With just over a month remaining in the off season before players report for spring training, there are several good relief pitchers, and even a few closers, who could help any ball club, but remain unsigned. For the Detroit Tigers, who have made a habit in recent years of not doing enough in the off season to address glaring needs in their bullpen, a relatively inexpensive free agent signing could give the roster a much needed boost.
The Tigers finished 27th in the major leagues with a bullpen ERA of 4.29 a fielding independent pitching ratio of 4.09, and a total bullpen WAR of just 0.6 wins above replacement. Curiously, they’ve done precious little to improve on those numbers. Instead, we’ve been listening to the same old song: "We’re staying in house...Bruce Rondon will play a major role... Joe Nathan is a proven closer... the kids are alright". It sounds more like a broken record than music to the ears of Tigers' fans.
Buster Olney wrote for ESPN (insider subscription required for full article)
The definition of insanity, as the saying goes, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result -- a notion that the Detroit Tigers will put to the test in 2015.
The Tigers will have essentially the same cast of relievers as the group that crumbled last year, when Detroit ranked 27th in bullpen ERA, at 4.27. But no numbers fully reflect the agita generated by that group’s performance.
The biggest upgrades to the Detroit relief corps thus far are due to addition by subtraction. Gone are Phil Coke, Pat McCoy, Evan Reed, and Jim Johnson. They did pick up a $ 7 million option on Joakim Soria, and it is reasonable to believe that he will give them a big lift if he remains healthy. After trading the top relief pitching prospect and the top starting pitching prospect in the organization for him, one would certainly hope so. When healthy, Soria provided more than double the value, in terms of WAR than they got from their entire bullpen combined for the 2014 season.
The Tigers also signed swing man Tom Gorzelanny, likely for a long relief role, but the late inning relief corps is still very suspect, with Soria the only one coming off a decent season.
Dave Dombrowski rolled the dice on an unproven Bruce Rondon in 2013 and again in 2014, and he crapped out both times. He is taking the same chance on Rondon in 2015, this time coming off Tommy John surgery. The latest report is that they hope he will be ready to pitch "some time in April" according to trainer Kevin Rand. How effective he will be is an open question.
Meanwhile, the Kansas City Royals, who featured baseball’s best bullpen last year, have added Jason Frasor (2.66 ERA, 0.5 WAR) for just $ 1.8 million, and jettisoned the two weakest links in their bullpen by releasing Louis Coleman and trading Aaaron Crow for former Tigers’ reliever, Brian Flynn.
It’s hard to complain about a team not signing free agents when they have the third highest payroll in the game, but the salaries at the top of the scale are clearly preventing the club from making even modest upgrades in other areas of need. Nevertheless, here are some of the free agent relief pitchers who are still available, most at a reasonable price, and could help the Tigers’ bullpen immediately.
Right handed relief pitchers:
Burke Badenhop; The former Tigers’ minor league pitcher of the year who was traded to the Marlins in the deal for Miguel Cabrera had a career season for the Red Sox, working 70 innings with a 2.29 ERA, 3.09 FIP, and 1.0 WAR. He’d be near the top of any wish list.
Joba Chamberlain; The most effective relief pitcher that the Tigers had for much of 2014 seemed to wear down, but Ausmus couldn’t stop using him. If Ausmus could be trusted to use him more judiciously and pull the plug when needed, Joba could give them some valuable innings. But would he work for even less than the $ 3 million he made last season, with bonuses?
Jose Veras had a $ 4 million option declined by the Tigers after the 2013 season, and that looked like a wise decision when he struggled with the Cubs. He went back to the Houston Astros, where he posted a 3.03 ERA in 32 innings, striking out 10.19 batters per nine innings.
Jared Burton posted a WAR of 0.9 for the Twins in 2012 and again in 2013, but declined in 2014 to just 0.1 WAR, with an ERA of 4.36 and an FIP of 4.23. His strikeout rate dropped by almost 2 K per nine innings, but other stats held steady. He has worked 62 to 66 innings each of the past three seasons. He had a 3.71 ERA after the all star break and filled in for Glen Perkins as the Twins’ closer at season’s end, but the team declined his $ 3.6 million option for 2015.
Kevin Slowey, the former Twins starting pitcher worked mainly in the Marlins rotation in 2013, but moved to the bullpen last season. He worked 37 innings with a 5.30 ERA, 3.78 FIP, with the difference attributable to a .386 batting average on balls in play (BABIP). He has often struggled with a lofty home run rate, but got that under control in 2014. He could be suitable for middle relief, if he falls through the cracks.
