The Standard Reliever Contract Is Back

Last season, the relief market was the only aspect of free agency that moved quickly. Of the first 14 free agents to sign last winter among the Top 50 players available, eight were relief pitchers (nine if we count Mike Minor). All eight received similar contracts for two, sometimes three, seasons, and around $7 million to $10 million per year. In “deals that were announced at 2 AM the night before everyone at FanGraphs left the Winter Meetings and spent most of Thursday on airplanes,” we have two free agent reliever signings that meet the qualifications for that standard reliever contract.

Let’s address both Jeurys Familia and Joe Kelly’s new deals in turn.

Jeurys Familia

Jeurys Familia spent a full decade in the Mets organization before the team traded him to the A’s for a potentially decent, MLB-ready reliever in Bobby Wahl, as well as a further-away third base prospect in William Toffey. While the Mets already made their big reliever move in trading for Edwin Diaz, Familia should help build a better bridge from their starters to the end of the game. In her write-up of Familia for our Top 50 Free Agent Rankings, Meg Rowley noted how Familia’s pitch-mix had changed in Oakland, as well as other factors potentially relevant to his contract.

Familia was traded to Oakland in July, after which he seems to have leaned on his four-seamer and slider a bit more, his sinker a bit less. The result: a five-point increase in strikeout rate despite the move to the harder league. Familia’s on the right side of 30, throws a four-seam fastball in the high 90s, and has prior closer experience with the Mets, if you care about such things. Familia served a suspension under the league’s domestic policy in 2017 and also missed time that season after a blood clot in his shoulder required surgery. He’s younger than a few of the other reliever options on this list, even if not resoundingly better than all of them, all of which is likely to be reflected in his next contract.

In the same piece, Kiley McDaniel noted a progressive organization might be able to capitalize on a better pitch mix for Familia, so it will be interesting to see if the former Mets closer goes back to what he threw with them the last time around, or continues to lean more heavily on a four-seamer and slider. As for the suspension, the Mets already happily employed Familia and also had no qualms bringing Jose Reyes back to Queens, an organizational willingness that merits further consideration. On the field, Familia should help the Mets, but he’s also a reliever with an injury history who has thrown a lot of innings, so it is hardly a guarantee. Most of the relievers who signed contracts last year didn’t end up performing all that well, and he remains a pitcher, so there is some risk here.

Joe Kelly

  • Three years, $25 million with the Dodgers, per Jeff Passan

The right-hander with the 100 mph sinker likely made himself a decent amount of money in October as his regular season track record is rather ordinary. Coming to Boston along with Allen Craig in the 2014 deal that sent John Lackey to St. Louis, the Red Sox had Kelly start the rest of that season, all of 2015, and some of 2016 before moving him to the pen full-time ahead of the 2017 season. In the two years since that move, Kelly has been solid, good for .7 WAR each season using a low spin-rate fastball to generate ground balls and keep the ball in the park, though he also put up double-digit walk numbers both seasons.

In the postseason, he ratcheted up the usage of his knuckle curve, which might have made it slightly more difficult for batters to make contact on the fastball. Kelly struck out 13 of the 44 batters he faced in the playoffs without allowing a walk. He gave up just two runs — one earned in 11.1 innings — and that performance likely got Kelly an extra year on his contract. Red Sox fans will probably remember Kelly for striking out the side in the eighth inning of the World Series clincher as well as for helping to incite a brawl with the Yankees. Dodgers fans might remember Kelly most from a National Anthem standoff in the 2013 playoffs or for that other thing that year.

As for the Dodgers, signing Kelly represents a departure from the previous bullpen strategy set by the current front office. Prior to Andrew Friedman taking over in Los Angeles, the Dodgers had given out large contracts to middling relievers like Brandon League and Brian Wilson. In the last four offseasons, despite massive resources and payrolls, the Dodgers signed just one free agent reliever (Kenley Jansen) to a contract for more than $10 million. The strategy worked out masterfully in 2017, as the club made the World Series with Jansen and castoffs like Brandon Morrow, and midseason trade acquisitions like Tony Cingrani and Tony Watson.

Last season, however, they couldn’t replicate their success. Jansen wasn’t quite as good, Cingrani was hurt, Stripling was needed for the rotation, and offseason additions Scott Alexander and Daniel Hudson were mediocre, at best. Midseason trades for John Axford and Ryan Madson didn’t provide enough help. The end result was a middling bullpen in both the regular season and the playoffs, with Pedro Baez was the only truly reliable reliever ahead of Kenley Jansen.

Whether this change in philosophy works out for Los Angeles is going to depend on Kelly staying healthy and seeing his playoff performance carrying over into 2019. Most relievers like Kelly have gotten two years, but Los Angeles clearly sees something in him as they got ahead of the reliever market and made what was his only three-year offer. As for the rest of the league, these two contracts seem likely to spur on a handful more reliever deals, as all teams need bullpen help and most teams seem willing to pay the standard rate.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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5 years ago

Is Kelly completely hopeless as a starter now? It seems his pitch arsenal should make him at least a five innings guy potentially.

5 years ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

yea I think that ship has sailed

5 years ago
Reply to  Dmjn53


5 years ago
Reply to  Dmjn53

On the other hand he might make a good two inning opener.