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

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 three (the final part).

Matt Lindstrom: Matt Lindstrom is living proof that just because you throw hard, doesn’t mean you net a lot of strikeouts. In fact, despite perennially being among the hardest throwing pitchers in the Major Leagues (his 94.8 MPH average fastball placed him in a three-way tie for 44th for pitchers with at least 20 innings), he only owns a career 7.26 K/9. Even though the 32 year-old posted a 7.66 K/9 in 2012–which was .40 above his career average–you’d have to scroll through nine pages on Fan Graphs to find his name on the top K/9 list (that’s a bad thing). Luckily for Lindstrom, the righty does find other ways to get batters out. For instance, he owns a respectable 47.6% GB%, and like his K/9, he bested his career rate in 2012 with a good 50.7% GB%. The righty also enjoyed better-than-career rates in BB/9 (career 3.29 BB/9 vs. 2.68 BB/9 in 2012), in HR/9 (career 0.50 HR/9 vs. 0.38 HR/9 in 2012), LOB% (career 72.9% LOB% vs. 76.8% LOB% in 2012), and even xFIP (career 4.00 xFIP vs. 3.79 xFIP in 2012).

The biggest issue with Lindstrom, however, is that he simply does not have an effective off-speed pitch. The reliever abandoned his curveball and change-up after the 2008 season, and throws a mediocre split-finger that was only worth 0.4 RAA in 2012 (and 0.0 RAA from 2009 to 2011). With his good 2012 surface statistics (2.68 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, and 2.86 K/BB), it’s likely Lindstrom will get a two-year deal worth between $8-10 million. But regardless of his two multi-save seasons in 2009 and 2010, the righty is not closer-worthy, and projects as more of a 7th inning option than a setup man.

Kameron Loe: After spending all of 2009 with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, Kameron Loe seemed destined for a journeyman career. To further his bleak disposition, the former Texas Rangers hurler posted an ugly 6.33 ERA, 1.77 WHIP, and 1.50 K/BB in 27 innings for the Japanese squad. Despite the horrendous season abroad, the Milwaukee Brewers took a chance on Loe, and signed him to a Minor League deal. The result? A surprising, and much improved campaign. The right-handed reliever posted a rebound 3.16 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, and 2.05 K/BB in 62.3 innings (all of which were starts) for Triple-A, and earned a call-up to the show. In the Majors, the Brewers decided to use Loe as a reliever, and he responded with a fantastic 2.78 ERA (vs. 3.28 xFIP), 1.18 WHIP, and 3.07 K/BB in 58.3 innings (for a total of 120.6 IP).

The Brew Crew didn’t forget about Loe’s performance going into 2011, and placed the 28 year-old on the Major League roster. Despite a higher ERA (3.50 ERA in 2011 vs. 2.78 ERA in 2010), the righty’s 2.78 xFIP paralleled his ERA from 2010, and saw across-the-boards improvements in K/9 (from 7.10 to 7.63), BB/9 (from 2.31 to 2.00), GB% (from 59.4% to 63.3%), and HR/FB (from 14.0% to 10.0%). Yet, despite two consecutive good seasons of skill growth, Loe caught a bad case of gopheritis in 2012. All of the 29 year-old’s air-born rates spiked: HR/9 (from 0.50 in 2011 to 1.19 in 2012), HR/FB (from 10.0% in 2011 to 18.0% in 2012), and FB% (from 19.3% in 2011 to 22.9% in 2012). Interestingly enough, 77.7% of the homeruns Loe surrendered in 2012 were at-home–even though the righty never surrendered more than 50% of his homeruns at home in either 2010 or 2011.

Loe’s 3.57 xFIP in 2012 (vs. 4.61 ERA) suggest that his long-ball issue could be an anomaly, but it will cost him a good-paying contract. The 31 year-old is still capable of being a solid 7th inning man, and teams could probably land the reliever for around what he made in 2012 ($2.175 million). Assuming he bounces back, Kameron Loe could be a steal in 2013.

Koji Uehara: Uehara has been one of the most quietly dominant relief pitchers–in all of baseball–over the past three seasons . Even though his fastball averages a mere 88.9 MPH, the Japanese import stills owns a career 11.4 K/9 (as a reliever) from 2010 to 2012. But his dominance doesn’t just begin and end with strikeouts. Uehara is stingy when it comes to allowing hits (5.9 Hits/9 and career .258 BABIP), has pin-point control (1.1 BB/9), and has stranded almost all of his base-runners over the past two seasons (94.9% LOB% in 2011, and 92.0% LOB% in 2012).

