With the retirement of Mariano Rivera and the departures of Joba Chamberlain to the Detroit Tigers and Boone Logan to the Colorado Rockies, the New York Yankees are in the market for relievers. Joe Girardi said that David Robertson, Shawn Kelley, and Preston Claiborne are locks for the bullpen. He went on to say that the odd man out of the Adam Warren, David Phelps, Michael Pineda 5th starter competition will probably become the long man. Cesar Cabral is likely to take over the LOOGY role. This leaves one and possibly two roster spots for additional relief arms.
Sabermetric wisdom says “don’t pay for saves”. This is what the Oakland Athletics have preached for years (save for the Jim Johnson trade). They would pump up save totals of one guy (Huston Street, Andrew Bailey, etc.) and then flip them for more valuable assets realizing that they could find their next “closer” fairly easily and the market was overvaluing the closer role.
The Yankees should employ the same philosophy: understand that the “closer mentality” doesn’t exist as quality pitchers in the 7th and 8th innings will retain their skills in the 9th and saves are a poor way to measure value. Therefore, they should fill out their ‘pen with players who possess good peripherals (K rate, BB rate, HR rate) but lack gaudy saves totals. They can approximate the value of an elite closer for a fraction of the cost in the same way that Cesar Cabral (at 1 yr/$.5M) has a non-zero chance of equaling or surpassing Boone Logan’s (at 3 yr/$16.5M) performance for 2014. With that in mind, here are some options:
- Jesse Crain- The 32-year old right-hander was traded from the Chicago White Sox to the Tampa Bay Rays during the 2013 season, but was hurt and didn’t pitch an inning for Tampa. Prior to that he had an insanely low 1.52 FIP propped up by a 30.3% K rate. That was only in 36.2 innings and is obviously unsustainable. However, his career strikeout and walk rates are 19.8% and 9.3% respectively. His walk rate has increased slightly from his Minnesota Twins’ days. The free pass has been more than offset by an over 10 percent jump in K rate. He’s mostly a fastball/slider guy but will feature a curve to lefties. He should come very cheap because he does not have “closer” attached to him (4 career saves) and he’s coming off of an injury.
- Henry Rodriguez- The 27-year old right-hander bounced around the Athletics’ organization for a number of years before settling in with the Washington Nationals. He was humming his 98 MPH fastball in 2012 until an elbow surgery to remove bone chips ended his season. He pitched 22 forgettable innings last year between the Nats and Chicago Cubs as his fastball command went missing. However, the stuff is still there and he’s still young. The combination of the electric fastball (around 97 MPH last year) and a slider allergic to bats would make Rodriguez a great addition if he stayed healthy. The same idea as Crain applies: he would be cheap because he has 11 career saves and was recently hurt.
- Jose Mijares- The 29-year old left-hander finished last season with a 4.22 ERA (3.05 FIP) in 49.0 innings. The large ERA-FIP gap is due to a very high .410 BABIP as his K rate (22.9%) and BB rate (8.5%) were in line with his career norms. He has destroyed lefties in his career to the tune of .221/.288/.335. However, in 127.2 career innings against righties he has surrendered a .353 wOBA and should ideally only face same-side hitters. He became a free agent after the San Francisco Giants outrighted him off of their 40-man roster instead of waiting to non-tender him. A BABIP regression would allow Mijares to be the Cabral insurance option at a cost far less than a Matt Thornton or Scott Downs.
While it would be nice to sign a Joaquin Benoit or Grant Balfour, relief pitching is both an area to find tremendous surplus value (performance minus cost) and relatively easy to patch on the fly. The savings created from going cheap in the bullpen can be allocated to the more pressing needs of finding 200 more innings for the rotation and a 2B/3B depending on the Alex Rodriguez situation and how they plan to deploy Kelly Johnson. It is hard to deem 3yr/$30M for a “proven closer” as money well spent when the player type is such a fungible commodity. It doesn’t hurt to throw a bunch of relievers on low base/incentive-laden salaries at the wall and see what sticks instead of signing the next Jonathan Papelbon or Brandon League contract.