Examining the Non-Closer Reliever Free Agent Market (All Three Parts)

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, below is a complete run-down of said market’s best options.

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.

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).

UPDATE: According to Jon Heyman, the San Francisco Giants have re-signed Affeldt to a three-year, $18 million contract. It was a somewhat predictable contract from both a years and money perspective.

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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