García, Cimber, and Tonkin Join New Bullpens on One-Year Deals

Luis Garcia
Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

While looking back at the free agent signings I covered last winter, I noticed a bit of a pattern. On the same day Aaron Judge came to terms on a nine-year, $360 million deal with the Yankees, I wrote about Miguel Castro. On the same day Brandon Nimmo agreed to a $162 million deal with the Mets, I wrote about Matt Strahm. On the same day Yu Darvish and Bo Bichette signed contract extensions, I wrote about Pierce Johnson and Scott McGough. While the rest of the baseball world was focused on All-Stars and mega-million-dollar contracts, I found myself drawn to mid-tier relievers on small-scale deals.

We’re not farming for clicks here at FanGraphs, and I’m grateful to write for a website where I never have to come up with hot takes or misleading headlines. Thankfully, I’ve never been asked to write about one weird trick for evading the luxury tax or why dermatologists hate Gabe Kapler. Still, it’s nice when others read your work, and as much as I love them, I know middle relievers don’t rack up pageviews like middle-of-the-order bats. While I have a weakness for run-of-the-mill bullpen arms — the more ordinary the better — I know I need to resist the pull.

“Leo,” I said to myself when the offseason began. “You can’t write about so many relievers this winter. You wrote about Joely Rodríguez last year. Maybe this time you cover Eduardo Rodriguez instead?”

Flash forward to the final day of the Winter Meetings, and I’m here to write about Luis García, Adam Cimber, and Michael Tonkin. Like the 2020 Phillies, you could say I have a bullpen problem.

Late on Tuesday night, García (the reliever, as if that needed to be said) signed a one-year, $4.25 million deal with the Angels. Shortly thereafter, in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, Tonkin agreed to a one-year split contract with the Mets that will pay him a prorated portion of a $1 million annual salary for as much time as he spends on the MLB roster. Later that day, the Angels struck again, signing Cimber to a one-year, $1.65 million deal.

After a six-year tenure with the Phillies, García bounced around between the Angels, Rangers, and Cardinals from 2019 to ’21 before signing a two-year, $7 million deal with the Padres. In the first year of that contract, the right-hander put together what was arguably the best performance of his career, pitching to a 3.39 ERA and 2.60 FIP in his highest-leverage role to date. He recorded a career-high three saves, 19 holds, and 1.51 average leverage index (pLI) en route to a 1.6-WAR season, ninth among NL relievers. What’s more, he only seemed to get better as the year went on, increasing his strikeout rate and inducing more soft contact. That pattern continued into the playoffs, where he struck out five batters in four appearances, with an average exit velocity of 81.7 mph on 12 balls in play.

Unfortunately, the veteran couldn’t maintain that level of success in his age-36 season. His strikeout rate dropped, his walk rate rose, and although he continued to induce weak contact on the ground, he gave up more hard pulled contact on balls in the air. García also lost velocity on his sinker and slider, his two primary pitches, leading to a drop in Stuff+ and botStf. Overall, his numbers were perfectly acceptable — a 4.07 ERA and 4.29 FIP in 59.2 IP — but manager Bob Melvin clearly lost faith in the righty as the year went on. He had a 1.46 average leverage index when entering games (gmLI) in April, but a 0.58 gmLI over the rest of the season:

Luis García gmLI by Month
Month gmLI
March/April 1.46
May 1.08
June 0.86
July 0.38
August 0.14
September/October 0.64

That’s not to say García didn’t pitch in any high-leverage spots. Although he finished with the sixth-lowest gmLI among qualified NL relievers, he also finished with the 19th-highest average leverage index when exiting games (exLI). The 0.76 difference between those two numbers is unusually high for a non-closer:

Top 8 Relievers by exLI-gmLI
Pitcher exLI gmLI Difference Games Exited
Ryan Pressly 3.00 1.56 1.44 9
Josh Hader 2.81 1.61 1.21 9
Devin Williams 3.18 2.09 1.09 11
Emmanuel Clase 2.74 1.92 0.82 10
Luis García 1.53 0.77 0.76 35
Clay Holmes 2.25 1.64 0.61 25
Carlos Estévez 2.25 1.65 0.61 14
David Bednar 2.44 1.87 0.56 9

Unlike the closers around him on that list, García typically entered games in lower-leverage spots. As a non-closer, he also exited far more games than any of them, giving his exLI a much larger sample size. In other words, no reliever in baseball transformed games (or had games transform around him) quite like García in 2023. That’s not necessarily a good or bad thing; sometimes he increased leverage by giving up runs, other times by pitching a clean inning, and occasionally, the Padres’ offense increased the leverage for him as he was sitting on the bench. Still, it’s a fun fact. Although he was downgraded to a low-leverage reliever, García ended up pitching in some pretty exciting spots.

