The most impressive "rags to riches" story in baseball from 2014 undoubtedly belongs to Tigers outfielder J.D. Martinez. A minor league free agent signee at the beginning of the year, Martinez blossomed into a lethal power hitter that was one of the key cogs in the Tigers' offense. He isn't due for a big payday yet, but Martinez will get a nice raise this year through arbitration.
Another minor league signee made waves in 2014, but not to the extent that Martinez did. St. Louis Cardinals reliever Pat Neshek put together an excellent season after making the team in Spring Training. He went 7-2 with a 1.87 ERA in 71 relief appearances and made his first All-Star team. Now, with a revamped pitching repertoire and a highly successful season on the books, Neshek will be one of the more sought-after free agents on the market this offseason.
*2015 Steamer projection
Who is he?
Neshek was drafted by his hometown Minnesota Twins in the sixth round of the 2002 draft. He was considered a reliever from day one, and only started one game as he rose slowly through the Twins' minor league system. He did not make his MLB debut until more than four years after he was drafted, which is quite a long wait for a college reliever. Neshek impressed during his first two years with the Twins, allowing a 2.68 ERA and 3.39 FIP in 107 1/3 innings.
He ran into arm trouble in 2008, tearing his ulnar collateral ligament. Instead of opting for Tommy John surgery, Neshek tried to rehab his arm conservatively. Unfortunately, it didn't work, and Neshek missed nearly two full years of action. He bounced between Triple A and the majors with decent results for the San Diego Padres and Oakland Athletics from 2011 to 2013, but still found himself searching for a job last offseason.
Why should we care?
A right-handed sidearmer, Neshek's delivery creates havoc for right-handed hitters. He has held righties to a .543 OPS in his career, and they hit just .176/.205/.236 in 156 plate appearances last year. He has a stellar career 3.59 strikeout-to-walk ratio against righties, and put up a ridiculous 46 strikeouts to four walks against righties in 2014. The fastball-slider combo can be absolutely devastating from that arm angle, so it's no surprise that Neshek stuck with just those two pitches against righties last year.
Most pitchers see a decline in velocity with age. Neshek, on the other hand, actually saw his fastball velocity improve in 2014. He just barely averaged 90 miles per hour with the heater in 2013, and threw it less than 20 percent of the time. Last season, Neshek's velocity jumped to 91.2 miles per hour, so he upped his fastball usage to just over 50 percent.
Despite his fastball topping out in the low 90s, Neshek still collects plenty of strikeouts. He has 284 strikeouts in 281 2/3 career innings, and finally regained his strikeout-per-inning form again in 2014. This isn't just against right-handed hitters either. Neshek has struck out 21.2 percent of the left-handers he has faced in his career, or just over eight strikeouts per nine innings.
Why should we stay away?
Neshek's unusual delivery puts a lot of stress on his right elbow and forearm. So, it should come as no surprise that he has dealt with multiple injuries in that area throughout his career. He missed most of 2008 and all of 2009 with the aforementioned UCL tear, but also hit the disabled list with inflammation in a tendon in his right finger. The two injuries may seem unrelated, but an overuse injury like that is almost assuredly due to a slight change in mechanics caused by the previous Tommy John surgery. Neshek has been healthy since 2010, but a 34 year old sidearm reliever is always a risk for getting hurt.
The other major issue surrounding Neshek -- and any middle reliever, really -- is value. Yes, Neshek is a good pitcher who has shown he can be effective when healthy, but is he really worth the contract he will fetch this offseason? Paying for a reliever after a career year is a risky venture, and it rarely works out as planned. Tigers fans can point to Joaquin Benoit as one example where this worked perfectly, but cases like that are the exception, not the rule.
Will he end up in Detroit?
While there aren't many top-dollar closers to be had on the free agent market, there are several enticing relief options. This won't impact the demand for Neshek too much, but, as MLB Trade Rumors details, it may lead to a shorter contract. MLBTR projects a two year, $10 million deal for Neshek, which seems steep. As good as he was in 2014, it was still only one year, and a 34 year old with previous arm troubles isn't exactly the safest bet in the world. That said, a good sidearmer can be so, so effective. If the Tigers are serious about a bullpen upgrade, they will look his way.