The Rays and Dodgers Each Reach for Some Extra Relief

The trade deadline has passed, but that doesn’t mean teams have stopped scrambling to upgrade or at least patch their pitching staffs with veteran free agents. On Monday, the Rays signed David Robertson, who hasn’t pitched in the majors in more than two years but who recently helped Team USA win a silver medal at the Summer Olympics. On Tuesday, the Dodgers inked Shane Greene to a deal just three days after he was released by the Braves. Both are former Yankees (on the 2014 team) and former All-Stars, and both are on major league contracts. While neither is likely throw a ton of innings, both could pitch their way into throwing significant roles down the stretch.

Both of these teams — which of course met in last year’s World Series — have gotten strong work out of their bullpens to date. Through Monday, the Rays’ bullpen led the majors in WAR (6.2) while the Dodgers’ led the NL (4.4), and both units rank among their respective leagues’ best in nearly all of the other major categories:

Two Strong Bullpens
Team IP Rk ERA Rk FIP Rk K% Rk BB% Rk K-BB% Rk HR/9 Rk
Rays 500.1 1 3.15 1 3.48 1 26.3% 3 8.1% 1 18.2% 2 0.90 2
Dodgers 426.1 10 3.42 3 3.77 2 26.2% 4 10.6% 9 15.6% 4 0.89 3
All statistics through August 16. Rk = rank within AL or NL

With that said, the Rays currently have 17 pitchers on the injured list, including Jeffrey Springs, who underwent season-ending surgery to repair a torn right ACL on Monday; Matt Wisler, who’s dealing with inflammation in his right middle finger; Pete Fairbanks and Ryan Thompson, who are both out with shoulder inflammation; and J.P. Feyereisen, who’s down with biceps tendinitis. Throw in the since-traded Diego Castillo, and the Rays are currently without six of their top eight relievers in terms of total appearances, and five of their top eight (all but Feyereisen) in terms of WAR. All but Springs (and Castillo) are expected to return by the end of the month, but it’s not unreasonable for the Rays to seek out additional depth.

Hence the signing of the 36-year-old Robertson, who spent over a decade bedeviling the Rays as a member of the Yankees’ and White Sox’s bullpen from 2008-18, and was one of the top relievers in all of baseball. From 2009-18, only Craig Kimbrel, Kenley Jansen, and Aroldis Chapman outdid Robertson’s 14.2 WAR, and only three pitchers topped his 629 appearances. Meanwhile his 32.6% strikeout rate ranked 13th in the majors, with his 23.1% strikeout-walk differential 17th.

Alas, things started going sideways on Robertson soon after he signed a two-year, $23 million deal with the Phillies in January 2019. He made just seven appearances totaling 6.2 innings in April of that season before suffering what was believed to be a strained flexor tendon. As the need for surgery became apparent, he discovered he needed a UCL reconstruction as well, and his hopes of a late 2020 return were dashed by a setback in his rehab.

Understandably, the Phillies declined Robertson $12 million option, and when he couldn’t find a fit after throwing showcases for teams in February, he wound up joining the strange mix of prospects and grizzled veterans on Team USA. He notched a pair of saves during the WSBC Baseball Americas Qualifier tournament in May and June, and another pair during the Olympics. Combined, he struck out eight and allowed four runs in seven innings, not that those numbers mean much given the variable level of competition. Statcast-level data wasn’t available for those games, but the thumbnail scouting report we received at FanGraphs had Robertson’s fastball in the 90-94 mph range, with his curve in the 79-83 mph range and his slider in the 83-86 range, numbers that more or less mesh with his previous performances.

That was enough to entice the Rays, who signed Robertson for an undisclosed amount and will send him to Triple-A Durham, where they’ll look for him to demonstrate the ability to work back-to-back games, and to pitch wrap-around innings. Realistically, he could be up in September, perhaps sooner if his stuff merits it and if the other Rays relievers’ returns don’t pan out as planned.

