Late-Offseason Reliever Roundup

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

With pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training camp this week, now feels like a good time to run through a few of the reliever transactions from the past two weeks.

Twins sign Jay Jackson to a one-year deal with 2025 team option

Jay Jackson’s baseball career has taken him almost everywhere there is to go. The 36-year old has tossed just 87.1 innings in the majors, but his professional career has spanned three continents, nine major league organizations, and nearly 700 games pitched. Once a highly ranked prospect in the Cubs system, his stock fell as he struggled against upper-minors competition. After a four-inning callup with the Padres in 2015, the 27-year-old Jackson parlayed a strong performance in the Mexican Pacific Winter League into an NPB contract. In 2016, Jackson led all NPB relievers with a 32.8% strikeout rate and 2.6 WAR, helping his Hiroshima Toyo Carp (a team featuring a 21-year old Seiya Suzuki and 41-year old Hiroki Kuroda) to a Central League pennant. He’s spent the past three seasons in North America, being cycled between the majors and minors for the Giants, Braves, and Blue Jays.

Jackson’s arsenal is pretty unremarkable as far as relievers go, throwing a 93 mph fastball and 85 mph slider, with slight preference to the breaking ball. Neither of his pitches stands out notably in spin or movement, but he has consistently gotten batters out and runs above-average whiff rates on his slider. His command has improved since his days as a minor league journeyman, no longer walking a batter every other inning as he did during his first big league stint. Over the past three seasons, he’s landed pitches in the shadow of the zone at a 66th percentile rate, missing bats and avoiding hard contact, as well.

Jackson joins some pretty solid company on his new squad, which now ranks second in projected relief WAR, according to Depth Charts. The Twins have built a strong bullpen with former castoffs and late draft picks like Caleb Thielbar, Brock Stewart, and Kody Funderburk, each more than capable of setting up for closer Jhoan Duran. Jackson, along with fellow new acquisitions Justin Topa and Steven Okert, should be able to handle low-leverage innings on a contending team. It’s not the most glamorous job description, but Jackson is about as good as an eighth reliever gets.

Giants acquire Ethan Small for cash considerations

Once a first-round pick by the Brewers, Ethan Small’s stock has fallen in the past couple years as two formerly projected areas of improvement – command and the discovery of a breaking ball – seem to have stalled out. The former zone-filling ace at Mississippi State has struggled to find the zone, running walk rates north of 11% at every level of the minors; he faced similar issues with walks during two brief stints in the majors. A fastball-changeup specialist, Small has still yet to develop a third pitch five years into his pro career, and Milwaukee officially moved him to relief last year, seemingly resigned to his destiny as a two-pitch hurler. Now, with just one option year remaining, the Brewers decided they have more important talents to keep on the 40-man roster and sent Small westward to figure things out on a new team.

Even without big stuff or velocity, Small stands out thanks to his unique delivery. Standing at 6-foot-4 (and definitely not living up to his name), Small fires from a standard high-slot lefty release point, nearly identical to those of Jordan Montgomery and Carlos Rodón. But the way he gets there is quite different, hiding the ball behind his body before releasing it at an over-the-top angle. His arm action lends well to the shape of his two primary pitches, a low-90s four-seamer and a low-80s changeup, both with near-perfect spin efficiency. As a result, the heater generates above-average carry with almost no horizontal run, oftentimes getting batters to swing under it. And his changeup – well, you should just watch it in action.

This visual beauty of an offering is enhanced by his delivery and synergy with his fastball; both spin on nearly identical axes while one falls off the table after starting from a sky-high arm slot. In Triple-A last year, batters slugged just .226 against the pitch (on par with Merrill Kelly’s changeup) with a swinging strike rate of 17.7%. But he failed to replicate those results during his cups of coffee in Milwaukee, as big leaguers could see the pitch better. What Small’s changeup has in visual appeal, it lacks in actual movement, with below-average marks in both the vertical and horizontal direction. As last season went on and he gained more experience in the bullpen, Small actually threw fewer changeups in favor of a more fastball-heavy diet, a trend that may continue should he stay in a relief role.

