Fungible (adj.) – being of such nature or kind as to be freely exchangeable or replaceable, in whole or in part, for another of like nature or kind.
One of the key tenants of sabermetrics is that relief pitchers are, by and large, overrated. That’s not to say they’re not important to a team’s success — merely that teams don’t need to go out and spend copious amounts of money on a closer or set-up man in order to have an effective bullpen. It can be difficult to find a true offensive star on the scrap heap, but it’s possible to build an effective bullpen through scraping and saving.
Relief pitchers tend to be less talented than starting pitchers — relievers can get by with only one or two pitches, while starters need three to five — which means there are a heck of a lot of relievers available on the market each season. There are only so many major league bullpen spots, so there are a handful of relievers that simply get forgotten or overlooked. Sometimes these relievers can turn out to have impressive rebound seasons (see: Joaquin Benoit), so teams should never rule out digging through the bargain bin for bullpen help.
There are still a number of intriguing bullpen arms on the market, but I’m interested in the overlooked and underrated relievers.
Michael Wuertz – 6.68 ERA, 4.64 SIERA in 2011
After receiving a burst of Twitter attention upon getting released by the Athletics early in the offseason, Wuertz has largely fallen off the radar. There haven’t been any rumors about a team being interested in him, and it seems more and more likely that he will slip through the cracks and get snatched up by some team for cheap after the top relievers are off the market.
There’s a reason that Wuertz hasn’t been receiving a lot of interest from teams. He’s been hit hard by injuries the past two seasons — shoulder, hamstring, and thumb — and his results tanked hard. His strikouts are still there (20% strikeout rate in 2011), but he lost his control (16% walk rate) and hitters were teeing up on his pitches (.327 BABIP). His average fastball velocity was down to 88 MPH last season, and it seems increasingly likely that Wuertz will never again pitch like he did during his first season in Oakland (2.15 SIERA).
So why should teams consider Wuertz? He’ll come cheap, for one. Wuertz will probably end up having to settle for a minor league deal, or at most, a one year deal with a very low base salary and lots of incentives. In return, the signing team will get the chance that maybe Wuertz will be able to resurrect his career. It hasn’t been that long since 2009, and Wuertz hasn’t been fully healthy for an entire season since then. If his medicals check out….hey, why not take a cheap flyer?
Chad Durbin – 5.53 ERA, 3.72 SIERA
Durbin might want to think about getting himself a new agent. After pitching arguably the best season of his career in 2010, Durbin couldn’t find a major league gig until March 1st of this past season. Since it took him so long to sign, Durbin ended up netting a mere $800k on a one-year deal, and this season he’ll be lucky to even get that. There hasn’t been any rumors about Durbin since he signed his last deal, and he has once again slipped to the very bottom of everyone’s free agent reliever wish list.
Granted, Durbin had a disappointing 2011 season. His strikeout rate regressed slightly (18.6%), and he let up a wild number of hits (.339 BABIP) and home runs (13% HR/FB rate). He doesn’t seem to be a good fit for the American League, as he’s struggled nearly every year in the AL and had two of his best seasons in the NL. But with his strikeout numbers and walk rate, he seems like he should be useful for someone. Maybe a National League team that plays in a pitcher-friendly park? Durbin could likely be nabbed for a deal even cheaper than what he signed for last season, and he could thrive in a place like PETCO Park.
Mike Gonzalez – 4.39 ERA, 3.37 SIERA in 2011
I’ve had an affinity for Mike Gonzalez ever since the Rays crushed his soul in his first two appearances as an Oriole. That said, despite his 4.39 ERA, Gonzalez was actually a useful pitcher in 2011. His strikeout and walk rates were excellent (22% strikeouts, 9% walks), and he was one of the better LOOGYs around. Just check out these splits:
Gonzalez vs. L: 28.0 IP / 24.6% K rate / 5.5% BB rate / 2.78 FIP
Gonzalez vs. R: 25.1 IP / 20.0% K rate / 12.5% BB rate / 5.59 FIP
The days of Mike Gonzalez the shutdown closer may be finished — if they ever existed — but he has a very bright future as a LOOGY with upside. If Gonzalez can learn to get his control down against righties, or if he goes to a pitcher-friendly park that will keep deep flyball in the park, he could definitely become a weapon against both hands once again.
For now, though, some wise team should scoop Gonzalez up and plan to use him as a LOOGY. He’s seen a bit of interest on the rumor mill, but not much; he’s another one that can probably be acquired for fairly cheap.