Anthony Swarzak worked 86 innings in 50 appearances for the Twins in 2014, including four spot starts. He pitched to a 4.60 ERA, 3.77 FIP for the season. His walk rate was up, strikeout rate down, and his WHIP went from 1.16 to 1.49, but his efforts were good for a 0.5 WAR. He should find a long relief job in the major leagues.
The walking wounded
...or pitchers who could come at a bargain due to health concerns.
Alexi Ogando will be remembered by Tigers’ fans for his dominating performance out of the Rangers bullpen in the 2011 ALCS. He has since pitched in the rotation and bullpen, struggling with a 6.87 ERA in just 25 innings, missing much of the season in 2014, but his FIP of 3.81 and a BABIP of .386 suggest there is some bad luck in those numbers. He could be a buy low rebound candidate, but the health questions are real. The Rangers non tendered Ogando, and he may have to settle for a minor league contract.
Matt Lindstrom began the season as the White Sox’ closer after they exercised a $ 4 million option, but he had ankle surgery in May that sidelined him three months. In 34 innings, he posted an ERA of 5.03, an FIP of 4.39, and a sharply reduced strikeout rate.
Jesse Crain was one of the most effective relief pitchers in the game, posting a 1.9 WAR, 0.74 ERA, 1.52 FIP for the White Sox in just 36 innings in 2013 when he was sidelined for shoulder surgery. The Astros signed him to a one year, $ 3.25 million contract, but he missed the entire 2014 season. From a strained calf muscle to a recurrence of biceps issues, Crain’s season was one disappointment after another. An incentive laden contract with minimal guarantees would seem in order.
Mike Adams pitched just 18-1/3 innings in 2014, and just 25 innings in 2013 due to rotator cuff issues, but has been very effective when healthy. He was activated in September. Adams had an ERA of 2.89, FIP of 2.86 last season, striking out over ten batters per nine innings. At 36 years old, he has a 2.41 career ERA and 1.09 WHIP in over 400 relief innings, mainly in a set up role. The Phillies declined his $ 6 million option for 2015, and he could pay big dividends if he can stay healthy.
Matt Albers pitched just ten innings in 2014, due to right shoulder tendinitis. He worked over 60 innings per season in each of the five previous years with ERA’s of 2.39 and 3.14 in the last two of those years. The Astros signed him for one year at $ 2.25 million, and they paid a $ 200,000 buyout when they declined his $ 3 million option for 2015. He plans to throw for teams in February and is worth a look.
Left-handed relief pitchers:
Neal Cotts; In 66-2/3 innings with the Texas Rangers, posted an ERA of 4.32, FIP of 3.58 and 0.8 WAR. He actually works a bit better against right handers, and is coming off a not so great season.
Joe Beimel; 37 year old worked 45 innings for the Mariners in 2014, with an impressive ERA of 2.20, but an FIP of 4.20 and a negative 0.2 WAR. The veteran left hander stranded 86.8 per cent of base runners. He made the team as an NRI following surgery after the 2013 season.
Joe Thatcher pitched well for the Diamondbacks, posting a 2.63 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 25/3 K/BB ratio in 24 innings. He was dealt to the Angels at the trade deadline, but soon sprained an ankle and didn’t return until September. He struggled coming back and was left off the playoff roster. He is one of the few pitchers to face more left handed hitters than right handers, and may have benefited from pitching in San Diego, but his career numbers are solid enough to warrant a major league contract at age 33.
Phil Coke; Dombrowski says he’s keeping an open mind. He should close it. All that Cokie is good for these days is his brain.
Rafael Soriano was deposed as the Washington Nationals closer after struggling following the all star break. He worked 62 innings, recording 32 saves, with an ERA of 3.19 and an FIP of 3.08, and 0.7 WAR. After earning $ 14 million per year for two seasons, the Nationals declined a third year at the same rate. He’ll be looking for closer money if possible, and a multi year contract.
Francisco Rodriguez still holds the major league record with 62 saves for the Angels, and revitalized his career in Milwaukee as the closer, netting 44 saves with an ERA of 3.04, an 0.99 WHIP, and 73/ 18 K/ BB in 68 innings. "K Rod" had serious issues with a home run rate of 1.85 HR/ 9 innings, resulting in a negative 0.6 WAR. He is still 32 years old and will look for a multi year contract for closer money.
Casey Janssen finished the season as the closer for the Toronto Blue Jays, after missing the start of the season on the disabled list. He posted a 1.23 ERA with a .217 average allowed in the first half of the season, but a 6.46 ERA with a .287 average after the all star break. If not a closer, he is one of a handful of bona fide major league relief pitchers remaining on the free agent market.