Sometimes when I write about the value of relief pitchers, I feel like a financial analyst pre-2006, warning people about the housing market. The prices paid for relief pitchers, especially closers, has gotten ridiculous. It feels like eventually that market is just going to collapse, and prices will bottom out. The strange thing is that it is so obvious that the prices paid to relievers are ridiculous, yet teams continue to pay those prices.
Baseball America rated left-handed pitcher Robbie Erlin the #34 prospect in their mid-season rankings last year. They rated right-handed pitcher Zack Wheeler the #35 prospect. Wheeler fetched outfielder Carlos Beltran in a one-for-one swap. Erlin was paired with Joe Wieland in exchange for set-up man Mike Adams.
I like Mike Adams. He’s a great reliever, and he’s good enough to be a closer. But you’re talking about a relief pitcher here. This is a guy who pitches one inning at a time, and doesn’t even pitch in half of the team’s games. Carlos Beltran is a guy who plays 140+ games a year, and has value all throughout the games. Yet Beltran fetched the #35 prospect, while Adams landed the #34 prospect, plus another prospect.
What doesn’t make sense is that it’s not that hard to find good relief pitchers. You can’t go out and sign a guy to a minor league deal, then watch him put up Carlos Beltran numbers. If you did, it would be one of the top stories of the year. You can go out and sign a minor league free agent, then watch him put up dominant relief numbers. And you don’t really need the sub-2.00 ERA that Adams provides. It’s a nice luxury, but the value of a dominant reliever really isn’t that big. Consider these two players:
Player A: 2.10 ERA, 8.8 K/9, 1.8 BB/9, 1.1 HR/9, 25.2 IP, 0.5 WAR
Player B: 2.48 ERA, 10.2 K/9, 4.1 BB/9, 0.6 HR/9, 32.2 IP, 0.4 WAR
Player A is Adams, looking only at his numbers after the trade that sent him to the Texas Rangers. Keep in mind, the Rangers paid one of the top 40 prospects in baseball, plus another prospect to get Adams under team control for a year and two months.
Player B is Jason Grilli. The Pirates signed Grilli ten days before the Rangers traded for Adams. Grilli was stuck on Philadelphia’s Triple-A team, with an out-clause in his contract. Any team that wanted him in the majors could make him an offer. The Phillies then had a choice whether to add him to their 25-man roster, or release him and let him sign with the other team. The Pirates offered, the Phillies released him, and the Pirates ended up getting a year and two months of team control of Grilli.
If I had to place money on it, I’d bet that Adams will have the better season in 2012. But if I’m running a team, and I’m given the choice of Grilli for free, or Adams for a top 40 prospect and another prospect, I’m taking my chances with Grilli. That’s total hindsight, as Grilli was far from a guarantee to do what he did. But it’s not like those situations don’t come up every year. The Pirates did something totally similar with Chris Resop in 2010.
Take a look at what we’ve seen early in the 2012 season. The Phillies signed Jonathan Papelbon for four years and $50 M. The Marlins signed Heath Bell for three years and $27 M. The Reds signed Ryan Madson to a one year, $8.5 M deal. Papelbon has converted all three save chances, and has a 1.80 ERA in five innings. Heath Bell blew two of three save chances and has a 9.00 ERA in four innings. And Ryan Madson went down for the year before the season began.
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay signed Fernando Rodney for one year and $2 M. Washington signed Brad Lidge for one year and $1 M. And the Pirates signed Juan Cruz to a minor league contract, paying him $1.25 M for one year. Rodney replaced the injured Kyle Farnsworth, and has saved all four opportunities he has seen in 4.1 shutout innings. Lidge replaced Drew Storen, and has a 3.00 ERA in 6 innings, with two saves in three chances. And Cruz has replaced Joel Hanrahan the last two games, saving both chances, all while throwing six shutout innings this year.
This idea that there is some special X-factor required to get three outs in the ninth inning is absurd. Three outs in the ninth inning with a one to three run lead is no different than three outs in the seventh inning with a one to three run lead. In either case, the pitcher is assigned to get three outs and protect the lead.
Pitchers don’t throw in the late innings because of some ridiculous theory that they can handle the role of a set-up man or a closer. They pitch in those roles because they’re the best relievers on the team. But again, the difference in value isn’t that big. You can make a minor move and get the same value as you’d get from trading for Mike Adams. You can sign a guy for $1-2 M and get the same results as you’d get from spending $8-12 M a year on an elite closer. Or you can just buy low on a closer who is having a down year, and hope he regains his value. That’s what the Pirates did with Joel Hanrahan.
I talked about Hanrahan the other day, and why the Pirates should trade him. Most of the feedback was in agreement, focusing on the big return Hanrahan could bring. Some didn’t like the idea, holding on to the notion that Hanrahan brings some big value to the team that can’t be easily replaced. Yet the last two nights the Pirates have held a close lead in the ninth inning, and Juan Cruz — signed to a minor league deal in January — closed out the game with ease.
Hanrahan had a 2.9 WAR last year. He’s under control through the 2013 season. If the Pirates traded him on July 1st, and he maintains that 2.9 WAR value, he’d have a $12.7 M trade value. That would be worth a top 76-100 hitting prospect. Of course, the value for closers tends to be inflated, so the Pirates could easily get more, based on recent history.
As for replacing Hanrahan, I don’t think it would be that hard. On the current 25-man roster, I’d throw Juan Cruz or Jason Grilli in to the role. Brad Lincoln wouldn’t be a bad option. In Triple-A I’d go with Bryan Morris. You could even go with Justin Wilson. In Double-A there’s Duke Welker. The only thing Hanrahan has over these guys is the proof that he can “handle the role”. But it was only a year ago that Hanrahan was a big question mark. The Pirates gave Hanrahan the job over Evan Meek in early Spring Training, and there were questions as to why there was no competition for the spot.
Or maybe you just forget about the closer role completely. Use your relievers in order. When you’ve got a one run lead with two on and no outs in the seventh, bring on Hanrahan. Save Jared Hughes for the ninth inning, when hopefully a win is still a possibility. Saving a closer for the ninth inning, and relying on lesser relievers to get the lead to the ninth inning is ridiculous. It’s like saving your ace pitcher for the clinching game of a playoff series. You might not even get there to give that pitcher a chance to throw.
As long as major league teams continue to over-pay for relievers, the Pirates should continue to deal closers for good returns. They should also continue adding relievers for cheap prices. The bullpen has been one of the most successful areas for the team the last few years, whether it’s adding cheap relievers who can get the job done, or trading them for good returns. The Pirates would be smart to continue that trend this year at the trade deadline.
Links and Notes
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**The Pirates beat the Diamondbacks 2-1. Game story here.
**Prospect Watch: Two hits each for Tony Sanchez and Starling Marte.
**Jeff Locke struck out eight in the Indianapolis win tonight.
**Jeff Karstens was placed on the disabled list. Brad Lincoln was recalled, and got the win after pitching three shutout innings. My guess is that Lincoln will get the start on Monday.
**Pirates Notebook: Barajas getting to know the pitching staff.+ posts
Tim is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.