Before we get to the relievers, I want to comment on Jamey Carroll, who I inadvertently sorted into the relief pitchers during this process.
Jamey Carroll: Utility infielders who can’t play shortstop usually have short shelf lives. Carroll survives by being a better offensive player than the field, and he has the scrappy sheen that gets you two-year deals where one is more appropriate. The steady rise in his strikeout rate will likely chew up his OBP during his next deal, making it his last. He’ll be pursued by a bunch of teams looking for “stability” at second base.
I’ve ordered the relievers the same way I ordered players in the first three pieces in this series. With that said, variance really swamps the difference between any couple of places here, so don’t get too caught up in one guy being listed above another. Have a happy Thanksgiving!
Billy Wagner: Wagner was a little wild but otherwise dominant in coming back from Tommy John surgery. Despite the lost year, he’s arguably the best reliever on the market, given his end-year performance and the fact that the other guys all have spotty health records. The Red Sox did him a favor by not picking up his $8 million option, as he’ll do better than that on the market, most likely getting a two-year deal. Wagner may have to choose between setting up for a good team or closing for a bad one, however.
Chan Ho Park: Ignore the overall numbers. As a reliever the past two seasons, Park has 101 strikeouts and 37 unintentional walks in 120⅓ innings. Split the difference on his homers (10 in ’08, none in ’09) and project him as 70 innings of effective relief in a package that gets both lefties and righties out. He’s worth at least a one-year deal, and I’d go to two if necessary.
Rafael Betancourt: It was mildly surprising that the Rockies passed on his option, because he was a key part of their late-season run and has been that good or better most of his career. Betancourt throws his fastball 75 percent of the time, which is down from where he peaked a few years ago. It’s a decent trick that warrants a guaranteed deal, even one with a vesting option. Betancourt will be one of the few values in a weak market.
Octavio Dotel: The Adam Dunn of relief pitchers, 44 percent of Dotel’s plate appearances as a pitcher ended in a walk, strikeout, or homer. The end result is valuable, just a bit ugly to watch at times. For a 36-year-old, he has a lot of upside, and it’d be interesting to see him land in a cavern like Safeco or Petco. As is, he’ll end up setting up for a good team on a two-year deal.
Mike Gonzalez: Just twice all year was he asked to pitch in two separate innings, and he handled both assignments, pitching well in those outings and the ones that followed. So, while his history screams “handle with care,” it’s at least possible that he’s finally healthy. Just based on skills, he’s the best reliever available, and likely to get closer money in a Kerry Wood (two years, $20 million) package. The Tigers, Marlins, and Astros could need bullpen help badly enough to spend, though it’s not clear if any of them will. The Braves could do worse than to talk him into staying.
Kiko Calero: Calero now has a 3.24 ERA and nearly a 3:1 K/BB with more than a strikeout an inning in 302⅔ career frames. He also throws his slider 97.4 percent of the time, and because of that is a pretty big health risk. The skills are worth a two-year deal light on guaranteed money and heavy on appearance incentives; he’ll either be good or unavailable. Calero is one of the good bargains in this market.
Rafael Soriano: He’s an electric reliever, with a career 2.60 ERA and a 4/1 K/BB out of the bullpen. Like his teammate Gonzalez, Soriano has missed a lot of time due to injuries, and he had shoulder discomfort in the second half. Any team looking to sign him has to accept that the risk isn’t performance, but availability. He’ll be looking for closer money and a closer role, but fits best with a team looking to gild the lily, one with other options if he breaks down. The Yankees, Dodgers and Red Sox can all afford to gamble on a two-year deal for up to $10 million.
Jose Valverde: A year ago, Valverde would not have stood out; in this class he has the most closer cachet, and a reasonable set of skills to match. After returning from the DL (right calf) in June, he ran up a 1.76 ERA while managing a strikeout an inning with just two homers allowed. He’ll be looking for Brian Fuentes money, and he may just get it. Free-agent closers tend to be pretty good values relative to other free agents, and Valverde is unlikely to buck that trend.
Darren Oliver: The small lefty who nearly walked his way out of the league has evolved into a strike-thrower and one of the rare lefty relievers who isn’t pigeon-holed, a credit to Mike Scioscia‘s use of him. The Angels would get more from him than most any other team because of Scioscia. There’s an obvious solution here for a team that can afford the luxury of re-upping a 39-year-old reliever.
Scott Eyre: Elbow problems make his return to any team a question, but if he’s healthy enough to pitch, he’s a credible specialist who isn’t completely helpless against righties, and a good use of a roster spot. The Phillies could use him back-their pen worked better with him than without.
