Durbin Signing Ends Wild Relief Market

The offseason for relief pitchers started with Joaquin Benoit signing a three-year, $16.5 million contract after a career year in 2010. Chad Durbin’s one-year pact with the Cleveland Indians for a guaranteed $800k with the potential to be worth $1.8 million effectively ends the silly season for relievers. In between Benoit and Durbin, more than 30 relief pitchers signed major league contracts with guaranteed money surpassing the $200 million mark.

Earlier this winter, reports said Durbin demanded at least a two-year commitment. In a market that saw multi-year deals handed to several middle relievers, it’s hard to blame him for taking that stance. Unlike some of his peers, the early rush on middle relief passed over Durbin and he was forced to accept a one-year offer.

Far from a relief ace, the right-hander has been a serviceable member of the Philadelphia Phillies bullpen over the past three seasons. His 3.62 ERA over that period was similar to Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain, whom both received three-year guarantees. Of course, ERA can be misleading, and Durbin’s defensive independent metrics have him much closer to league average than stud reliever, but his 4.58 xFIP was in the neighborhood of Crain (4.46) and Guerrier (4.47). This is not to say Durbin should have received the same deals or the contracts handed to the former Minnesota pair were good ones, but an interesting comparison of similar players receiving different levels of dollars.

Part of Durbin’s value to Philadelphia was durability. He is one of six relievers to toss over 220 innings since 2008. Over the three-year period appeared in 194 contests for the Phillies. Perhaps it was his recent string of durability, his four-pitch repertoire, or his past life as a starter that had some teams interested in returning the 33-year-old to a role in the rotation.

In the end, Durbin passed up the opportunity to start to remain in the bullpen. It marks his second stint with the Cleveland organization, pitching briefly for them in 2003 and 2004. In fact, it was the Indians who moved him to the bullpen after several seasons as a starter with the Kansas City Royals. This time around Durbin will battle several younger and inexperienced pitchers for the role of right-handed set-up man to Tribe closer Chris Perez.

After his time with the Indians, he briefly returned to starting before settling into a full-time relief role with the Phillies. Pitching exclusively out of the bullpen, Durbin’s strikeouts have risen in each of the past two seasons, culminating in a K/9 of 8.26 in 2010. As mentioned, Durbin throws four pitches on a regular basis with varying degrees of success. Although it is not his go-to pitch, his change-up has induced a fair amount of whiffs in recent seasons.

The potential $1.8 million investment on a 33-year-old reliever is a curious one for a Cleveland ball club that is not expected to compete in 2011. If Durbin had a good season there is potential to flip him at the trade deadline if the team is out of contention or gain draft pick compensation next season. Durbin earned Type-B status this year, but was not offered arbitration. In the grand scheme of things, the move is rather small, but it puts the finishing touches on what turned out to be an unpredictable and expensive offseason across major league bullpens.

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Tommy Rancel also writes for Bloomberg Sports and ESPNFlorida.com. Follow on twitter @TRancel

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Durbin, and his agent, massively overplayed their hand.