Glen Perkins has, somewhat quietly, become a dominating relief pitcher. He currently sits 5th among qualified relievers in FIP (1.84), 4th in xFIP (2.21), and he has 14 shutdowns against just two meltdowns. He’s into advanced statistics and knows what FIP and xFIP are. He’s going to represent the Twins in the All-Star Game next week, the team he grew up watching as a kid in Minnesota. And he’s signed to a well below market contract, one that pays him just $2.5 million this year, $3.75 million for the following two years, and then gives the Twins a $4.5 million option on his 2016 season. Because of all these things — okay, probably not the nerd part — the Twins are reportedly not willing to trade Perkins, as their preference is to keep him while they rebuild a new core of young players around him.
The Mets might do a similar thing with Bobby Parnell. He has also been excellent (2.16 FIP, 3.16 xFIP) since moving into their closer role, and as a 28-year-old under team control via arbitration for the next two seasons, the Mets are apparently disinclined to trade him. Neither team wants to send the message that their rebuilds are going to take years, and both are showing a preference to retain their young, cost controlled assets and simply move older pieces on larger contracts instead.
Here’s the problem. Closers — relief pitchers in general, really — are simply not worth building around. Today’s asset is tomorrow’s liability, and the Twins and Mets should learn from the mistake that the Royals made with Joakim Soria.
From 2007 to 2010, Soria was one of the game’s true elite relievers. He became the Royals closer in 2008, saving 42 games, and the Royals had the foresight to sign him to an extension in May of that season, getting him under team control at bargain prices and getting several team options that gave them cost certainty without the risk of guaranteed salaries. Combined with his performance, Soria’s contract made him highly valuable as a trade chip, but Kansas City preferred to build around him. As Ken Rosenthal tweeted in 2010:
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) December 20, 2010
During their period of rebuilding, the Royals put some bad teams on the field, but they had a dominating closer to finish out the games they did manage to win. In 2011, Soria regressed, seeing his strikeout rate fall while his hit and home run rates jumped. In the spring of 2012, doctors examined Soria and found that he needed Tommy John Surgery, which sidelined him for the entire season. After the year ended, the Royals declined their final two options on Soria’s contract, making him a free agent. When he signed with Texas, the Royals had nothing to show for letting Soria leave besides the memories of some good saves for some bad teams.
Soria is not the exception. Soria is the rule.
Let’s just look at where the top 10 under-30 relievers from the 2010 season are now, just for fun? Remember, this is good young relievers, most of whom were under club control for many years.
Carlos Marmol, +2.8 WAR: DFA’d, traded in salary dump, in minors
Brian Wilson, +2.5 WAR: Surgery, hasn’t pitched since start of last year
Hong-Chih Kuo, +2.3 WAR: Surgery, inability to throw strikes, out of baseball
Neftali Feliz, +2.0 WAR: Surgery, hasn’t pitched in 2013
Sean Marshall, +1.9 WAR: Has pitched 7 innings this year due to sore shoulder
Joakim Soria, +1.9 WAR: Surgery, hasn’t pitched since 2011
John Axford, +1.8 WAR: Lost closer job, pitching middle relief, likely non-tender
Daniel Bard, +1.6 WAR: Lost strike zone, sent to AA, now on DL
Jonny Venters, +1.6 WAR: Surgery, out for the season
Juan Oviedo, +1.4 WAR: Surgery, out for the season
This isn’t a cherry picked list of guys who were good and then washed out. This is the top 10 under-30 relievers by WAR just a couple of years ago. There isn’t a single pitcher on that list that has any real value in 2013. The Brewers are likely to trade Axford for a pittance, as some team takes a shot on him finishing strong as a setup guy, but everyone else is either rehabbing or trying to get back to the big leagues in some form. John Axford is the success story of the group.
Relievers, even really good young relievers, should be viewed as ripe fruit. They are great for a while, but you don’t store ripe fruit for the future planning on having a healthy snack later. You consume it now or waste it.
I get that Perkins is a very popular player in Minnesota. He’s a local boy who pitched at the University of Minnesota. He’s a former first round pick who has turned himself into a really great reliever, is extremely active on Twitter, and is a great representation of the Twins franchise. He hardly costs them anything to keep around, and he helps them win games.
But he’s also their most valuable trade chip, and there’s a real opportunity cost to not cashing in that chip. The same goes for Parnell in New York. If approached by another club about swapping a prospect from their system for a bullpen upgrade, both teams would immediately say no thank you. Retaining Perkins and Parnell is the equivalent of making a prospect-for-reliever trade, as they’re choosing the closer over the young player they could get by putting them on the market.
It’s almost certainly a mistake. As good as Perkins and Parnell have been this year, they’re not likely to keep this up for much longer. Relievers just don’t last. They are depreciating assets, and while their cheap contracts might look appealing, those assets can turn into liabilities very quickly.
Perkins and Parnell are good, they are young, and they are cheap, but they are not pieces to rebuild around. Both the Twins and Mets should cash in while there is still something to cash in.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.