Matt Herges: The Indians, with an awful bullpen, dumped Herges in July when he had a 3.55 ERA and about that same K/BB. Baseball is weird. Herges has become a reliable strike-thrower and effective low-leverage pitcher late in life; he may not get a major-league deal, but he’ll be getting outs in the seventh inning by May. A strong NRI candidate, in that if you give him one, he stands a good chance of pitching his way onto the roster.
Brandon Lyon: Don’t get too excited. His true ability lies between the 2008 and 2009 ERAs, making him a serviceable seventh-inning guy. Last year’s numbers weren’t just the result of a shift in BABIP-his decision to emphasize his breaking stuff helped him allow fewer hard-hit balls. Lyon may just be getting started on a Dave Weathers career; a two-year deal from a National League team is the best fit.
Joe Beimel: He’s consistently effective against left-handers, striking out 15-20 percent of the ones he faces without walking many. There’s nothing sexy about him, but he’ll help a good team win games. If Damaso Marte can get a three-year deal, Beimel should be able to get at least two years at similar money.
LaTroy Hawkins: Hawkins was fortunate last season, giving up a lot of line drives but a slightly below-average batting average on balls in play. His 11 saves were more about Jose Valverde being hurt than any change in him, so look for him to be evaluated as a good set-up man, likely to get a guaranteed deal, perhaps even two years. He has 24 shots to land on his seventh team in seven years.
Dave Weathers: Weathers threw 3⅓ innings for the 1992 Blue Jays, allowing three runs. He threw 17⅓ regular-season innings for the 1996 Yankees, allowing 19 runs. I guess the interesting question is this: would Weathers trade those two rings for the career that followed, the one in which he was an above-average pitcher for bad teams, made $24 million, and never once pitched in another postseason? Weathers has become a reliable, durable reliever who will get at least a one-year deal and be worth it.
Chad Bradford: Elbow problems limited him to just 20 appearances, and he allowed an absurd .457 BABIP in those games, so clearly something was wrong. He certainly was used properly: 85 percent of the batters he faced were right-handed. Once healthy, He’s worth a look as a high-ground-ball rate ROOGY, but he hasn’t undergone surgery yet, so his health is an unknown.
Brian Shouse: You can spot a LOOGY by his rates. Shouse had a breakdown of 14/1 K/BB against lefties, striking out 20 percent of the lefty batters he faced. He had a 3/3 K/BB against righties, striking out less than seven percent of them. If you’re going to have a LOOGY, this is the kind to get, not the ones who come over the top and have almost no split. I had no idea he was 41 years old; he once relieved Bob Walk, for crying out loud.
Claudio Vargas: Vargas is better than a few dozen guys who spent all of 2008 and 2009 in the majors. While his extremely low ERA last season is a stone fluke off a .203 BABIP, he can start 30 times and be a little below average or relieve 70 times and be a little bit above. One of the better NRI candidates out there, although it’s possible his 1.74 ERA will get him guaranteed money. Steve Trachsel thinks he works slowly.
Brendan Donnelly: He pitched well in his second year past Tommy John surgery. He’s unlikely to draw much attention this winter, having reached the NRI portion of his career, but he stands out as a pitcher who’s only had one really bad season since reaching the majors. You want your team to sign him.
Bobby Howry: His strikeout rate has been slipping, something that was masked in ’09 by a low BABIP and very low HR/FB rate. He’s changing as a pitcher, throwing his fastball less, and while it worked last year, older pitchers adapting isn’t exactly a growth market. His ERA says he gets a one-year deal, but I’m not convinced he’s worth it.
Kevin Gregg: Gregg went back to being a fly-ball pitcher and his HR/FB regressed hard as he did so, making him unwelcome in Chicago. With the illusion that he’s a closer shattered, he can go back to being a credible league-average reliever. Returning to the Angels, where he started out in the bigs, is a possibility.
Ron Mahay: There wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between his performances in 2009 and 2010, but the latter got him released by the Royals, who admittedly had a deep, high-quality bullpen and didn’t need a league-average pitcher like Mahay. He’d make a better full-inning guy than a LOOGY, but will have to make a team the NRI way to have either job.
Russ Springer: He throw strikes, hopes the other guys don’t have too many lefties, and can be happy with a low-leverage role. It’s worth millions upon millions of dollars, and it just sounds so easy. Since 2005, the year he turned 37, Springer has 269 strikeouts and just 83 unintentional walks allowed, and at 41 is shockingly worth a guaranteed deal despite some long-ball issues in ’09. He’d look better in an National League bullpen.
Danys Baez: Baez reinvented himself as a fastball/splitter pitcher, pitching effectively with a career-best ground-ball rate. The bigger key was a very low line-drive rate, 13 percent, which has no place to go but up. There’s so little upside here that it’s hard to recommend him for even a one-year deal, and he’s likely to disappoint his next employer.
