Anyone Want a Good Reliever for Free?

The Cardinals traded Mike Leake to the Mariners today. That makes some sense, as Seattle needed a guy capable of throwing league-average innings more than St. Louis did. Most moves these days are like that, with sensible people making sensible moves that generally look fine. The days of regularly bewildering transactions in baseball are mostly over.

But they aren’t totally extinct. For instance, yesterday, we got this piece of news.

Juan Nicasio is on waivers — but not the kind you’d think.

The Pirates have placed the reliever on irrevocable outright waivers, according to sources, meaning any team can claim him and assume the roughly $600,000 remaining on his contract without giving the Pirates anything in return.

After the July 31 trade deadline, players must go on revocable waivers to be traded. A player that clears waivers, meaning 29 other teams had a chance to claim him and passed, can be traded anywhere. If a team claims a player on trade waivers, that player’s original team can do one of three things: revoke the waivers and keep the player, work out a trade with the claiming team or simply dump the player to the claiming team.

But outright waivers, which are frequently used to remove a player who does not have minor league options from a team’s 40-man roster and send him to the minor leagues, are not revocable. So if a team claims Nicasio — and that seems likely, given that the righty, who will turn 31 Thursday, is a free agent after this season and has a 2.85 ERA with a strikeout per inning pitched in a major league-leading 65 appearances — the Pirates cannot rescind the waivers and keep Nicasio, nor will they get anything back.

Nicasio was, from what I understand, put on revocable trade waivers earlier this month, claimed, and then pulled back. Now, though, with the Pirates effectively out of the playoff race, the Pirates decided they’d rather just let a team that can use him have him for free, since he can no longer be traded and he’ll be a free agent at the end of the year. The Pirates will save roughly $600K in salary if someone else claims him, which apparently is worth more to them than 10 decent innings from a veteran reliever in September. Given that those innings don’t really mean a lot now, it can reasonably be argued that the $600K in savings, if spent to acquire new talent — that’s enough to sign a significant international free agent, for instance — could help the team more than keeping Nicasio around for the final month of a lost season.

But while you can kind of see why the Pirates would do this with no real alternatives for turning him into any long-term value now, it’s pretty weird for every other contender to essentially get a chance to grab a quality reliever for nothing. Because Nicasio isn’t just some random waiver-wire arm.

Over the last two years, he’s thrown 116 innings in relief, running an 8% BB%, 28% K%, and 47% GB%. That’s good for a 3.35 ERA/2.87 FIP/3.35 xFIP. Opposing batters have put up just a .288 wOBA against him, and he’s been just as good against LHBs as RHBs. Nicasio isn’t a one-batter specialist. He’s a effective high-leverage reliever who can pitch multiple innings and stay in against whoever the opponent sends up.

In terms of production, he’s not all that different from Addison Reed, who the Red Sox traded for before the July 31st deadline. To acquire Reed for the stretch run, Boston took on $2.6 million in remaining salary and sent three lottery-ticket prospects to New York. Whoever gets Nicasio will get him for $600K and no talent cost whatsoever.

Given the minimal cost for a quality reliever who will be on his new team in time to qualify for postseason rosters, every contender in baseball should be putting in a claim. Since waiver order is determined by win-loss record in ascending order, the favorites to win the claim should probably be one of the Rays, Rangers, Mariners, or Royals, all of whom are a game or two under .500 but hanging around the AL Wild Card race. If Nicasio gets past any of those four teams, then everyone in baseball must know something that outsiders do not.

Though Keith Law says he’s heard there’s nothing wrong with Nicasio that led to this decision.

If Nicasio is healthy and doesn’t have a pending PED suspension or something, then the Pirates just gave some contender a nice little gift. It’s not often you get a quality bullpen arm for nothing anymore.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Doesn’t waiver priority go to the National League first?