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

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 be the hottest commodity on the free agent market, I will be examining said market in a multi-part series. Below is part two.

Joel Peralta: Like Jason Grilli, Joel Peralta didn’t blossom until late in his career. After spending three serviceable seasons with the Kansas City Royals from 2006 to 2008 (combined 4.54 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 3.22 K/BB over 214 IP), the right-hander endured a horrendous 2009 season with the Rockies (6.20 ERA, 1.58 WHIP, 1.83 K/BB over 24.6 IP)–a season that almost spelled the end of his career. But the Washington Nationals threw Peralta a life-line in 2010, signing the reliever to a Minor League deal. In 33.3 innings for Syracuse Triple-A, the 34 year-old pitcher hurled a superb 1.08 RA, 0.93 WHIP, and 5.43 K/BB. Needless to say, Peralta earned his ticket back to the show–and he didn’t slow down. Peralta pitched another 49 innings for the Nationals in 2010, posting a sensational 2.02 ERA, 0.79 WHIP, and 5.44 K/BB. Even though his 3.43 xFIP (vs. 2.02 ERA), .200 BABIP (career .268 BABIP), and 84.9 LOB% (vs. career 73.2%) contributed to his comeback season, it’s important to note that Peralta was simply more dominant (9.0 K/9 vs. career 7.0 K/9) and exhibited better control (1.65 BB/9 vs. career 2.5 BB/9) than he ever had.

For whatever reason, upon entering free agency after his fantastic 2010 season, there was little interest in the right-handed reliever. Even though some bloggers pleaded with their team to sign the guy, only the Tampa Bay Rays took the clue. The Rays signed Peralta to a one-year, $925,000 contract, and hoped for a repeat. The reliever wasn’t quite as dominant in 2011 as he was in 2010, but his “sophomore” season was still excellent. Peralta posted a 2.93 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, and 3.39 K/BB over 67.6 IP for the Rays, and even recorded 6 Saves to boot. Peralta’s 3.88 xFIP (vs. 2.93 ERA) and .218 BABIP (vs. career .268 BABIP) still hinted at regression, but to his credit, the righty’s lofty 84.9% LOB% from the year prior adjust back to his career norms (74.7% LOB% in 2011 vs. 73.2% LOB%). Prudently, the Rays agreed to terms with Peralta again in 2012, paying the reliever a still bargain-basement price of $2,175,000.

While his 2012 surface statistics (3.63 ERA and 0.98 WHIP) seemed to lag far behind his previous two seasons (combined 2.55 ERA and 0.86 WHIP), there were many other facets of the 36 year-old’s year that proves the veteran still has it. In fact, it’s possible the righty was actually more dominant in 2012 than he was in any other year of his career. This is due to an improved K/9 rate (11.28 K/9 vs. 7.5 K/9), spiked SwStr% (12.7% in 2012 vs. career 10.6%), reduced Contact% (72.5% in 2012 vs. career 77.5%), and three pitches with positive RAA (fastball: 3.7 RAA; curveball: 2.0 RAA, and split-finger: 4.1 RAA). Needless to say, after three straight dominant seasons, Joel Peralta–no matter how old–is the real deal. He’s easily worth a two-year deal worth $5 million annually, but could see a three-year deal from a desperate team.

UPDATE: The Rays have re-signed Joel Peralta to a two-year, $6 million contract, with a $2.5 million option for 2015. Once again, the Rays prove why they are one of smartest, best-run franchises in baseball.

Jon Rauch: In an attempt to revamp their horrendous 2011 bullpen, the Mets handed Jon Rauch a one-year, $3.5 million deal last off-season. Coming off a career-worst (unless you count his rookie season in 2002) 4.85 ERA (vs. 4.56 xFIP), 1.34 WHIP, and 2.57 K/BB for the Minnesota Twins, it was surprising Rauch was able to match his 2011 salary. The Mets could have done a lot worse–like Frank Francisco‘s two-year, $12 million, for instance–but Rauch still happens to be one of the most statistical predictable and less interesting relievers in baseball. I don’t say this with contempt, either.

