JESSICA BADER: It’s been a pretty eventful and unpredictable Hot Stove season thus far (really, who had Carl Crawford signing with a team other than the Angels, or Cliff Lee returning to Philadelphia?), one that has seen a couple of star players being traded for prospects and quite a few marginal players being non-tendered and signed for a good deal less than what they would have received in arbitration. But the one thing that has really shocked me this offseason is the way teams are tripping over themselves to hand out three-year, eight-figure contracts to free agent relief pitchers. It’s pretty crazy on a couple of levels.
Relief pitchers are among the more volatile commodities in baseball, in part because their relatively low innings totals mean that a slump or a hot streak can comprise the better part of a season, in part because the reason many of them are relievers in the first place is that they are not good or healthy enough to be relied upon as major-league starters. The ability to get rid of a reliever who’s stinking up the joint without having too much of a sunk cost to worry about and see if lighting can be bottled with the next guy off the scrap heap seems like a crucial tool in maintaining a good bullpen, just as similar flexibility comes in handy when putting together a bench.
What’s more, there’s a very recent history of teams signing relievers to multi-year deals for performance ranging from “good, but not worth that much money” to “Scott Schoeneweis on the 2007 Mets.” It’s baffling that teams seem so determined not to learn from recent mistakes, especially given that those blasts from the not-so-distant past were deals made in a better economic environment.
Matt Guerrier, Scott Downs, Jesse Crain, and Joaquin Benoit have all found recent success and have been rewarded for that success with lucrative multi-year contracts. Yet, given the fickle nature of relief performance and the less-than-stellar history of such deals, I would not be at all surprised to see teams reliant on churning through minor-league call-ups and lower-priced journeymen getting equal or better performance from their bullpens at a fraction of what the Angels, White Sox, Tigers and Dodgers are paying.
CHRIS PUMMER: While it’s probably not a good idea to give a free agent relief pitcher more than two guaranteed years, the cries that ignorance has returned among baseball front offices are probably mildly overblown.
As silly as a three-year contract for a middle reliever might seem, none of the deals signed this offeason can touch some of the worst contracts given to this group over the past 10 years. We’re talking about pacts like the four-year, $19 million dollar deal the White Sox gave Scott Linebrink. Or the three-year, $19 million contract the Orioles gave Dannys Baez.
And if there’s something else encouraging here, it’s that teams are not going out of their way to pay for pitchers with nothing to offer by high save totals in their past. That’s the mindset that led to some of the all-time worst reliever contracts, including the big bucks wasted on guys like Kerry Wood (2/20), Francisco Cordero (4/46!), Francisco Rodriguez (3/37), Brad Lidge (3/37) and Brian Fuentes (2/17).
So some of the better middle relievers now are getting three years instead of two. Part of that is likely the compromise teams had to make to keep the average annual value for these contracts below $5 million. It also just happens to be the price you have to pay when you lack for internal options.
The premium also pays for a small piece of mind for these teams, as pitchers like Crane, Benoit and Downs are far likelier to offer real help to a bullpen than a hit-or-miss non-roster invitee to spring training.
Don’t think the aesthetic value of keeping casual fans from watching Jose Veras or the wrong Ryan Braun give up long bombs that sink pennant hopes is being overlooked by general mangers.
In the end, this group of setup men and specialists will probably be overpaid, but not vastly so. That means there is still some semblance of sanity leading to these signings.