There are no current closers on the free agent market this offseason. There are a few former closers, such as Joakim Soria, Fernando Rodney, and Jim Johnson, all former Tigers. And then there are some very good setup men who have not been thrust into the ninth inning role because they are on the same roster as another dominant reliever who fills that role. Antonio Bastardo of the Pittsburgh Pirates fits into the latter category.
Bastardo is one of the best free agent relief pitchers available this offseason. While backing up closer Mark Melancon, who led the major leagues with 51 saves in 2015, Bastardo had a fine season in his own right. Not surprisingly, Bastardo was more dominant against left-handed hitters, holding them to a .139 batting average, but almost 70 percent of the batters he faced were right handed hitters, and he held them to a .207 batting average.
Who is he?
Bastardo is a 30-year-old left-handed relief pitcher originally from the Dominican Republic. He has seven years of major league experience, six of those with the Philadelphia Phillies, and last season with the Pirates. The Phillies dealt him to the Pirates last December for a minor league pitcher, and he earned a $3.1 million salary as the Pirates' setup man. He did serve briefly as Philadelphia's closer in 2011, notching eight saves while filling in for the injured Ryan Madson.
Bastardo has three pitches, a fastball which sits in the low 90s that he threw nearly 75 percent of the time last season, as well as a slider and a changeup which both sit in the mid 80s. The change up is used sparingly, only about six percent of the time against right-handed hitters. He has been durable, making at least 64 appearances in four of the past five seasons. He landed on the disabled list in 2010 with ulnar neuritis, and has not had Tommy John surgery before.
Why do we care?
Blaine Hardy is the Tigers' only decent left-handed relief pitcher currently on the roster, so the team could use a second lefty out of the bullpen. Bastardo ranks fifth in fWAR among free agent relief pitchers who are available this offseason. He brings a solid strikeout rate, very good home run rate, and does not allow a lot of hits. He has been healthy and productive for the past six seasons. Opponents have not hit better than .210 against him in any of the past five seasons.
Now that the Tigers have their closer in Francisco Rodriguez, Bastardo could be the perfect compliment as a left-handed setup man, the role that he has filled for most of his entire major league career. He has no significant platoon splits, holding righthanders to a .640 OPS in his career. Unlike many lefties, he is fit for full inning duty rather than work as a LOOGY. He has a total of just three blown leads in the past two seasons combined. Familiarity won't be an issue either, as he worked with Tigers pitching coach Rich Dubee while playing for the Phillies from 2009 to 2013.
Why should we stay away?
Bastardo does have an elevated walk rate, at over four batters per nine innings in each of the past six seasons. He strikes out over a batter per inning every season and doesn't give up many home runs, though, so the walks haven't been as painful as they could be.
There are few good left-handed relief pitchers on the free agent market this season, with Tony Sipp, Matt Thornton, and Oliver Perez being the best of the rest. Being a lefty tends to drive the price tag upwards, and the setup role does not necessarily require good lefty splits. How much more the Tigers will devote to their bullpen after committing at least $9.5 million to Rodriguez is an open question.
Bastardo was suspended for 50 games during the 2012 season as part of the Biogenesis scandal.
Will he wind up in Detroit?
The Tigers need another late inning relief pitcher, and Bastardo is as good of a choice as anyone available. He will not cost closer money, but MLB Trade Rumors projects him to sign a contract for three years at $5 million per season. FanGraphs' crowdsourcing project has him tabbed for a two-year, $8 million deal, which seems low given how much importance teams put on left-handed pitching.
The price may be a little steep when added to the salary paid to Rodriguez, but it's a market rate for a good setup man these days. The bullpen has been a serious issue for the Tigers too many years in a row, now, so more investment in this area would be prudent. If the Tigers are going to sign a couple of relief pitchers, Bastardo makes as much sense as any one of them.