November 11, 2010

Blowing up the bullpen on a budget: Low-cost free agent options

Joe Nathan going down for the year with a torn elbow ligament in the middle of spring training left the Twins without one of the most dominant relievers in baseball history and forced some unexpected changes on the bullpen, but Jon Rauch and Matt Capps converted 37-of-43 save opportunities while replacing him as closer and the relief corps as a whole ranked fourth in the league with a 3.49 ERA.

Nathan's recovery from Tommy John surgery will hopefully have him ready for Opening Day, but with Rauch, Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, and Brian Fuentes all free agents the Twins could be forced to completely remake the bullpen this offseason. That quartet of free agents logged 45 percent of the Twins' total relief innings, including the vast majority of high-leverage work, and it seems unlikely that more than one or maybe two of the pitchers will be re-signed.

Healthy or not Nathan is under contract for $11.25 million in 2011 and as an arbitration eligible player Capps is all but guaranteed to get a sizable raise from his $3.5 million salary, meaning the Twins may have to rebuild the rest of the bullpen on a budget. Spending about $17 million on Nathan and Capps alone could make it difficult to re-sign any of their own free agents and also likely takes the Twins out of the running for other big-name relievers on the open market.

Nathan, Capps, and Jose Mijares are the under-contract holdovers and some other in-house options include Alex Burnett, Anthony Slama, Rob Delaney, Pat Neshek, Jeff Manship, Glen Perkins, and Kyle Waldrop, but whether it means re-signing their own free agents or bringing in outside help my guess is that at least two bullpen spots will be filled by pitchers not on that list. With a close eye on the budget, here are some potential low-cost suggestions ...

Koji Uehara: He couldn't stay healthy as a starter after leaving Japan to sign a two-year, $10 million deal with the Orioles two winters ago, but Uehara quietly had a ton of success following a move to the bullpen this season. He posted a 2.86 ERA, .220 opponents' batting average, and 55-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 44 innings, including an absurd 45-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the second half.

As a 35-year-old with a history of arm problems Uehara is risky, but that should also keep his asking price down and perhaps make him available for a reasonable one-year contract. Uehara converted 13-of-15 saves for the Orioles after moving into the closer role late in the year, but would make an ideal setup man for the Twins and certainly fits pitching coach Rick Anderson's preferred strike-throwing mold.

Chad Qualls: With a 7.32 ERA in 59 innings between two teams Qualls had a dreadful season, but most of that can be blamed on a .399 batting average on balls in play that was the worst in all of baseball among the 327 pitchers who logged at least 50 innings. In fact, Qualls was one of just two pitchers with a BABIP above .375. Qualls could be unlucky again in 2011 and that number would still probably drop by 40 points, and his career mark is .309.

Thanks to a solid strikeout rate and high percentage of ground balls he posted a nice-looking 3.91 xFIP that would've ranked second on the Twins behind only Francisco Liriano and both his xFIPs and ERAs were consistently in the 2.75-3.50 range from 2004-2009. He's maintained good velocity on a fastball-slider combo and if the Twins can avoid being scared off by his ugly ERA there's a quality setup man to be found in Qualls' track record and secondary numbers.

Dan Wheeler: Keeping the ball in the ballpark has been Wheeler's weakness, with 28 homers allowed in 172.1 innings over the past three seasons, but he still managed ERAs of 3.12, 3.28, and 3.35 in that time thanks to a 144-to-47 strikeout-to-walk ratio. That includes a 46/16 K/BB ratio and .207 opponents' batting average in 48 innings this season, which made it surprising that the Rays declined to exercise their $4 million option on the 32-year-old right-hander.

As a Type A free agent it's possible the Rays will offer Wheeler arbitration even after declining his option, in which case the Twins should cross him off their list because he's not worth giving up a first-round pick to sign. Even if they don't offer arbitration other teams with more money to toss around than the Twins may snatch him up for more than the declined $4 million option. He has a 3.31 ERA in 392 innings since 2005, including a sub-3.50 mark in five of six seasons.

