November 16, 2008

Free Agent Options: The Bullpen

While not unexpected, news of Pat Neshek's delayed decision to undergo Tommy John elbow surgery leaves the Twins without their top setup man for 2009 and makes addressing the bullpen's weakness an even bigger offseason priority. As usual Joe Nathan was great in 2008, converting 39-of-45 saves with a 1.33 ERA, 74-to-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and .179 opponent's batting average in 67.2 innings, but the rest of the bullpen posted a 4.27 ERA that would have ranked 11th in the 14-team league.

Things were particularly bad for the non-Nathan relievers after Neshek went down in mid-May, as Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, and Brian Bass struggled when asked to take on bigger, more important roles in his absence. As the trading deadline neared both Chad Bradford and LaTroy Hawkins emerged as potential low-cost pickups who could help the sagging bullpen, but general manager Bill Smith opted instead to merely bring back a 37-year-old, declining Eddie Guardado.

Within a week of his arrival Guardado had pitched himself to the back of the bullpen, whereas Bradford and Hawkins combined for a 0.90 ERA over 40 innings down the stretch for their new teams. Beyond that, Bradford was already under contract for a reasonable $3.5 million in 2009 and Hawkins recently re-signed for the exact same amount, meaning that picking either of them up at midseason would have helped the Twins address a major weakness for both 2008 and 2009.

Now the Twins are left with a bullpen that consists of Nathan and a bunch of question marks, although losing left-handers Guardado and Dennys Reyes via free agency are the least of the team's problems given the presence of southpaws Craig Breslow and Jose Mijares. Once again relying upon Guerrier, Crain, and perhaps even Boof Bonser as the top right-handed setup men is a far shakier proposition and should have the Twins looking to add another capable arm to the late-inning mix.

Picking up a reliever via trade is always possible and there are also several intriguing internal options like Bobby Korecky, Philip Humber, and Robert Delaney, but looking toward free agency for a low-cost veteran could be a quick fix after passing on Bradford and Hawkins. Of course, the Twins' track record for signing low-cost veterans is ugly, and just because Bradford and Hawkins were available cheaply at the trade deadline may not mean that similar relievers are available cheaply on the open market.

Francisco Rodriguez, Brian Fuentes, Kerry Wood, and Trevor Hoffman can all be ruled out thanks to their expected price tags and Juan Cruz, Bob Howry, and Russ Springer likely aren't options because as "Type A" free agents they'd cost a first-round pick, but there are still other free-agent relievers who can help the Twins. The key for Smith will be avoiding paying too much for a quick fix and resisting the urge to hand money to any old reliever just because he's a "veteran" with "experience."

All of which leaves the following lost-cost bullpen arms as my suggested free-agent targets ...


2006 45 54.2 4.55 12.7 9.7 49.7 91.9
2007 75 59.0 3.52 18.2 9.5 53.0 92.3
2008 74 78.1 3.61 23.9 7.5 54.4 94.6

Jeremy Affeldt isn't right-handed, but along with Fuentes he's one of the few available southpaws who figures to be a reliable setup man rather than merely a situational left-hander. Affeldt came up through the Royals' system as a starter, but moved to the bullpen after struggling to stay healthy and has quietly turned in back-to-back strong seasons as a reliever despite calling hitter-friendly ballparks home. His success can be traced to a dramatic rise in both strikeout rate and fastball velocity since the move.

Affeldt can bring it in the mid-90s, misses bats, throws strikes, and induces ground balls--which is the perfect recipe for a late-inning reliever--and unlike most potential free-agent targets he's not yet on the wrong side of 30. Affeldt has a 3.73 career Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) as a reliever, including 3.52 in 2007 and 3.61 in 2008, which compares favorably to the FIPs posted by both Crain (3.81) and Guerrier (4.35) over the past three seasons. Offer: Three years, $9 million.