Jeff Weaver: A healthy scratch in 2008, Weaver became a key long man for Joe Torre. He’s worth an NRI, especially if you might want an in towards signing his brother in a few years. It feels like Jeff is older than 33.
Fernando Rodney: Forget the saves and save percentage; Rodney has been going backwards for three seasons, with 2009 his worst performance yet. An increase in his ground-ball rate came out of nowhere and saved him from an ERA above 5.00. The closer label and those 37 saves are going to make him one of the offseason’s mistakes, because his skills won’t warrant the contract he’ll sign, and his performance will take a big hit in ’10.
Scott Schoeneweis: The death of Schoeneweis’ wife in May appeared to affect his performance thereafter, and renders his stat line for the season useless as a measure of his value. He’d been performing as the Diamondbacks‘ lefty specialist prior to the tragedy. Schoeneweis will likely sign a major-league deal with a team that recognizes the unique circumstances of 2009 and needs a LOOGY; where he lands may have more to do with his non-baseball concerns than anything else.
Jamey Wright: He’s now just a serviceable utility pitcher who isn’t valuable enough to waste a 40-man roster spot on. There are a hundred guys like him, with his small edge being an ability to keep the ball down. It’s been a very long time since he pitched in front of a defense where that skill was beneficial, though. He might be an interesting pickup for the Rays for that reason.
Guillermo Mota: Nothing about his season seems repeatable, as he became more hittable and simply had a year where the results on contact were better than usual. When your fly-ball rate goes up and your home-run rate goes down, something’s rotten in Denmark. I wouldn’t touch him with your NRI.
Juan Rincon: Four teams have let Rincon go over the past two seasons, each hoping he’d recover the form that made him one of the AL’s best relievers from 2003 through 2006. He’s lost command of his whole arsenal, however. Because he’s just 31, there’s enough hope to warrant an NRI, just nothing more.
Ron Villone: He’s not a LOOGY and he’s never been one, although at this point, it doesn’t matter much how his teams misuse him. Command issues are eating away at his value, leaving him on the NRI line hoping to impress someone in March.
J.J. Putz: Yet another pitcher who was shut down during the season with injuries and now finds himself on the market at the nadir of his value; that has to be frustrating. Putz was awesome for two years, which is two more years than he may have left in his career. NRI at best.
Doug Brocail: Brocail missed most of the season with a shoulder strain. It’s not clear whether any team will be interested in a 43-year-old who was hurt and ineffective at 42, but since he washed out of the league at 33 and 39 and made it back both times, you have to consider the possibility. NRI bait.
Will Ohman: Elbow and shoulder injuries ruined his followup to a career-best ’08 season, and he underwent surgery on the shoulder at the end of the season. He’s a LOOGY with a high fly-ball rate, a limited track record of success, an injury history, and little chance of pitching in 2010.
Jason Isringhausen: A blown UCL and Tommy John surgery ended his year, and the timing of both-June-will make it hard for any team to take a chance on him for 2010. He turns 38 in September, so it’s possible that the last of the Young Guns is out of bullets.
Joaquin Benoit: He missed the year with a torn rotator cuff. At 32, with just two good seasons in his career, it’s not clear whether he’s even worth a minor-league deal.
Josh Fogg: A freakishly low line-drive rate helped Fogg post an acceptable ERA in extremely low-leverage work. Fogg now becomes a competence test for 30 front offices; the one that signs him does so off a single number that isn’t reflective of how he pitched. I have the Royals in the pool.
Eddie Guardado: Guardado is far too extreme a fly-ball pitcher to have value as a high-leverage reliever, given that he no longer strikes out a lot of batters. He’s expected to retire.
Troy Percival: Nothing in his brief time on the mound in 2009 indicated that he has anything left. A sore shoulder may have been the proximate cause of his ineffectiveness, which doesn’t make him any more likely to return in ’10. Percival is probably going to retire, again.
Chad Fox: From 2004 through 2008, he threw 22 MLB innings, walked 19 guys, and gave up 16 runs, and the Cubs brought him back for 2009. He’d only pitched 4⅔ innings in the minors in those five years! He should be done, but we’re through the looking glass with this one. Maybe the Cubs can burn another half-million bucks on him.
Kip Wells: Having pitched for the Rockies, Royals, Nationals, and Reds over the past two seasons, and the Pirates and Rangers in 2006, what does that leave? The Orioles, I guess. Maybe the Padres? A good team has no use for Wells, with 74 strikeouts and 70 walks in his last 110⅓ innings. NRI… no, CPA bait.