Octavio Dotel: Available after the Rockies declined his $4.5 million option, Dotel is somewhat similar to Wheeler in that limiting homers has been his biggest weakness throughout most of his career. He's also 37 years old and has lost a bit of velocity in recent years, but Dotel still averaged 92 miles per hour with his fastball this season and racked up 75 strikeouts in just 64 innings. He's never averaged fewer than 10 strikeouts per nine innings in a full relief season.

To put that in some context consider that in Twins history there have only been 10 instances of a pitcher logging 50 or more innings while cracking double-digit strikeouts per nine innings, with Nathan and Johan Santana accounting for six of them. Dotel has done it eight times since 2000, including each of the past three seasons. He'll serve up some homers, but Dotel will also miss a ton of bats and put together plenty of dominant outings.

Frank Francisco: Early struggles saw Francisco lose his closer job to Neftali Feliz in April and a strained rib muscle got him left off the Rangers' playoff roster, but in between he posted a 2.84 ERA, .220 opponents' batting average, and 57/16 K/BB ratio in 51 innings from mid-April to the end of August. He also had a 3.43 ERA, .206 opponents' batting average, and 140/41 K/BB ratio in 113 innings during the previous two seasons.

There's a strong chance some teams may still view Francisco as a closer option, in which case the Twins can't really compete for his services, but if he fails to draw any offers for ninth-inning duties they shouldn't hesitate to offer the 31-year-old righty a two-year deal. He's consistently had elite raw stuff and results, perhaps masked by ugly outings in April and a non-arm injury. He's a Type A free agent, so they'll have to wait to see if the Rangers offer arbitration.

Chan Ho Park: He was a bust in New York after signing a one-year, $1.2 million contract last winter, but Park's struggles can be traced to serving up seven homers in 35 innings for the Yankees. Obviously that's not a positive thing, but his ground-ball rate suggested it wouldn't continue and sure enough he allowed just two homers in 28 innings after the Pirates claimed him off waivers in early August.

His overall numbers include a 4.66 ERA and 52/19 K/BB ratio in 64 innings and Park was a big part of the Phillies' bullpen in 2009 with a 2.52 ERA and 52/16 K/BB ratio in 50 innings. At age 38 and with the poor first-half showing in New York he's unlikely to be in high demand and I certainly wouldn't trust Park with a high-leverage role in 2011, but he still looks very capable of being a solid middle reliever and the price figures to be right.

Will Ohman: I first advised going after Ohman two offseasons ago only to see him miss most of 2009 following shoulder surgery, but he bounced back with a 3.21 ERA and 43/23 K/BB ratio in 42 innings this season. He's been used primarily as a left-handed specialist and struggled versus right-handed hitters this season, but Ohman did a solid enough job against righties in previous years to be more than a one-batter-per-appearance guy.

And he's been death on lefty bats, of course, holding them to .229/.323/.313 this season and .208/.298/.348 for his career. Ohman makes sense as a second lefty alongside Mijares, but if the Twins are looking for more of a true southpaw specialist side-armer Randy Choate may be a better target. Choate led the AL in appearances with 85 yet logged a total of just 45 innings. He can't be trusted versus righties, but has held lefties to .217/.297/.301 for his career.

  • http://twitter.com/achester99 Alex

    It’s interesting to see how strong Qualls’s advanced stats are, but given what we know about the Twins ignorance of advanced stats, is there any chance they’d chase him? This from a team who just signed an NL minor leaguer because he posted 16 wins?

  • Kurt

    Pray Nathan is back and of the 3, just sign Crain. Alex Burnett and Anthony Slama have upside and though everything else for Burnett was not great last year, he does miss bats at a solid rate. Both Burnett and Slama deserve long looks for prominent/high leverage roles for next year. Last year the Twins went out and got a ton of bullpen arms thinking those were the reasons they had failed to advance in the playoffs and doing it again this year will yield the same result IMO. This team needs to focus on finding an ace, not VORP relievers that can be found in-house.

