Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Reliever Market

  • What's Gone:
Guillermo Mota
The Dodgers reacquired the 34-year-old Guillermo Mota, signing their former set-up man to a one-year, $2.35M contract (that includes $300k in incentives).  In 2008, Mota pitched adequately in the Brewers bullpen, throwing 57 innings while striking out 50.  Mota hasn't been relevant since 2005 when he was with the Marlins when he threw 67 innings with a 60-to-32 K-to-BB ratio and a 3.68 FIP.  Since that year, Mota, pitching for the Indians, Mets and Brewers, produced FIPs of 5.36, 4.42 and 4.45.  For encroaching on his mid-30's, Mota can still bring it, hitting 94-mph consistently on the gun.  The problem is, he just isn't certain where it is going anymore.  After issuing 2.73 BB/9 in 2006 Mota's erratic tendencies emerged in Milwaukee where his walk levels spiked to 4.42 BB/9.  Mota spent the majority of his career as a fastball-changeup type pitcher, but developed a slider in 2008 which he used as his secondary pitch (moving from 7% slider usage in '07 to 24% in '08).  As a result, his groundball rate rose from 34% in 2007 to 44% in 2008.  This pitch made him far more effective against right-handed opponents as he saw his same-sided batters decrease from a hefty batting line of .284/.348/.454 in '07 to a low line of .216/.283/.352 in '08.  The $2.3 is a nominal fee but a reasonable one in this market considering Kyle Farnsworth is set to make $9.25 M over the next two years.
2009 Bill James Prediction: 56 innings, 47-to-22 K-to-BB ratio, 4.31 FIP. 
Jorge Julio
The Brewers signed 29-year-old former Orioles closer, Jorge Julio, to a one-year, $950k deal.  Julio's introduction to 2008 with the Indians was absolutely horrendous.  Used in just 17.2 innings while posting a 18-to-11 K-to-BB ratio, Julio struggled to keep runs off the board as opponents slugged .523 off of him leading to a 5.60 RA.  Following his release by Cleveland in June, the Braves who were desperate for bullpen assistance, grabbed Julio.  The Braves sent him to AAA Richmond where he struck out 45 in 39.2 innings with a 2.04 ERA, earning a recall in September.  What came back to Turner Field was a different product:  Julio was throwing harder and had dropped the changeup, switching to a fastball-slider combo.  This slight alteration helped Julio miss more bats (13.86 K/9) and induce far more groundballs (69%).  Julio's control problems are an issue but for less than a million dollars, Julio very well could be a Brewer bargain.
2009 Bill James Prediction: 34 innings, 33-to-17 K-to-BB ratio, 4.69 FIP
Joe Nelson
In 2006, Joe Nelson was providing a bad Royals bullpen with 44.7 fairly solid innings of relief -- Nelson struck out 44, walked 24 and posting a 4.43 RA.  After missing all of 2007, Nelson was signed as a free agent by Florida and assigned to AAA Albuquerque.  In May, the Marlins summoned the 33-year-old right-hander to South Florida where Nelson put up great numbers - striking out 60 in 54 innings and walking just 24.  Right-handed opponents hit a lowly .189.  Right before the New Year, Tampa Bay signed Nelson to a one-year, $1.3 M contract.  Unlike Mota or Julio, Nelson isn't a hard-thrower, his fastball doesn't crest 90 but he complements it well with a 79 mph changeup.  This combination led Nelson to a K/9 of 10.00 last year.  There are some concerns within his peripheral numbers that indicate regression this coming season. For starters, Nelson had a high left-on-base percentage of 84.8%.  Typically, that statistic tends to equalize the following season, leading to additional runs.  Likewise, at .280, Nelson's batting average on balls in play was twenty-points below the league's average.  Tampa should receive a very good reliever in 2009, they just shouldn't expect the one they saw in 2008. 
2009 Bill James Prediction: 64 innings, 72-to-30 K-to-BB ratio, 4.05 FIP
  • What's Left:
Brandon Lyon
It is a small wonder how Brandon Lyon maintained such a manageable ERA of 4.70 in 59.1 innings in 2008 considering some of his peripheral numbers.  For starters, he left less than 70% of his base runners on (69%) and his batting average on balls in play was through the roof (.355) -- these kind of stats usually require NASA computers to calculate the ERA.  What grounded Lyon's performance was that he posted his career-best K/BB ratio (3.31) which led to a FIP of 3.84, indicating that his actual pitching was better than his ERA.  He pitched in the second-highest offense generating ballpark, Chase Field, in which he threw almost exactly half of his innings in 29.1 and had a bloated ERA of 7.06.  Away from Phoenix, Lyon possessed a 2.40 ERA.  The possibility of removing him from such an environment and inserting him into the Metrodome (which had the third LOWEST offensive totals) is intriguing - almost worth the hefty contract that he could command.  Wherever Lyon lands in 2009 -- according to, the Tigers are taking a serious run at him -- he will do better.
2009 Bill James Prediction: 55 innings, 35-to-15 K-to-BB ratio, 3.91 FIP
Eric Gagne
The Brewers completely overestimated Eric Gagne's value going into 2008.  His stint in 2007 with the Rangers and then Red Sox inflated his sticker price to an unconscionable $10 million for one season.  Sure, his strikeout rate (8.83 K/9) and his FIP (3.30) would suggest that the 31-year-old former closer was effective, but for the ransom Gagne commanded you would have expected something similar to his 2004 numbers (12.46 K/9 and 2.05 FIP).  He was still throwing gas (92.1 mph) yet opponents were making much better contact, hitting line drives 24% of the time, ending the year with a slugging against of .494.  There is, however, two distinct Gagnes in 2008.  Between March and May 20th, Gagne threw 19.1 innings with a 18-to-16 K-to-BB ratio, a 6.98 ERA, and an opponent average of .295.  Following his return to the team in July, Gagne pitched 27 more innings with a 20-to-6 K-to-BB ratio, 4.33 ERA, and a .230 opponent average.  This hiccup in Milwaukee has greatly deflated his potential earnings - it was so bad that the Brewers declined to offer the Type B free agent Gagne arbitration in fear that he might accept.  Depending on his asking price, Gagne could be a solid contributor to a bullpen in 2009 - Bill James seems to think so.       
2009 Bill James Prediction: 52 innings, 61-to-16 K-to-BB ratio, 3.32 FIP
Chad Cordero
The league's affinity toward Chad Cordero has me baffled.  Here is a closer that seems to be of the mold of non-dominate stuff (89-mph) and recovering from injury, yet umpteen teams are listed as interested in him - twelve were represented to watch him throw off the mound last Friday.  For whatever reason, Cordero is one of those pitchers that avoids being hit hard (in 2006 he gave up line drives on just 12% of balls in play) and held opponents to a .228 batting average.  Because of his slider, he's been harder on lefties (.217) than he has been on righties (.226).  The Twins have eyes on him and are monitoring his progress but with the representation, I would be shocked if the Twins landed him.
2009 MARCELS Prediction: 48 innings, 38-to-17 K-to-BB ratio, 4.10 FIP