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January 18, 2013

A Little Relief

Six Bullpen Arms Still Available

by Jonah Birenbaum

Earlier this week, Jon Heyman tweeted a short list of free agent relievers who could be a reasonable fit for the back end of the Blue Jays’ bullpen. Whether you credit Heyman with clairvoyance or good contacts, it just so happened that one of the names conspicuously absent from that list was Rafael Soriano. Hours later, the 33-year-old right-hander became a member of the Washington Nationals, signing a two-year, $28-million deal with a vesting option for 2015.

In snapping up Soriano, the Nats removed the best available free agent reliever from the market, but they left an assortment of lower-tier options for teams still looking to bolster their bullpens. Ken Rosenthal later listed several teams still interested in picking up a reliever, identifying the Rays, Tigers, Mariners, Marlins, and Mets as potential suitors. Here are some of the options they can consider:

Jose Valverde
The Tigers have made abundantly clear their intention not to retain Jose Valverde after his putrid postseason performance—a blown save, another historic ninth-inning collapse, 2.2 innings pitched, 11 hits, nine runs (all earned)—caused a city-wide epidemic of Motor City Madness. It was an unceremonious end to Papa Grande’s tenure with the Tigers, capping off a season of statistical decline.

Among the dozen closers with at least 35 saves in 2012, Valverde ranked second-to-last in both ERA (3.78) and K/9 (6.26), by far the lowest strikeout rate of his career (marking his fourth consecutive season of sinking strikeout rates). He also produced his lowest groundball rate since his rookie year and failed to outperform his FIP for the first time since 2006.

On the bright(er) side, Valverde’s home run rate continued its steady decline, as he surrendered an impressive, albeit unsustainable, three long balls over 69 innings. He also did a better job of limiting free passes, posting his best walk rate since 2009 while managing the fewest pitches per plate appearance of his career (3.86).

Since 2010, no one has collected more saves than Valverde’s 110, nor proven more adept at over-the-top gesticulations. The 34-year-old’s track record as a closer—despite his recent struggles, he sports a 93 percent save conversion rate over his past three seasons—will probably ensure that he finds gainful employment somewhere, despite peripherals that aren’t overly encouraging.

Francisco Rodriguez
The single-season record holder for saves regressed some in 2012, posting the lowest strikeout rate of his career and his highest home run rate since 2003. Serving primarily as the setup man to an ineffective John Axford, Rodriguez—whose 715 innings since 2003 represent the most by any reliever—posted an ERA north of four for the first time in his career and wasn’t nearly as effective working out of jams, recording a left-on base rate roughly 10 percentage points lower than this career mark of 79.7 percent.

Despite an uptick in velocity last season—his fastball averaged 92.7 mph in 2012, compared to 91.3 mph the year prior—K-Rod induced swings and misses with unprecedented infrequency; his 7.9 percent swinging strike rate in 2012 represented the lowest mark of his career. Still, PECOTA predicts a solid bounceback for the 31-year-old, projecting a 3.37 ERA with 10.2 K/9 despite the fact he’s approaching that scary part of the aging curve wherein relief pitchers start to see a more pronounced dip in velocity and strikeout rates.

Matt Capps
On Tuesday, Ben Lindbergh wrote a piece extolling the Twins’ seemingly newfound approach to pitching, one that places a greater priority on high-octane, strikeout stuff than the organization historically has. Capps, another available bullpen arm, is the examplar of the team’s previously command-and-control-oriented pitching philosophy, averaging just 5.4 strikeouts per nine innings since arriving in Minnesota at the 2010 trade deadline. And since 2011, Capps’ meager strikeout rate ranks dead last among the 37 relievers with as many or more saves.

Capps is often victimized by his propensity for pounding the strike zone, surrendering home runs at a rate of 1.4 per nine innings since 2011, the sixth-worst such ratio among relievers with at least 90 innings pitched over that span. Consequently, he’s performed no better than a replacement level player since 2010, including an unsightly -0.5 WARP season in 2011.

However, as you might’ve deduced, he rarely issues walks—his 1.8 BB/9 ranks eighth-best among qualified relievers since 2010—and would probably come at a discount considering he missed nearly half of last season with a shoulder injury.

Brandon Lyon
After a disastrous, injury-riddled 2011 campaign that saw Lyon post an 11.48 ERA and surrender 27 hits over 13.1 innings, the 33-year-old bounced back in a big way in 2012, fashioning a 3.10 ERA in 67 appearances with massive strikeout numbers.

From 2001-2011, Lyon averaged only 5.8 K/9, second-worst among the 22 relievers who pitched as many innings over that span. Although his velocity held steady at 90.9, he was a different guy in 2012, striking out 9.3 batters per nine innings while recording his lowest walk rate since 2008 and the lowest fair run average (3.21) of his career. Not surprisingly, his swinging strike rate ballooned to 10.1 percent, his highest total since way back in his 2003 season with the Red Sox.

After starting off strong with the Astros in 2012, Lyon was included in a 10-player trade with the Blue Jays that shipped him to Toronto along with J.A. Happ and a handful of other pieces back in July. He proceeded to dominate with the team that drafted him in 1999 and was virtually unhittable at Rogers Centre, fashioning a 0.71 ERA to go along with a 0.95 WHIP. Although Lyon has closer experience, he’s better suited for a setup role.

Matt Lindstrom
It’s probably just a small-sample fluke—his entire career encompasses only 326 innings—but maybe there’s something about the unfamiliar contours of a hotel bed that Lindstrom loves:

Career road ERA: 2.59
Career home ERA: 4.54
Career road slash: .251/.331/.312
Career home slash: .286/.344/.407

Over the course of his career, Lindstrom has played for the Marlins, Astros, Rockies, and most recently, the Orioles and Diamondbacks, most of whom play in neutral or hitter-friendly environments. In spite of this, he’s emerged as a pretty reliable back-end arm over the past couple seasons, fashioning a 2.85 ERA over his last 101 innings.

In 2012, Lindstrom split time between Baltimore and Arizona, posting a career-best 2.68 ERA in a campaign that typified the drastic home/road splits that have defined his career. He has a powerful fastball that sits around 95-96 mph and could be one of the more cost-effective options for teams interested in solidifying their bullpen without paying a premium for a guy with an extensive history of closing.

Kyle Farnsworth
The bespectacled behemoth was slated to open the 2012 season as the Rays’ closer after a monstrous 2011 in which he posted a 2.18 ERA and an impressive 4.25 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Alas, an elbow injury Farnsworth sustained in spring training thrust Fernando Rodney into the role and, well, the rest was history.

Upon his return in June, Farnsworth labored through a rough second outing, walking four and allowing three runs. But as Lindbergh aptly noted earlier this week, Farnsworth compiled a 3.16 ERA with 22 strikeouts and nine walks over his final 25 2/3 innings, “not far off the solid peripherals he’d posted in previous years.”

Farnsworth has seen his groundball rates spike over the past couple seasons, and he continues to be devastating against righties, holding them to an absymal .217/.253/.280 line with just one home run over 49.1 innings since 2011. For his career, he’s managed to record almost a strikeout per inning, though he’s fanned fewer batters since 2009. As Lindbergh concluded, “the righty has recorded a 3.16 FIP over the past four seasons since picking up a cutter in Kansas City and becoming a more complete pitcher, and he should serve some team well in a setup role.”

Jonah Birenbaum is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jonah's other articles. You can contact Jonah by clicking here

Related Content:  Relievers,  Pitchers,  Free Agents,  Bullpen

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