Over the course of ten seasons (including 2012), he’s only accumulated 6.2 WAR, or 0.62 WAR per season. Assuming you’re on page with 1.0 WAR being equal to about $5 million, Rauch has been worth about $3.2 million per season. And while Rauch has rarely endured a bad season (see: 2002 and 2011), he’s also never posted one with a xFIP under 3.71 (he did so in 2008). This is due to his meek strike out numbers (career 7.16 K/9, and 6.55 K/9 in 2012 vs. 8.55 K/9 2012 average among relievers with at least 20 IP), induce ground-balls (career 34.0% GB% and 36.6% GB% in 2012), or hone a good off-speed pitch (career -7.9 RAA for curveball, career 0.0 RAA for change-up).

On the surface, the 33 year-old had a solid campaign for the Mets, posting a 3.59 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, and 3.50 K/BB. But the combination of his month-to-month splits and peripherals told the tale of a different reliever–one we know all too well. Even though Rauch owned a 2.53 ERA, 1.17 ERA, and 0.93 ERA in March/April, July, and August, respectively, he also hurled a 5.56 ERA, 4.50 ERA, and 6.10 ERA in May, June, and September/October, respectively. The righty’s 4.33 xFIP (vs. 3.59 ERA), .222 BABIP (vs. career .273 BABIP), and scarily low 62.2 LOB% (vs. career 73.1% LOB%, and second worst among all relievers with at least 40 IP). Some team will pay Rauch his usual $3+ million salary, but he’s not the closer both the Nationals, Twins, and Blue Jays used him as, or even the setup man the Mets thought he could be. For your fourth arm out of the ‘pen, teams should think twice about hiring Mr. Boring.

Carlos Villanueva: Carlos Villanueva is one of the more interesting reliever free agents on the market. The 28 year-old right-hander has significant experience as both a starting pitcher and reliever, but has proven to be more effective as a reliever, overall (career 4.80 ERA as a starter vs. career 3.76 ERA as a reliever). Yet starting/relief splits don’t tell the full story. Villanueva posted a 3.67 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, and 2.53 K/BB in his first nine starts for the Blue Jays in 2011. However, in his last four starts of the season, his good season completely unraveled, pitching to the tune of a 9.31 ERA, 1.86 WHIP, and 3.0 K/BB.

The poor ending to 2011 cost Villanueva a rotation spot going into 2012, but due to injuries, the 28 year-old found his way back in the fold. Similar to 2011, Villanueva impressed the Blue Jays in his eleven starts, posting a productive 3.03 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, and 3.82 K/BB. But the deja vu set in. In the month of September, the righty lost his earlier-season mojo, and instead looked like a mirror image of his poor-performing-2011-self (8.10 ERA, 1.53 WHIP, and 2.62 K/BB). The poor performance could potentially hurt Villanueva’s value in free agency, as the pitcher has proven unable to be a durable starting pitcher. That said, there should still be plenty of interest in the right-hander as he could easily slip in as a seventh inning option, long-man, and half-season starter.

Jeremy Affeldt: Since 2008, Jeremy Affeldt has been one of the more reliable non-closing relievers in baseball. In 315.6 innings between those seasons, the left-hander has combined for a 2.88 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, and 2.28 K/BB. The big issue with Affeldt has always been his control (career 3.94 BB/9), but he makes up for that with solid strikeout numbers (8.3 K/9 from 2008 to 2012), good ground ball rates (about 59% GB% from 2008 to 2012, and he even majorly improved on his gopheritis in 2012 (career 9.5% HR/FB vs. 2.9% HR/FB in 2012).

At age 33, Affeldt enjoyed a 2.70 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, and 2.48 K/BB over 63.3 innings during 2012–a campaign that is sure to make him rich this off-season. The legitimate setup man earned $5 million with the Giants this past season, and should easily sign a three-year contract coming close to League’s $22.5 million deal. Between the two of them, Affeldt deserves it more (though neither of them actually deserve it).

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