saves to his grave, he’ll have to fight with the superior Rafael Soriano for suitors, and may struggle to get more than a one-year offer at a below-market rate.

Chad Qualls (70 G, 7.32 ERA, 1.80 WHIP, -3.2 WARP, -2.08 WXRL)

According to a report from Buster Olney, Chad Qualls is looking to take a one-year deal to rebuild his value. That’s probably a pretty sound idea for a player who wasa miserable three wins below replacement level last year, and who allowed nearly two baserunners per inning. As bad as Qualls’ 2010 season was—and it was indeed very bad, as he had the lowest WXRL in baseball—he still qualified for Type-B status. Reliever performance certainly varies from year to year, perhaps more so than most other players, but the fact that Qualls maintained his compensation status despite such a rough year is a testament to how good he had been in previous seasons.

When he’s at his best, Qualls is a ground-ball machine, which is evidenced not only by his career 58 percent ground-ball rate, but also by the fact that he has a slightly higher-than-average HR/FB rate. If he’s leaving the ball up in the zone enough for hitters to get under it, chances are it’s in a place where they can do serious damage to it. Qualls was also badly hurt by a BABIP rate 90 points above his career average.

It’s difficult to look at Qualls’ 2010 and write it off as just a bad year, but the fact that this is Qualls’ third straight year of decline is more disconcerting than the depths to which he sunk last year. It’s hard to imagine an even worse fourth year, so he has that going for him; of course, it’s especially hard to believe that anyone would give him enough of a leash to get to four wins below replacement. Scouts and analysts alike saw reason to be hopeful once Qualls left Arizona, but he’s a long shot for a multi-year offer.

Jon Rauch (59 G, 3.12 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 2.0 WARP, 2.26 WXRL)

Rauch could certainly be someone’s closer; after all, he did finish 41 games in 2010 and compiled 21 saves for the Twins. However, the fact that the Twins were still willing to deal their top catching prospect, Wilson Ramos, for Matt Capps at the trade deadline ought to tell you about their opinion of Rauch’s abilities as they headed into a pennant race. But just because he isn’t especially well-suited to finishing out games doesn’t mean he’s without value.

Rauch’s WXRL was a team high for the Twins and good for 16th best in the AL, and while his leverage isn’t as high as others on the list, he wasn’t just doing mop-up work after Capps’ arrival. Rauch will always be somewhat hindered by his comparatively low strikeout rate, just 7.2 per nine innings. Rauch isn’t the type of reliever who can come in with one out and runners on second and third, strike out the hitter at the plate, then get the third out. He may not give up any runs in that situation—which is how he amassed a high expected wins total—but he’s almost certainly going to rely on his defense to help him.

The Twins posted a mid-pack mark for Defensive Efficiency—an above-average infield with a rather poor outfield, generally speaking—in a homer-depressing park, which proved to be a mixed blessing for Rauch. It helped keep his home-run rate well below his career average and certainly helped him on ground balls. Unfortunately for Rauch, his fly-ball tendencies conspired with the Twins’ poor outfield defense and spacious territory to inflate his line from .268/.311/.360 overall to .291/.333/.402 at home.

Rauch is effective enough, especially for a team with a rangy outfield, but his best trait in this market may be the fact that he won’t cost a pick. His value in 2011 largely depends on the context he’s asked to pitch in: If he’s being tasked with getting out of jams, he’s not a great option. If he’s asked to start the seventh or eighth inning with a clean slate, he’s perfectly adequate. He seems a long shot to get a closing job, though apparently the Diamondbacks were considering just that earlier this winter.

Rafael Soriano (64 G, 1.73 ERA, 62.1 IP, 0.80 WHIP, 5.3 WARP, 5.91 WXRL)

The last time the reigning AL saves leader was a free agent, it was Francisco Rodriguez after the 2008 season, and he was snapped up by the Mets before most people had even started on their Christmas shopping. That Soriano is still available beyond New Year's Day shouldn’t be seen as an indictment of his skills—his WHIP hasn’t been over 1.15 since he first came into the league in 2002. Instead, it’s a sign of a down market.

K-Rod was lucky that the Mets felt a closer was going to be integral to their title chances and needed one to replace the injured Billy Wagner. In contrast, Soriano is faced with a market where most of the teams that might be willing to pay top dollar for his services already have at least one closer on staff. Some, like the Red Sox and Twins, have more than one.

Still, while he may have to drop his asking price, someone will pony up the cash—and the pick—necessary to sign the righty. It goes without saying that if any of the available relievers is worth their price, it’s him. Since his injury-plagued 2008 season, Soriano has posted back-to-back years with a top-20 WXRL, finished at least 50 games, and has caused hitters heartburn with his fastball and slider combination.

 His declining strikeout rate may be of some concern to teams looking at Soriano, though a commiserate drop in his walk rate means that his K/BB ratio actually rose from his 2009 season. He allowed fewer hitters to reach, and while his .212 BABIP is likely to rise in 2011, it isn’t all that far off from his career rate of .256. As Marc Normandin noted earlier this offseason, if Soriano isn’t going to pick his K-rate back up, he needs to keep the walk rate down as well. If his BABIP comes back, even just to his career average, and his walk rate regresses, Soriano could find himself needing to pick up more strikeouts as a matter of survival rather than vanity.

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