Examining the Non-Closer Reliever Free Agent Market: Part I

With few closing options available via free agency, teams have little choice but to buy seventh and eighth inning depth instead. And considering Brandon League recently signed a $22.5 million, three-year deal with the Los Angles Dodgers to be their setup man, it’s possible that other teams will have to pony up similar coin just to get the ball to their closer. Since non-closer relievers might become the hottest commodity on the free agent market, I will be examining said market in a multi-part series. Below is part one.

Mike Adams: For the past five seasons, there have been few non-closing relievers more consistently dominant than Mike Adams. In fact, since 2008, Adams has owned an incredible 1.98 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, and 3.84 K/BB in 295 IP. Despite being so dominant, the right-hander has only seen 14 save opportunities (and converted just 3 over them). Looking to sure up their bullpen for the playoffs, the Texas Rangers acquired Adams from the San Diego Padres for a bounty: prospects Robbie Erlin and Joe Wieland. In 25.6 IP for the Rangers, Adams did his job, hurling a 2.10 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, and 5.00 K/BB.

But at age 33 in 2012, it finally appeared as though Adams’ reign as a lights-out reliever come to an end. His 3.27 ERA was his highest rate (in a full-season) since 2004 (3.40 ERA), and even though xFIP has never been a friend to Adams, his 3.95 xFIP is indicative of what 2013 could look like. Adams is simply getting hit more often (.327 BABIP vs. career .260 BABIP), striking out less batters (7.74 K/9 vs. career 9.03 K/9), allowing more line drives (20.9% LD% vs. career 17.2 LD%), and has seen his fastball drop 1.4 MPH on average (resulting in a -5.1 RAA). Regardless, it still wouldn’t be shocking to see a team ink Adams, who made $4.4 million this season, on a two or three year contract worth anywhere from $4.6 to $6 annually–merely based on his history and the market.

Jason Grilli: Yes, Jason Grilli has played for six teams in ten seasons, and yes, it took him until age 34 to put it all together. But now he has two legitimate relief seasons under his belt, so he should be atop many team’s bullpen wish lists. After getting released by the Phillies Triple-A team in 2011, the former top prospect’s (and journey man) looked like toast. But the Pittsburgh Pirates threw him a life-line; and boy, did it pay off. In 32.6 IP in 2011, the 34 year-old Grilli hurled a surprising 2.48 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, and 2.47 K/BB.

The season was a success mostly due to Grilli’s dominance, sitting down batters at a rate of 10.2 K/9 in 2011 despite owning a prior career 6.6 K/9 rate. His low .268 BABIP (vs. career .301) also helped matters, however, his 3.54 xFIP (vs. 2.48 ERA) seemed indicative of his true abilities. While it would be safe to scream “fluke,” Grilli continued pitching at his torrid pace in 2012, hurling a 2.91 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 13.81 K/9, and 4.09 K/BB over 58.6 innings.

Not only were Grilli’s surface numbers in 2012 superior to his 2011’s, but also, his peripherals were all better too. The 35 year-old’s fantastic 2012 was made possible by his excellent 2.68 xFIP (vs. 2.91 ERA), improved fastball velocity (from 92.4 MPH in 2012 to 93.6 MPH), two high-end pitches (fastball: 3.7 RAA; slider: 4.3 RAA), and reduced Contact% (from 76.6% in 2012 to 71.4%). And he did this all with a BABIP higher (3.09 BABIP) than his career average (3.01 BABIP). He might be old, but he still might be the better than Mike Adams.

Mark Lowe: In parts of five Major League seasons with the Seattle Mariners, Mark Lowe only enjoyed one truly good year: in 2009, when he posted a 3.26 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, and 2.38 K/BB over 80 IP. After toiling with inconsistency as a Mariner, the right-hander’s 2010 trade to the Texas Rangers breathed new life into his career. In 2011–his first full-season for the Rangers–Lowe posted a respectable 3.80 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 2.21 K/BB. His 3.60 xFIP and solid .310 BABIP (vs. career .303 BABIP) solidified Lowe’s comeback season, and appeared to bring good things for 2012. That was only the case on the surface, however.

Despite posting a seemingly productive 3.43 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, and 2.15 K/BB over 39.3 IP, Lowe’s peripherals painted a different picture; luck played a major role in the 29 year-old 2012 season. In addition to sporting a whopping 4.64 xFIP, the righty also owned a lopsided .259 BABIP (vs. career .303) and a 80.5% LOB% (he had a 67.6% rate in 2009, and a 68.9% rate in 2011). On top of that, Lowe was still able to find outs despite posting his lowest K/9 in his career (6.41 K/9 vs. career 7.85 K/9), and paltry 33.9% GB% (vs. career 40.8% GB%). Going into free-agency, Mark Lowe will likely find suitors due to his relatively young age (29 years-old) and two consecutive years of under-4.00 ERA baseball–but  teams should really look to his 4.64 xFIP for what 2013 might actually look like.

Brandon Lyon: From 2006 to 2010, Brandon Lyon’s success as a reliever was curious and drastically overpaid (he signed a $15 million, three-year contract with the Astros in 2009). Despite posting a combined 3.38 ERA and 1.26 WHIP over those five seasons, he did so with league average control (3.0 BB/9) and below league-average K% (6.0 K/9). Even with his lack of dominance, both the Arizona Diamondbacks and Houston Astros used the righty as their closer, in 2008 and 2010, respectfully, but he didn’t perform particularly well in either year. After enduring a painful bicep injury and subsequent surgery in 2011–missing all but 13.3 innings worth of the season–it seemed as though the reliever’s career was on its last legs.

Yet, Lyon bounced back in 2012, arguably posting his best career year. In 61 innings between the Astros and the Blue Jays (via mid-season trade), the right-hander owned a 3.10 ERA (vs. 3.94 xFIP), 1.24 WHIP, and 3.15 K/BB. Considering his career surface averages reflect a 4.12 ERA, 1.36 WHP, and 2.14 K/BB, obviously the 32 year-old found his groove as a non-closer, post-surgery. The biggest reason behind Lyon’s 2012 success was certainly due to the development of a cutter, a pitch he had never thrown more than 1.4% of the time before 2011. And the result? A 3.6 RAA. Lyon has never had difficulty finding a market for himself as a free agent, so this off-season–especially coming off his 2012 season–shouldn’t be any different. The real question is whether a team will invest more than two years in him, or worse, will try to use him as a closer.

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