Two Veteran Free Agent Relievers Move to America’s Heartland

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a mean-spirited but persistent thread in American pop culture, in which the Midwest is depicted as a cultural backwater, populated by sleepy, gormless, unattractive rubes and devoid of meaningful art or culture. For example, this sidesplitting musical interlude from 30 Rock. As an East Coast snob who lived for many years among the Great Lakes, I find this line of comedy offensive. Midwesterners are friendly, vigorous, beautiful people, and they live in a land of marvels. (If you’re wondering why I’ve chosen to open with this confusing and risky metaphor: We just got a new assistant editor, Matt Martell, and I’m hazing him by handing him a grenade on his second day.)

But when it comes to pitching, the coastal elites might have a point: Standards have slipped a little in the heartland. For the Chicago White Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates, John Brebbia and Aroldis Chapman, respectively, are marquee signings. (Now I’ve thrown all that goodwill away by puncturing Pittsburghers’ delusion that they’re from the East Coast. How foolish of me.)

Let’s dispense with Brebbia first, because that move makes plenty of sense. The 33-year-old right-hander, most notable these days for his Civil War cavalry officer’s beard and felicity with deadpan humor, has been a fairly reliable middle reliever for most of his six-season major league career. Brebbia missed most of 2020 and 2021 while recovering from Tommy John surgery, but has otherwise had a couple high-volume seasons without too much in the way of injury trouble: 66 appearances, 72 2/3 innings in 2019, and a major league-high 76 appearances and 68 innings in 2022 — the latter evidence of the busy life led by relief pitchers who work for Gabe Kapler.

Brebbia is pretty much exclusively fastball-slider, or more accurately slider-fastball, given he throws his breaking pitch more often than his four-seamer. Both pitches move mostly on an east-west axis, but the contrast between the two is effective enough that Brebbia got hitters to chase, whiff, and strike out more than they did in 2022 by working outside the strike zone.

I’d expect Brebbia to make maybe 50 or 60 appearances, and therein to throw about 60 average-to-above-average innings. He’ll earn $4 million in 2024, with a $1.5 million buyout of a $6 million mutual option for next year, which brings the total guarantee to $5.5 million.

Teams don’t like to spend in this middle relief role, but between youth, injury risk, and some concerning recent track records, there’s a lot of variance in Chicago’s bullpen right now. As a result, Brebbia will probably end up pitching higher-leverage innings than he would on a contender, but he’ll keep the drama to a minimum. Manager Pedro Grifol, whose chair wobbles more than a second-year manager would like, will be grateful. So too White Sox fans.

The White Sox have given out six major league contracts to free agents this offseason. That Brebbia is the second-best of those six players (maybe the best, if you don’t quite buy that a year in Korea turned Erick Fedde into the second coming of Roger Clemens) is not really Brebbia’s fault. He’ll be fine. The White Sox, perhaps less so.

With that said, it could be worse.

Chapman can still be effective. The hardest-throwing pitcher who ever lived has evolved in his mid-30s, adding a sinker and splitter to his fastball-slider arsenal, and last season he rebounded from a down year in 2022 that could have ended his career.

The left-hander brought his strikeout rate back into the 40s, pulled his HR/9 back into the survivable zone — roughly a third of what it was in 2020 and 2021 — and glommed onto a Rangers team that ended up winning the World Series. And Chapman was a big part of that effort; among Texas’ pure relievers, Chapman was third in innings pitched and first in gmLI in the 2023 postseason, and white-knuckled his way to a 2.25 ERA.

It wasn’t always pretty. Chapman had the sixth-highest walk rate among 162 qualified relievers in the regular season, and allowed at least one baserunner in each of his last five appearances of the playoffs. His wildness in high-leverage moments led to Josh Sborz and José Leclerc throwing — if you want to get empirical about it — a crapload of innings in the World Series. But on balance, he was good in 2023. And if the Pirates get to the point where Chapman walks away a playoff series in 2024, it would represent a titanic overperformance based on preseason expectations.

As much as I thought this line of thinking died out ages ago, there’s still a lucrative market for the Veteran Proven Closer. And if Craig Kimbrel is worth $13 million for one year, I guess Chapman, based on on-field ability alone, is worth $10.5 million.