Like the Rays, the Dodgers have a banged-up pitching staff, one that currently includes starters Clayton Kershaw (out until September due to elbow inflammation), Tony Gonsolin (out with shoulder inflammation) and Julio Urías (out with a left calf contusion), as well as relievers Scott Alexander, Garrett Cleavinger, Victor González, Joe Kelly (out for apparently COVID-related reasons), Jimmy Nelson (out for the season due to Tommy John/flexor tendon surgery), and deadline pickup Danny Duffy. Like a family stocking up on creamed eels, corn nog, and wadded beef as a hurricane approaches, club president Andrew Friedman has been grabbing available waiver claims and free agents left and right since the calendar flipped to August. The addition of Cole Hamels didn’t pan out, as the 37-year-old lefty felt shoulder pain during his most recent simulated game and landed on the 60-day IL, ending his season, but the jury remains out on other additions such as Conner Greene (no relation), Evan Phillips, Nick Tropeano, and now Shane Greene.

Drafted and developed by the Yankees but traded to the Tigers in December 2014, Greene landed with the Braves in a 2019 deadline deal. Where he closed in Detroit, notching 66 saves from 2016-19, he shifted into a setup role in Atlanta, saving just one game in parts of three seasons. In 2020, he significantly out-pitched his peripherals, posting a 2.60 ERA but a 3.81 FIP in 27.2 innings while striking out just 19.3% of hitters. A free agent for the first time, he faced a particularly quiet market, with the Twins the only suitors firmly linked to him at any point. He remained unsigned into the regular season, and ultimately re-upped with the Braves in May. His $1.5 million salary — of which he was to receive only a prorated share — amounted to a 76% pay cut from last year’s base salary. Ouch.

Greene made five appearances at Triple-A Gwinnett in late May and early June before joining the Braves. He didn’t pitch well for the big club, getting cuffed for an 8.47 ERA and 6.77 FIP in 17 innings. He served up 2.65 homers per nine and struck out only 20.3% of hitters, and both his barrel and hard-hit rates (12.5% and 44.6%) were career highs, well above his previous body of work.

As dismal as that showing was, Greene’s pitch velocities weren’t all that different from 2020 to ’21. His sinker averaged 92.8 mph according to Statcast, 0.8 mph above last year and 0.2 above 2019. His cutter averaged 87.6 mph, up 0.3 mph from last year and down just 0.1 mph from 2019. His spin rate on the sinker did drop for the fifth year in a row; it’s shed about 44 rpm per year since 2016, and dipped from 2,143 rpm to 2,107 rpm from last year to this one, but that’s not a huge change. His average pitch movement numbers haven’t changed much, either, but what stands out amid the flurry of his Statcast numbers is his release point, which dropped about a half-inch vertically from 2019 (6.05 feet) to ’21 (6.01 feet) and about four inches horizontally over the same span (from -1.89 feet to -1.66). For whatever reason, batters hit his offerings on the ground just 30.4% of the time, well below his career mark of 45.1% and his 2020 mark of 42.7%.

Apparently the Dodgers believe Greene might be just an adjustment or two away from helping them while providing some name recognition to a unit that with all of its injuries currently has only Kenley Jansen, Blake Treinen, and Brusdar Graterol carried over from last year, with Corey Knebel (who’s been healthy enough to throw just 9.1 innings this year, and 22.2 over the last three seasons) and rookies Phil Bickford and Alex Vesia doing some of the heavy lifting in the middle innings.

One way or another, the Rays and Dodgers are likely playoff-bound, which could potentially mean an extra month of innings for their key relievers. Particularly with the wear and tear each staff is showing, spreading the workload around is important, and while neither Robertson nor Greene is likely to have a huge impact, even a small role could prove significant in late September or October.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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1 year ago

I never want to see people get hurt, but its kinda fun watching so many teams in scramble mode this year. I know some people disagree because they want the best players on the field, but I think it will be interesting to see if some teams unearth some gems.