Despite possessing a very effective change-up (3.2 RAA in 2010, and 5.1 RAA in 2011), the 37 year-old dropped the pitch after the 2011 season, and instead focused on his fastball (7.8 RAA in 2012), cutter (-0.7 RAA in 2012), and split-finger (5.1 RAA in 2012). Needless to say, Uehara’s two dominant pitches (fastball and split-finger) and incredible 18.9% SwStr% (second only to Craig Kimbrel in 2012) helped him spin a career-best 1.75 ERA (vs. 2.67 xFIP) and 0.63 WHIP.

But, not all of Uehara’s 2012 was squeaky clean. Assuming you isolate his 2009 season (when he was purely a starting pitcher), Uehara has posted a .294 BABIP, .196 BABIP, and .200 BABIP in 2010, 2011, and 2012, respectively. While two out of his three reliever seasons have resulted in microscopic BABIPs, if his 2013 rate is more in-line with is 2010 rate, Uehara can kiss his Koufax-esq 1.75 ERA and 0.63 WHIP goodbye. As his 2.67 xFIP suggests, team’s should pay for Uehara’s 2010 season–not his 2011 or 2012 seasons. Regardless–and injuries/age aside–the reliever is worth a two-year deal, or at least a good base/high-incentive one-year deal.

Sean Burnett: Sean Burnett hasn’t been as dominant as Koji Uehara, but what the two have in common is how seldom mentioned his dominance is and has been. After seemingly being yet another top Pirates prospect bust, the then 26 year-old had an awakening in 2009. Freshly converted to reliever duties, the left-hander posted a combined 3.12 ERA (4.27 xFIP), 1.11 WHIP, and 1.54 K/BB over 57.6 innings between the Pirates and the Nationals (via a mid-season trade). Despite his good season, Burnett still had not solved his control issues (4.4 BB/9 in 2009)–and his unsustainable .191 BABIP and 4.27 xFIP pointed to regression.

Yet, regression never happened. The southpaw dazzled in his first full-season with the Nationals, posting a 2.14 ERA (vs. 2.92 xFIP), 1.14 WHIP, and 3.10 K/BB. His control issues evaporated (from 4.4 BB/9 to 2.9 BB/9 in 2010), his BABIP rose to a much more normal rate (.280 BABIP), and he even started to get more batters to hit the ball on the ground (from 49.4% GB% in 2009 to 54.4% GB% in 2010). Also, Burnett’s 2010 season was (and still remains) the only season where he posted three pitches with positive RAA (fastball: 8.9 RAA, slider: 4.7 RAA, and change-up: 0.2 RAA).

Burnett entered 2011 as one of the better setup men in baseball, but unfortunately, he couldn’t quite keep up with the label. In the first-half of the season, the southpaw posted a dismal 5.40 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, and 1.42 K/BB–not exactly the numbers one would expect from a “dominant” reliever. Even though his average fastball was up a tick from 2010 (from 90.8 MPH to 91.4 MPH in 2011), it was only worth -0.7 RAA. In fact, Burnett’s only pitch that registered in the positive was his change-up, at 3.3 RAA. Perhaps the reliever lost confidence in his fastball, and turned to his change-up too often, as he threw the off-speed pitch 15.2% of the time (where as he had only thrown it 8.3% and 6.9% of the time in 2009 and 2010, respectively). Even though Burnett bounced back in the second half, posting a 1.80 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, and 1.78 K/BB, without the ability to sit down hitters (from 8.86 K/9 in 2010 to 5.24 K/9 in 2011), he just wasn’t nearly as effective (overall 3.81 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, and 1.57 K/BB in 56.6 innings) as he was the previous year.

Going into 2012, the Nationals weren’t sure if they were going to see the 2010 or 2011 version of Burnett show up. Fortunately, the lefty re-discovered himself in 2012, and spun things like it was 2010: posting a 2.38 ERA (vs. 2.84 xFIP), 1.23 WHIP, and 4.75 K/BB. Even though the pitcher’s 2010 season was technically a superior season, Burnett’s 2012 was more impressive in many ways. For instance, the southpaw had a higher K/9 (from 8.86 K/9 in 2010 to 9.05 K/9 in 2012), better control (from 2.86 BB/9 in 2010 to 1.91 BB/9 in 2012), improved strand rate (from 81.4% LOB% in 2010 to 84.6% LOB% in 2012), a reduced line-drive rate (from 21.4% LD% in 2010 to 19.8% LD% in 2012), and even dominated left-handed hitters at a career-best rate (.273/.327/.384 line against in 2010, .200/.267/.326 line against in 2011, and .211/.245/.289 line against in 2012). But perhaps the most impressive aspect about Burnett’s 2012 season was the fact he accomplished all of this with a ballooned .331 BABIP (vs. career .282 BABIP, and .280 BABIP in 2010).

As a left-handed reliever who knows how to get right-handed hitters out, the 30 year-old is in-line to get at least a three-year deal this off-season. It also wouldn’t be surprising if Burnett saw at least $5-7 million annually to boot.

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