2006 68 69.1 3.84 15.7 5.1 42.9 91.4
2007 73 74.0 3.28 13.0 6.5 42.7 91.8
2008 61 59.1 3.86 16.7 4.5 39.8 92.2

Another rare under-30 free-agent reliever, Brandon Lyon spent much of the season as Arizona's closer before struggling mightily in the second half and losing ninth-inning duties to Chad Qualls down the stretch. An ugly 8.46 ERA after the All-Star break is a concern that takes a chunk out of Lyon's earning potential, but he was excellent while converting 19-of-23 saves with a 2.43 ERA in the first half and has posted solid, relatively consistent FIPs over the past three seasons while in a hitter-friendly ballpark.

Lyon is much different than Affeldt in that he doesn't miss many bats or induce many ground balls, but his average fastball is decent at 91-92 miles per hour and he's a strike-throwing machine. In fact, as a fly-ball heavy control artist Lyon fits the Twins' favored mold and has a similar overall profile to Guerrier. Lyon's late-season struggles make him a risk, but may also lower his price tag enough to leave him in the Twins' shopping range. Offer: Two years, $5 million.


2007 54 52.0 3.20 23.0 9.5 38.5 92.3
2008 50 46.1 5.96 18.7 9.9 37.4 92.1

Eric Gagne was baseball's best closer from 2002-2004, posting a 1.97 ERA with 365 strikeouts in 247 innings while converting 152-of-158 save chances (96.2 percent, including 55-of-55 in 2003). Tommy John elbow surgery followed and Gagne pitched just 15 innings over the next two years before signing with Texas in 2007. He converted 16-of-17 save chances with a 2.16 ERA for the Rangers, but fell apart after a midseason trade to the Red Sox and continued to struggle for the Brewers this year.

Gagne is coming off the worst year of his career and has an ugly 5.82 ERA in 65 innings dating back to the trade to Boston, which along with the injuries and inclusion in the Mitchell Report makes him a big risk. However, it also means that he'll be cheap and Gagne quietly had a 20-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio from July 1 on while allowing zero runs in 24 of 30 games. He's a shell of his old self, but look closely and he still has more upside than anyone in his price range. Offer: One year, $3 million plus incentives.


2006 78 65.1 3.60 25.9 11.2 33.5 92.3
2007 56 36.1 3.45 19.6 7.1 40.7 90.4
2008 83 58.2 2.98 21.4 7.3 36.3 89.9

Will Ohman has been used as a situational left-hander throughout his career, logging just 219 innings in 303 appearances, but he's capable of being more than just death to lefties. Fellow southpaws have hit just .197 off Ohman, but he's also held his own against righties by limiting them to a .262 batting average and .397 slugging percentage. By comparison, righties have hit .245 with a .381 SLG off Crain and .242 with a .380 SLG off Guerrier (and .282 with a .437 SLG off Reyes).

In other words, Ohman is just slightly less effective against righties than the Twins' top right-handed setup men, which along with being nearly unhittable against lefties makes him a capable late-inning option. Ohman's declining velocity is a concern, but he maintained a healthy strikeout rate despite his average fastball dipping under 90 miles per hour in 2008. He has 219 strikeouts in 219 career innings, including 18.3 percent of his plate appearances versus righties. Offer: Two years, $3 million.

In addition to Affeldt, Lyon, Gagne, and Ohman there are some other free-agent relievers who would be intriguing if they'd take inexpensive one-year deals. Keith Foulke, Jason Isringhausen, Al Reyes, Chad Cordero, Tom Gordon, and Akinori Otsuka are former closers coming off injuries and at the right price it would be worth finding out if they still have something left in the tank. Doug Brocail, David Weathers, and Rudy Seanez are each right around 40 years old, but have been solid over the past 2-3 seasons.

Kyle Farnsworth and Guillermo Mota have had sub par results despite mid-90s fastballs and if they're cheap enough perhaps pitching coach Rick Anderson can try to work his magic. Brendan Donnelly makes for a nice reclamation projection two years removed from Tommy John surgery. And if Springer, Howry, or Cruz aren't offered arbitration by their current teams and no longer require losing a first-round draft pick to sign, they would definitely move near the top of my preferred targets list.

Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.

No Comments

No comments yet.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.