  • Pat M

    Aaron do think the Twins are looking to resign any of their FA relivers to multi-year deals or do you think they will take a smaller risk by offering arb to Crain and Guerrier in the hopes that only 1 or none will accept? I’m assuming Rauch and Fuentes have priced themselves out completely

  • mike wants WINS

    The Twins always over value relief pitching, and aren’t interested in advanced stats at all. This is a team that acquired Randy Flores last year, and dealt one of the best catching prospects in baseball for a good, not great, RP. I have zero confidence that this coaching staff will go with the cheap, inexperienced people in the minors. They don’t like doing that. They’d rather have a crappy veteran every time. They’ll sign guys with low ERAs and high counting stats after other teams have paid the big bucks. They’ll re-sign the overpaid (and no better than Rauch) Capps.

    This overvaluing of the bullpen is why they’ve been so successful with the pen (but that also means they have less money to spend on the rest of the roster). That might be why they haven’t had the money to sign a FA or trade for a player in his prime, at most any other position in the last decade.

  • pk

    It’s cheaper and better risk to acquire quality middle relief than go after top end starters. The question has been raised in other places as what point does the price of good relievers out pace quality starting pitching.

    The challenge teams have is organizationaly they can’t miss on a high priced FA starting pitcher signing. That’s why the Cliff Lee FA is so intriuging because who’s really bidding for his talents? The Yankees and…The Yankees.

  • Kurt

    “It’s cheaper and better risk to acquire quality middle relief than go after top end starters. The question has been raised in other places as what point does the price of good relievers out pace quality starting pitching.”

    You’re basically saying having Brian Fuentes pitch 40 innings a year is better than having Zack Greinke’s 200 IP and 22+ quality starts. Preposterous statement nominee! Yes it’s obviously cheaper but definitely not a better risk. At no point does the cost to acquire VORP relievers ever prove more valuable then having a quality starting pitcher. Aaron has pointed out, especially this year with our having to replace Nathan, that finding suitable pen arms is much easier than finding quality starting pitching. I just feel the chance to win and the amount of work a starting pitcher gives a team greatly outweighs what a reliever does in a year.

  • Son of Shane Mack

    “It’s cheaper and better risk to acquire quality middle relief than go after top end starters. The question has been raised in other places as what point does the price of good relievers out pace quality starting pitching.”

    You’re basically saying having Brian Fuentes pitch 40 innings a year is better than having Zack Greinke’s 200 IP and 22+ quality starts.

    I think what’s being said is that it’s better to spend $4 Million a year (for 1 or 2 years) on a potentially good relief pitcher than $10-15 Million a year (for 5 years) on a slightly above average starter.

    Guys like Cliff Lee and Greinke (once he becomes a FA) will require Santana-like money to sign. That’s a lot of money – and risk – tied up for a number of years in a single player. Relief pitchers rarely merit contracts that long or that rich. Thus, the risk is less. Of course, the reward is less too.

    The FA market almost always over-values veteran starting pitching. Just look at some of the numbers that guys have gotten over the last few years.

    Of course, Greinke’s better than Fuentes. That’s a silly example. At his current salary, Greinke is a deal and Fuentes is quite overpaid.

  • Kurt

    I understand what he’s saying, but it’s not just a dollar value and a year contract that needs to be discussed. After that, you like at what is happening on the field. So I guess I don’t think it’s silly at all. Yes obviously Greinke is better than Fuentes, but he also provides more value simply because he is a starting pitcher. A starting pitcher will always give a team more chances to win and be more valuable to the teams success than a relief pitcher; that is all I’m saying. The Greinke talk is pointless though because I have read that the Royals want to “win” the deal, which means something like Hicks, Sano, and Slowey. Not happening!

  • brian

    Don’t waste too much money on relief. Get an ace if you want to win in the playoffs.