Ethan Small Pitch Usage, 2023
Month Fastball Usage Changeup Usage
May 67.3% 28.8%
June 63.2% 34.2%
July 55.4% 34.8%
August 69% 24.1%
September 70.1% 26.2%
SOURCE: Brooks Baseball

Even after a Giants season in which they, at times, ran a two-man rotation, they’ve somehow still managed to find a way to shed volume over the offseason. While rookie Kyle Harrison and new signing Jordan Hicks outclass Anthony DeSclafani and Ross Stripling on a rate basis, neither has ever put up full-time starter innings; Logan Webb is now the only member of their projected Opening Day roster to have done so over a full major league season. The lack of length from the rotation will necessitate longer appearances from the likes of Ryan Walker, Sean Hjelle, and Small – each with multi-inning or starter experience. At this stage in his development, Small certainly isn’t the proverbial lefty with a changeup that sticks around as a starter for a decade, but the potential for him to be a good long reliever is certainly still there. And for the low price of money, the Giants could be the team to cash in during his final 26-man evaluation year.

Angels sign José Cisnero to a one-year contract and acquire Guillermo Zuñiga for cash considerations

In lieu of signing starters, either position players or members of the rotation, the Angels have spent the offseason signing more relievers than I can count with my fingers. José Cisnero and Guillermo Zuñiga are the latest in this bunch to join the staff, one that is certainly new but not as shiny as you’d hope given the sheer number of additions.

Cisnero has spent the past five years on the Tigers, latching on there after a tumultuous early career that included a two-year absence from affiliated baseball. In Detroit, he rattled off a couple of good seasons, including a 2020 campaign where he finished an inning off the league lead in relief usage while maintaining an ERA around three. But like countless other journeyman relievers, his command has seemingly disappeared at times, and he’s experienced large fluctuations in walk rate from season to season.

Despite spending his entire big league career in single-inning relief, Cisnero’s pitch mix hasn’t changed from his days as a starter 15 years ago. He uses each of his five pitches at least 10% of the time, digging into his diverse arsenal to vary his looks based on batter handedness. None of his offerings stand out in terms of pitch value, though his slider is probably the best from a shape perspective, generating almost curveball-like depth with his main offspeed pitch. Cisnero is coming off a season with a 5.31 ERA, primarily the result of batters capitalizing on fastballs left over the plate; he was in a minority of pitchers to amass a negative run value on pitches in the heart zone, per Statcast’s classifications.

In contrast to Cisnero’s unremarkable kitchen-sink arsenal, Zuñiga’s more limited mix can only be described as absolute gas. The 25-year old reliever has had an unusual path to the majors, reaching minor league free agency twice as a prospect due to his original contract being voided in the wake of the John Coppolella scandal. As a farmhand in the Dodgers’ and Cardinals’ systems, Zuñiga developed electric stuff, touching triple digits with his fastball while freezing hitters with his bullet slider. In a two-game cup of coffee last September, he averaged 99 mph and touched 101, striking out four of the eight batters he faced. His command isn’t great, but the primary barrier to his success in the minors was allowing loud contact; he allowed 18 homers in 85 minor league innings across the past two seasons.

We have Zuñiga projected to start the year in Triple-A, not because the guys on the big league roster have better stuff, but simply because he still has minor league options. Of the eight relievers on the Angels’ projected Opening Day roster, only José Soriano can be shuttled to Salt Lake City without being exposed to waivers. But as the season goes along and arms wear down, it’s a near guarantee that we’ll see the Angels make moves to add younger, option-able relievers like Ben Joyce, Sam Bachman, and Zuñiga to the big league club.

Kyle is a FanGraphs contributor who likes to write about unique players who aren't superstars. He likes multipositional catchers, dislikes fastballs, and wants to see the return of the 100-inning reliever. He's currently a college student studying math education, and wants to apply that experience to his writing by making sabermetrics more accessible to learn about. Previously, he's written for PitcherList using pitch data to bring analytical insight to pitcher GIFs and on his personal blog about the Angels.

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3 months ago

Jay Jackson has been around but when you want to talk about which Jackson has REALLY BEEN around the list begins with Edwin who holds the record for most uniforms worn with 13.