Overall, however, his 2023 campaign was about as unexceptional of a season as a reliever could possibly put together: an ERA just below average, a FIP just above, and a WAR that’s a rounding error away from zero. His $4.25 million guarantee is a perfectly reasonable number for a pitcher who can eat 60 innings in a season at that level of performance. García isn’t going to fix an Angels bullpen that posted an AL-worst 6.14 ERA and 5.40 FIP over the final two months of the 2023 season, but at least he can help make up for the loss of Matt Moore and Reynaldo López, two of the only productive relievers who appeared for the Angels down the stretch.

In addition, the Angels also picked up an upside play in Cimber. The 33-year-old is only one season removed from leading the majors in appearances (with a 2.80 ERA, no less) and comes at the low cost and commitment of one year and $1.65 million.

Cimber was one of the most durable relievers in the game from 2018 to ’22. Only four pitchers made more appearances in that time, and only two — Adam Ottavino and Andrew Chafin — did so with a lower ERA or FIP. While he bounced from San Diego to Cleveland to Miami in the early years of his career, it was in Toronto where the submariner really broke out. Dealt to the Blue Jays mid-way through the 2021 season, he pitched to a 2.42 ERA and 3.24 FIP in 108 innings over his first year and a half with the club.

Regrettably, Cimber’s 2023 season was largely lost to injury. Something seemed off right out of the gate, and two stints on the injured list limited him to 20.2 innings, in which he posted a 7.40 ERA, a 7.46 FIP, and a meager 12.6% strikeout rate. His velocity was down on all three of his pitches (although his slider was so much slower that it looked like a whole new pitch, not just the effects of working through injury). He threw fewer strikes and induced fewer swings, yet gave up more balls in play. It certainly didn’t help that so many of those balls in play were hard-hit and pulled in the air.

On the one hand, I don’t want to read too deeply into his numbers from 2023, given all the time he spent on the IL. At the same time, it’s far from a guarantee that Cimber will regain his fastball velocity, which wasn’t so high to begin with, and return to full health in his mid-30s. If he can get back to his pre-injury form, he would be a valuable asset to the Angels’ bullpen; Lord knows they need it. But if Perry Minasian really wants to improve one of the worst bullpens in baseball, his work is far from finished.

Speaking of terrible bullpens: Mets relievers posted a 5.20 ERA and 4.63 FIP post-trade deadline this past season, and they’ll be even worse off without Ottavino and Trevor Gott. The return of Edwin Díaz will make a tremendous difference, but David Stearns still needs to fill out the bullpen around his star closer. That’s where Tonkin comes in. While he doesn’t have the innings-eater track record of García or Cimber, he threw 80 innings last season, fifth among all relievers. That will come in handy for a Mets team in need of arms.

Tonkin spent the first five seasons of his MLB career with the Twins, where he never made much of an impression, producing exactly 0.0 WAR in 141 games. Finally, after his disappointing age-27 season in 2017, the Twins sold his contract to the Nippon-Ham Fighters of NPB. While he wasn’t much of a replacement for Shohei Ohtani, who the Fighters lost to MLB that same year, the righty was a solid reliever during the 2018 season, pitching to a 3.71 ERA in 53 games and collecting 12 saves. He chose to come back stateside in 2019, and he would spend the next several years bouncing around between the minor leagues, the Atlantic League, and the Mexican League before finally making his way back to the majors with the Braves in 2023. He spent the full season on the big league roster and served as manager Brian Snitker’s go-to long man, finishing second among NL relievers in innings pitched and recording more than three outs in two-thirds of his appearances.

While his 4.28 ERA, 4.43 FIP, and 0.1 WAR hardly stand out, especially given the low-leverage spots in which he was deployed, every team could use a near-replacement-level pitcher who can throw that many innings out of the bullpen. After all, there’s a reason Tonkin stuck on the roster all year for a Braves team with a top-five bullpen in the NL. What’s more, the pitch modeling data underscores him as someone to keep an eye on next season. PitchingBot was impressed with his command, Stuff+ liked his stuff, and both modeling systems were high on his sinker, his primary pitch.

The Angels and Mets were two of the biggest disappointments in baseball last season, yet neither plans to rebuild or “reset” in 2024. Needless to say, none of these signings address the biggest problems in Anaheim or Queens, but hopefully they’ll make these two bullpens a little more watchable next season. As for what the Angels and Mets need to do next? Leave that to someone else. I’ve got relievers to write about.

Leo is a writer for FanGraphs and an editor for Just Baseball. His work has also been featured at Baseball Prospectus, Pitcher List, and SB Nation. You can follow him on Twitter @morgensternmlb.

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kick me in the GO NATSmember
2 months ago

Nice article!