In this offseason of the Dodgers and Yankees gobbling up the game’s biggest stars, there’s been a lot of concern trolling over how small-market teams like the Pirates can compete with rich teams like the Dodgers. That line of inquiry is misguided, because the Pirates — between revenue sharing and taking a slice of national TV money — don’t compete with the Dodgers so much as they freeload off the Dodgers. Owner Bob Nutting has more or less abdicated the responsibility to field a competitive ballclub.

So how can I criticize the Pirates for finally going out and paying — overpaying, even — for a big-name free agent? Here’s how.

Despite the general malaise over the franchise in the past eight years, the Pirates have done a fair amount to win fans over in the past 13 months. They brought back franchise legend Andrew McCutchen — twice. They extended Bryan Reynolds. They drafted Paul Skenes, the best college pitching prospect since Gerrit Cole and the most famous and exciting college baseball player at any position since Bryce Harper. They promoted a number of young prospects, including former no. 1 overall pick Henry Davis.

But for people who want to get back on the bandwagon, Chapman is a hard guy to root for. His 30-game domestic violence suspension is several years in the past, but the details of the case are so disturbing they’ll cast a shadow over everything he does for the rest of his career, and deservedly so. The Pirates have not handled such cases well — not that any sports team does — as they welcomed Jung Ho Kang back after a sexual assault allegation and a hit-and-run DUI in the same season, and promoted Ji Hwan Bae through the ranks after he was convicted of assault in South Korea.

Chapman’s suspension is the headline item, but as recently as 2022, Chapman no-showed at a team workout on the eve of the postseason. Six weeks before, Chapman was sidelined with an infection resulting from, of all things, poor tattoo aftercare. (The story itself was made all the more memorable because it inspired Lindsey Adler, then of The Athletic, to pen the now-immortal phrase, “veritable moat of pus.”)

From a culture standpoint (or a moral standpoint, if you want to put it that way), I’d be wary of adding Chapman to my team. Nevertheless, ballclubs take risks on players like this all the time. I understand that; what I don’t understand is why the Pirates chose Chapman in particular. Because I don’t think they need him.

The Pirates already have one of the best closers in baseball, David Bednar, and more depth in the bullpen than most national fans realize. In 2023, Pittsburgh was 11th in reliever WAR, 18th in ERA-, and 10th in WPA. Not exactly the 1990 Reds, but hardly a gaping wound in need of treatment. Of the seven Pirates who threw 30 or more innings in relief last season, six had an ERA under 4.00, and all of those are coming back.

If anything, Pittsburgh could’ve used a steady hand like Brebbia, because they have Chapman’s low-command tightrope style of pitching covered, between Carmen Mlodzinski, Dauri Moreta, and Roansy Contreras.

Taking into account all of Pittsburgh’s guaranteed contracts and pre-arbitration contract agreements, and debiting the $9.25 million subsidy the Bucs are getting from the Braves in the Marco Gonzales deal, the Pirates are set to spend about $69 million on player salary, above and beyond the minimum required to field a 26-man roster. Some $15 million and change — or about 22% of that total — is being allotted to Pittsburgh’s eighth- and ninth-inning guys, Bednar and Chapman.

It’s a weird way to build a roster.

Maybe Pittsburgh is looking at how the Royals made out with Chapman last year and hoping for a similarly successful deadline-period trade. Cole Ragans, the young left-hander the Rangers sent to Kansas City for Chapman last July, turned into one of the best pitchers in the American League immediately after touching down in Missouri. If the Pirates pull off a similar trick in six months’ time, I will happily recant my skepticism.

Until then, it’s a curious allocation of both literal and social capital, from a team that has little of either to play with.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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garpachi
3 months ago

I agree, Chapman to the Pirates looks like a strange signing. Sure, the bullpen looks really good now, but their current starting rotation ends with two of Luis Ortiz, Bailey Falter, and Quinn Priester. If character concerns are out the window, then putting that money towards someone like Mike Clevinger would seem to make a lot more sense.
The only way I can see this signing making sense is if they’re close on a trade to fill the #2 SP spot.