What’s the opposite of a “Moneyball” market inefficiency? Whatever you call it, that’s what major league baseball has become when it comes to the market for relief pitchers, particularly left-handed relievers. After the regrettable departure of long-time setup man Brett Cecil, the Blue Jays are faced with a critical need to replace him in their 2017 bullpen.
It has been rightly observed that the market is thin in quality free agent options, combined with the rather insane level of spending teams are engaged in for relief pitching, it now makes the idea of simply filling the spot by opening the checkbook unpalatable.
However, if Toronto decides to turn to potential trade targets, we can expect them to have to somewhat overpay in that market as well unless the other team’s GM fails to do his job well. Here, you might seek out a starter who has the potential to turn into a much better reliever (Kyle Matte detailed one intriguing possibility a month ago) but in many cases reaching an agreement on valuation will be tricky.
The focus here is on a pitcher that is capable of being better than in house options, simply because it’s not only a crucial piece but one that’s much more difficult to obtain. Right now, the only lefty on the roster is Aaron Loup. Beyond that, Ryan Tepera and Danny Barnes are young, talented righties, but the team believes in their ability to get lefties out. There’s also LHP Matt Dermody and Chad Girodo who’ve both at least touched a major league mound. None of those guys has a track record of getting the job done, however.
So let’s take a look at (at least theoretically) available arms. I used Baseball Reference and surveyed every LHRP that did not play for a playoff contender, threw at least 20 innings last year, and did not completely stink. I then took into consideration their age, potential salary, and years of control. Obviously, a pre-arbitration guy with four or five years of control who’s good will be difficult to acquire even from a rebuilding team. Because of this, the list is divided into two groups: Seven guys who are at least into their arbitration year, and five who are not. So away we go.
1. Brad Hand – San Diego – 27 – 1st year arbitration eligible – controlled through 2019
Frankly folks, this is your guy. He ticks off all the boxes. He’s young and controllable, he’s coming off his first year as a full time reliever and he was a workhorse, making 82 appearances and totaling over 89 IP. He did play in a notorious pitcher’s park, but his BA and OPS against were both lower in road games, as was his ERA. His WHIP was lower, his K/9 was 12.2 which is even higher than his 11.2 overall rate. Left handed hitters hit a mere .125 with a .421 OPS against him in 2016. No one else on the list compares to him. All for a projected arbitration salary of $1.4 million. Which means you’ll have to pay a premium to get him. I wouldn’t give up Guerrero or Alford but you can’t go much further down the list. Conner Greene? You probably have to start with him and be willing to add in a couple of lesser guys, but not too much lesser. I’d do it.
2. Sean Doolittle – Oakland – 30 – signed through 2020
This is in some ways the other end of the spectrum in terms of getting premium talent in this trade market. Long control at a fixed price and a price that’s quite reasonable in the current economic market. He makes $2.63 million in 2017, $4.38 in 2018, and then $6.5 million options for both 2018 and 2019 (each with a half-million buyout).
For that price you get a tidy 1.7 BB/9, an impressive 10.5 K/9, but someone who missed significant portions of the last two seasons with injury. In both cases, to his throwing shoulder. When he pitched, he was as good as ever but will be pitch? On the one hand you might want to stay away, on the other you may find the price more acceptable for a guy with a healthy history. Question is, how many dollar bills will you gamble on that risk?
3. Xavier Cedeno – Tampa Bay – 30 – Arb-1 – controlled through 2019
It’s not entirely certain the Rays would be willing to deal within the division, or whether you’d have to pay a premium for the privilege even for a reliever, but the last two seasons of work make him an attractive target. He’s got a combined ERA of 2.99 to go with 9.3 K/9 and 2.8 BB/9 over that span. He’s held opposing left-handers to a BA under .200 and an OPS under .500. On MLBTR his projected salary is a modest $1.2 million.
4. Tony Watson – Pittsburgh – 32 – arb-3 – controlled through 2017
Watson took a half-step back last year due to an aberrational spike in homers allowed but has been good over his career and controlled left handed hitters well. Coming with only one year of control is a negative ought to depress the cost somewhat, though the price could still be high in the current market. The potential downside here is that his projected salary is $5.9 million. That might mean the Pirates would take less in prospects to shed the dollars, but such a salary might cramp other things you plan to do.
5. Jake McGee – Colorado – 30 – signed for 2017 ($5.9 mil) – controlled through 2017
I frankly don’t see any reason why the Rockies would be interested in dealing him, particularly since they just spent big to upgrade the team, but you might as well mention someone this good. He was flat out dominant in three of his last four years in Tampa Bay and would be projected as a monster asset again back in the AL. The price Colorado demanded might be too high.
6. Ian Krol – Atlanta – 26 – Arb-1 – controlled through 2020
Krol is the youngest player on this portion of the list and has the shortest track-record of success, having stepped up his game considerably in 2016. He hasn’t dominated lefties in his career and last year actually had reverse splits. Of course, that probably make him affordable. He’s projected to make $1.1 million.
7. Dan Jennings – Chicago White Sox – 30 – Arb-1 – controlled through 2019
Ranked here because the White Sox will talk on anyone. He’s been dependable and consistent for five seasons now, but he’s not dominant, and while he had good left-on-left results last year, on his career he’s not better versus lefties than righties. Projected salary: $1.2 million.
The following set of players are all pre-arbitration guys who may not even be available without a huge overpay, but are certainly deserving of an inquiring phone call.
8. Chris Rusin – Colorado – 30 – control through 2020
Failed starter, pushed into relief role and improved markedly, also better on the road as you might expect. A look at how he fared vs LH hitters in relief is revealing. Facing 60 such batters, they slashed .164/.233/.291 against him and he struck them out at a 28.3% rate. That’ll play.
9. Taylor Rogers – Minnesota – 26 – less than one year service
10. Buddy Boshers – Minnesota – 29 – less than one year service
Between these two, Rogers is the guy you want, he’s younger and has a significant platoon advantage. He’s been a starter most of the time in the minors. Boshers has been released and signed as a free agent twice. He’s just one of those guys you sign for AAA and hope things click. Still, given the Twins’ state of affairs, you might be able to pick off a guy like Rogers for a price you can swallow.
11. Ryan Buchter – San Diego – 30 – one year service
When you’ve done everything you can to get Hand and failed, it wouldn’t hurt to ask about this guy He toiled 11 years in the minors with more strikeouts than IP but more walks that you’d really like. He finally got his shot in 2016 and was flat out dominant. Both at home and on the road and against both RH and LH hitters. If it was sustainable, this would make him ideal for a late-inning role. He still walked a few too many, but batters couldn’t hit him. All they managed was a line of .160/.271/.288 off him last year. On the other hand, he’s been a free agent three times and one has to ask if he can sustain this level of success. For a small enough return, it couldn’t hurt to give it a try.
12. Jose Alvarez – LA Angels – 28 – control through 2020
Alvarez has logged two solid, and very similar, seasons in the Angels bullpen. The one difference between ’15 and ’16 is that his BABiP against LH hitters jumped from .286 to .330, resulting in a spike in batting average, but no additional scoring. He’s probably not Cecil all over again, but he’d be an asset if you can persuade LA to part with him.
Finally, just for completeness of information, some LH starters that you might want to go all Joe Blanton on include John Danks, CJ Wilson, Jorge De La Rosa, and Tommy Milone. Wilson would be a great value play if you could bring him in on a minor league deal and use spring to decide between the MLB bullpen or the Bison’s rotation. If you can persuade him to accept that. You might get significant upside either way there. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get back to lusting after Mr. Brad Hand.
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