Last Friday afternoon, Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic reported that the Mets were in agreement with 31-year-old lefty Justin Wilson, lately of the Cubs, on a two-year deal later reported to be approximately $10 million over the life of the contract. A few minutes later, the Indians announced that they’d re-signed a lefty of their own — 37-year-old Óliver Pérez — to a one-year contract worth $2.5 million, with a 2020 option worth $2.75 million that will vest if he reaches 55 appearances in 2019. With Pérez and Wilson under contract for 2019, the lefty relief market is down to Jake Diekman and a handful of folks projected for zero WAR in 2019. Let’s talk about the two that signed this week, and what we can expect from them.
Wilson is probably the higher-upside of the two, though bouts of inconsistency mean he’s not a lock to repeat the .188/.301/.342 line he held lefties to in 2018. A strong start to the 2017 season, in which he threw 40 innings for the Tigers, striking out 55 and walking just 16, led to a mid-season trade to a Cubs team hunting for a second straight division title. They didn’t quite get what they were after: Wilson walked 19 in just under 18 innings of work, struck out just 25, and visibly lost manager Joe Maddon’s confidence down the stretch — after a three-run, two-walk, one-out appearance on September 2nd, Wilson appeared just once again for the next 10 days, and was entrusted with just 5.1 more innings the rest of the season. Wilson’s wild ways continued into the early part of 2018 but seemed to improve as the season wore on, and he finished the year with a 3.41 full-season ERA, even as his Cubs mark (5.09) fell well below his then-career 3.30.
Wilson has always been a pitcher the spin rate guys love — see his acquisition by Chicago in mid-2017, for example — and nothing in his recent performance suggests the raw stuff that’s so impressed scouts and spreadsheet-wranglers alike has gone anywhere. He has, if anything, become even more reliant on his four-seam fastball than ever (he threw it nearly three-quarters of the time in 2018, mostly at the expense of his sinker) and given its 82nd-percentile spin rate that seems as reasonable a strategy as any. Batters were slightly more successful against that pitch in 2018 than they were in previous years (familiarity breeds contempt, I suppose) but much less successful against Wilson’s breaking pitches than before, suggesting a successful ability to pick his spots and disrupt timing effectively.
In New York, Wilson will join new acquisition Edwin Díaz, a re-signed Jeurys Familia, and holdovers Robert Gsellman, Seth Lugo, and Drew Smith for what should be a vastly improved Mets ‘pen. The Mets were fairly terrible in relief in 2018 — their 4.96 ERA was second only to the Marlins for worst in the National League, and their FIP was worst outright — and they were heavily right-handed, getting just 62.1 inning out of southpaws in 2018, 42.2 of which came from the departing Jerry Blevins. Whatever else can be said about Justin Wilson, I think we can fairly say he is a better relief pitcher than Jerry Blevins, and his addition will give Mickey Callaway a strong seventh-inning option before heading to Familia in the eighth and Díaz in the ninth.
Pérez, meanwhile, is back in business after it appeared, even just a year ago, that his big-league career might be over. He started 2018 on a minor-league deal with the Yankees, showed enough to sign on with Cleveland on a big-league deal after a June 1 release from Scranton, and promptly posted a 36% strikeout rate and 1.39 ERA over 32 innings for Terry Francona’s squad. Most impressively, after spending a career mostly more effective against lefties than against righties, Pérez absolutely dominated right-handed hitters in 2018, holding them to a minuscule .138 wOBA (lefties posted a .213 mark). It’s hard to say precisely what changed for Pérez, but my money would be on his increased use of a newly-improved slider (up to 49 percent usage after sitting in the low 40s for most of his career) and a move away from a fading fastball.
If Wilson is a sensible move in the middle of a somewhat puzzling offseason for the Mets, Pérez is a sensible move in the middle of a straightforward, if disappointingly stingy, offseason for Cleveland. The bullpen could certainly use some help — it was nearly as bad as the Mets’ last year — but Pérez will at best help the ‘pen stand pat in 2019 rather than move forward, and he is (somewhat incredibly) the first major-league free agent acquisition of the offseason for Mike Chernoff. Ideally, we’d see Cleveland pick up a few more relievers off the market — all they cost is money — and perhaps spin off some of the leftover pieces for replacements for the departing Michael Brantley and the traded Edwin Encarnación and Yan Gomes. The plan instead seems to be to reduce payroll while hoping the departures don’t weaken the team enough to fall behind the rest of the Central. That isn’t likely, but seize the moment this approach is not.
Still, Pérez is a good pitcher and Cleveland needs a few of those. He had a terrific season in 2018 and there is reason to believe, despite his 16 seasons in the major leagues, that he has more left in the tank. He’ll be best served if the front office goes out and gets more arms to take some of the strain off of, say, him and Brad Hand, but if he pitches like he did last year, he’ll be useful anyway. Wilson, too, will probably be in the best position to succeed if the Mets go out and find another lefty reliever to take some of the load off (Diekman is of course still available) but has enough of an ability to get righties out that he should be a contributor. In an offseason that has been remarkably bereft of teams going out and getting players they need by paying money for their services, Cleveland and New York have done just that, even if these signings would ideally be part of a larger plan to spend money on good players at positions of need.
Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs based in Seattle. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he’s a public policy researcher in housing & homelessness.