Finding the Next Bargain Relievers

Scan the leaderboard for the best relievers this past season, and sure, there are plenty of homegrown young studs with triple digit fastballs. For clubs in the market for bullpen assistance, however, they’ll take a decent prospect or two to pry loose from their current teams.

But there are also players like Darren O’Day, Hector Rondon, and Luke Gregerson — guys who, in the recent past, have been available at a lesser cost.

One was claimed off of waivers, one was a Rule 5 pickup, and the other took $19 million over three years to snatch up. How can your favorite team find one of those guys?

It’s all a sliding scale, obviously. The signs that point to a good three-year deal have to be stronger than the ones that point to a good camp invite. That said, let’s find the relievers who are most compelling relative to their likely cost.

If you take a look at last year’s free agent reliever crop, Luke Gregerson has an interesting slot. Over the three-year period that ended before last season, the slider slinger was not the very best, but he was in the top group. And he wasn’t the youngest, but he was the youngest that had been worth two wins and wasn’t going to get a closer’s contract. In other words, David Robertson and Andrew Miller were the prizes, but Gregerson was younger and/or more consistent than Matt Belisle, Jason Grilli, Rafael Soriano, and the like.

This year, Darren O’Day sits atop the market, and Tyler Clippard may be playing the role as the second-best reliever with closer experience. Every year is different, so we won’t get the same groupings. But Gregerson’s age might still help guide us through the second-tier guys.

Shawn Kelley has the strikeout rate to lead the top options, and actually, by arsenal, he’s the one that’s most Gregerson like — he throws multiple sliders to bust platoon splits, and has had the look of a future closer when he’s avoiding the home runs. At 30, he’s not as old as a Neal Cotts, but a year older than Gregerson was. And age is really just a proxy for health, so it’s notable that Gregerson had thrown 45 more innings in the last three years than the more frail Kelley.

Perhaps it’s age that has so may teams in on Tommy Hunter, then. At 29, he’s the youngest top-20 free agent reliever. He’s been healthy, too: Hunter has thrown more innings since 2013 started than anyone other qualified reliever not named Tyler Clippard. He doesn’t have the strikeout rate of Gregerson, but he’s kept his 96 mph fastball for three years running, and his rising fastball and zippy curve are a good foundation for a late-game reliever. As he threw the cutter more in the second half, he improved his strikeout-minus-walk numbers. Maybe his history as a starter, plus his age, means a modest three-year deal could work very well.

The 40-man protections have come out, for the most part, and there are a few relievers that could make for an interesting claim this week. Provided your team has an open roster spot right now, these could be on their radar.

Major League Waiver Claim Relievers
Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP GB% HR/FB ERA FIP WAR 2016 Salary
A.J. Griffin 200.0 7.7 2.4 1.6 0.242 32.1% 12.5% 3.82 4.55 1.4 0.5
Rex Brothers 134.0 9.1 5.6 0.8 0.308 44.8% 10.5% 3.36 4.13 0.3 1.5
John Axford 175.1 9.8 4.8 1.0 0.321 51.1% 13.8% 4.06 4.09 -0.1 6.5
Brandon Gomes 112.1 7.8 2.6 1.5 0.261 32.5% 11.7% 4.49 4.55 -0.5 0.9
Kirby Yates 56.1 10.1 3.5 2.2 0.290 30.2% 18.4% 5.27 5.51 -0.7 0.5
Allen Webster 120.1 5.7 4.9 1.5 0.287 45.4% 14.6% 6.13 5.93 -1.1 0.5
2016 Salary taken from MLBTraderumors’ arbitration projections.

The name that leaps out for bullpen discussions is Rex Brothers. He doesn’t throw 95 mph any more, but 93+ is still above-average for a lefty. He didn’t get the strikeouts last year, and not really the year before, but he still got above-average swinging strikes, and for the last three years, his swinging strike rate was 69th-best, or 18 slots better than Hector Rondon.

Obviously, something has fallen off for Brothers, though. His slider still got whiffs at a good rate: its whiff rate was 57th in baseball among sliders thrown more than 60 times, right there with Gerrit Cole’s slider, though of course Cole’s slider was thrown more often. What has been failing is his fastball. A falling arm slot has robbed the pitch of rise, and it’s getting a third of the whiffs it got in its heyday. Maybe a new team could right the ship there?

Brothers has a better track record then the guys below him, and is cheaper than John Axford, and probably healthier than Griffin.

If you’re behind some interested teams on the waiver order, though, you’re shopping at the bottom of that list. And your choice between the three tells you something about what you value when looking at pitching in small samples.

If you’re interested in stuff and stuff and then stuff some more, you want Allen Webster. Even despite enduring a horrid year, he has three pitches that are above-average in whiff rates, and the changeup would rank in the top 20 (minimum 100 thrown) if he got more chances to throw it. The problem is that he has no command, and his velocity has fallen to the point that it’s average for a righty.

Bottom-of-the-league command and average velocity on a straight-ish four-seamer, even when paired with a sinker, change, and breaking ball that are above-average by movement and results — that package doesn’t make for a great pitcher. But Webster went into this season preparing to be a starter. What would his velocity look like in short stints from the get-go? If it were back up to 94, that might mitigate some of his command issues, and it would help to have empty bases and a directive to get three outs.

If you like Kirby Yates, it’s probably because he has more velocity than his former teammate Brandon Gomes, and had plus strikeout rates in the minors. Short arm action hides the ball, and his curve is big and decent. You’d hope he’d get some of his velocity back — according to Adam Sobsey, velocity was down a bit after a pectoral injury. His slider has gotten average whiff rates. Maybe that’s why the Rays had him turf the pitch and concentrate on fastball/curve in the second half. Then again, his strikeout dropped by half. His new team might want to work on that slider again. The Mets have a unique slider?

And if you’re interested in Brandon Gomes, you like that he has a large arsenal and decent command. For his career, Gomes is above-average in whiffs on the four-seam, slider, cutter, and splitter. Even last year, when his fastball dropped off a bit and he stopped throwing the cutter, he still had three pitches that rated positively, and four pitches that he threw more than 10% of the time.

A couple spots on the roster means you could try one of these guys and one of the many minor league starters who were unprotected and available in the Rule 5 draft. JJ Cooper wrote up an exhaustive look at those players, in case you’d like to find the next Hector Rondon. (In the Stuff category, I like Jose Adames and Reymin Guduan from the right and left sides, respectively, since they have two good pitches and their control problems have come and gone. In the Command/Wide Arsenal category, the Mets’ Matt Bowman might get the velocity he needs from moving to the pen, and had a nice track record before last year.)

But it doesn’t take too much work to identify some interesting arms. Give me three roster spots and a low waiver claim, and I’ll sign Hunter (three years, $18 million?), claim Kirby Yates and Allen Webster, and keep an eye on the Rule 5 pitchers while inviting Joel Hanrahan and David Aardsma to camp to see if they got healthy again.

I’d have spent $7 million and would feel pretty good about coming away with two good relievers. Every team might have a different outlook on the particulars, but continue that work, and you may find yourself with a bullpen like the Cubs had last year, for better or worse.

That top-five bullpen last year had a Rule 5 Closer in Rondon, a former waiver claim in Pedro Strop (though that was the Orioles’ claim to complete a PTBNL situation), a Matt Garza trade throw-in in Justin Grimm, a minor league free agent in Clayton Richard (Pirates), and an in-season minor league free agent in Trevor Cahill. It truly takes all types.

We hoped you liked reading Finding the Next Bargain Relievers by Eno Sarris!

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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