Be Wary Of The Free Agent Reliever Market
Last year, teams went out and spent roughly $400 million on relief pitchers in free agency. Part of that was probably in large part due to teams relying more heavily on their bullpens. Another factor might have been there were some well known and seemingly quality options available.
Of all that money thrown around, there were five relievers who received contracts with a total value in excess of $20 million. There were 10 relievers who had a deal with an average annual value of at least $8 million. None of these relievers would finish in the top 10 in ERA, FIP, strikeouts, or fWAR.
Digging deeper, from this top group, Wade Davis was the only closer in the top 10 in saves, and Tommy Hunter was the only reliever to finish in the top 10 in holds. That doesn’t mean teams did not spend wisely on relievers last offseason. It means the upper tier of free agent relievers did not pitch the way their teams had anticipated.
Jared Hughes signed a two year $4.5 million deal with the Cincinnati Reds, and he had the fourth best ERA among relievers. Steve Cishek signed a two year $13 million deal with the Cubs, and he had the tenth best fWAR among relievers.
While not in any top 10s, there were some other cheap relievers with very good years. Seunghwan Oh signed a one year $2 million deal with the Blue Jays, and he had a 2.68 ERA, 1.000 WHIP, and a 10.5 K/9 before he was traded to the Rockies. Fernando Rodney signed a one year $4.5 million deal with the Twins, and he delivered 25 saves with a 3.09 ERA before being traded to the Athletics.
Now, there were some top end guys who performed very well. For example, Davis was second in the majors in saves. Pat Neshek certainly earned his contract with a 2.59 ERA albeit in an injury plagued year.
Injuries are a whole other ball of wax. In addition to Neshek, we saw Anthony Swarzak, Brandon Morrow, and others lose parts of their season to injuries. In the case of Swarzak and others, there was just an inability to produce at their 2017 levels which had gotten them the big contract.
Now, every reliever and free agent class is different. Sure, Craig Kimbrel could cash in and continue to be a great closer. We could see Andrew Miller brush aside his injuries issues and return to his 2016 ALCS MVP form. It’s also possible relievers like Zach Britton will never approach their apex again leaving you shelling out millions of dollars for a replacement level reliever.
In the end, if you are going into the deep end of the free agent reliever pool you have to be right, but seeing how successful bullpens are built, you have to question why you would even go there.
The most successful relievers were guys like Josh Hader, Seth Lugo, and Edwin Diaz, i.e. young cost controlled converted starters. You also saw teams strike rich on good value in free agency. With that being the case, it is probably in a team’s best interest to identify those fringe minor league starters and those relievers who can provide better value at a lower cost.
Considering how the Mets may be feeling the budget crunch in attempt to build a winner, it might be time to look at a Chris Flexen with his fastball and curveball in the bullpen while simultaneously waiting out the top tier reliever market with the hopes of building a deeper, better, and yes, cheaper bullpen.