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TwinsCentric: The rising cost of relief pitching

Posted by: Parker Hageman Updated: November 1, 2012 - 11:51 PM

 If you were going to create a list of the Twins' offseason needs, you would likely write in big, bold letters STARTING PITCHING and underline it twice and put some exclamation points next to it for safe measure.

Clearly this area of the team put the Twins in significant default night after night. Shackled to the American League's worst earned run average (5.40), the focal point of the front office will be to beg, borrow and steal anything they can that can help deflate that unsightly statistic and give the team an opportunity to win games in 2013. For the most part, this means throwing whatever free cash at a consistent starter or two and potentially trading away a key member of the team in order to acquire more.

While the starting pitching problem was so big it could be seen from space, perhaps somewhat surprising is what the Twins viewed as their second biggest need is. During an interview with TwinsDaily.com's John Bonnes, Twins general manager Terry Ryan told the incredulous Bonnes that finding more relief pitching was next in line.

This is interesting for several reasons. Whereas the starting rotation was obviously downright horrendous, the Twins bullpen actually fared well. A pessimist might say that the relief staff's success may be due to the fact that by the time Ron Gardenhire dipped into his 'pen, the opposing team was too tuckered out from all the home run-hitting and base-circling to put forth any real effort. An optimist, on the other hand, would point out that guys like Glen Perkins, Jared Burton and Brian Duensing formed a solid core of late innings options. And, given that those three members will be back in 2013, there would seem to be fewer vital roles to fill in the bullpen which helps redirect the resources back to the starting pitching.

Here's another thing: The cost of relief pitching could get scary expensive.

Early this week, the Dodgers made a somewhat surprising move when they extended right-handed reliever Brandon League with a three-year, $22.5 million deal, giving him short of $8 million per year. The hard-throwing 31-year-old comes equipped with the “proven closer” label which may help explain some of the need to pay out that much, but his walk rate has fluctuated that it may be hard to sit still with him on the mound in a close game.

While that may seem like a steep price, there may be some logic behind why League received $7.5 million per year. In a candid interview, Cleveland Indians team president and former general manager Mark Sharpiro told Fox Sport Ohio's Pat McManamon that, based on growing revenue streams, the cost of purchasing one “win” on the free agent market has increased from $8 million just a few years ago to $9 million this year.

Per the interview:

Q: How is that figure determined?

A: Our analysts can put a value on what it costs in free agency to sign a player and what that means in Wins Above Replacement and what those players end up costing in free agency and that changes every year. They measure all the players signed in free agency and what their history has been and what they offer going forward and they place a value. The challenge in free agency is you're often paying for that in the first year of a contract, and in the out years of a contract the players WAR usually goes down because he's usually past his prime. So it becomes a less efficient contract over time. That's why free agency is never the best way to build. It's a good way to supplement but not build.

Q: So $8 million for one win?

A: It's $9 (million) now. It was $8 (million) two yeas ago. I think at the end of this year they figured out it was nine. And when those wins come in the win curve are important. What does that win mean if it's the difference between 80 and 81? Very little. But if that win's the difference between 89 and 90, that could be a meaningful win.

So, applying this logic to League's contract, we find that over the last three seasons he has accumulated 2.5 wins above replacement which averages out to 0.8 wins above replacement per year. If a team were to purchase that on an open market, that would cost $7.2 million – just shy of the average annual value of League's actual contract of $7.5 million. Provided League performs at or better than his last three seasons, the contract may actually wind up right on the money and not nearly as insane as the initial reactions. Then again, if League underperforms or gets injured, the contract could blow up in their face.

Needless to say, most teams have to feel confident in their projections in order to dish out $9 million per win on the free agent market. That, or have Scrooge McDuck-type of money. Stupidly rich teams like the Dodgers have the luxury of committing that volume of money to a set-up man/closer and walking away financially unscathed if something goes wrong. Not every team in baseball will be looking to pay the going rate of a relief pitcher. The Twins will need to be smart with their investments and, given their track record of eschewing long-term contracts to free agents and avoiding marquee ones, there are no indications that they would chase any free agent down that rabbit hole.

Outside of the top relief arms who can anticipate multi-year contracts, there are several players who may be acquired for fewer than three years. There is Kyle Farnsworth who pitched well as Tampa Bay's closer but elbow soreness truncated his 2012 season. Likewise, Jason Frasor also battled an elbow injury but struck out 53 in 43.2 innings thanks to a dirty slider. Mark Lowe, a member of the Rangers and Mariners bullpen, can bring some heat and miss bats but a non-arm related injury (intercoastal) sidetracked this past season. Those are just three of the bargain rate right-handed arms that could be available for the Twins. Heck, if bridges aren't burnt, Pat Neshek, who threw frisbee after frisbee in Oakland, seems to have rediscovered his command and would be a solid option for a season. These kind of arms may give you the same wins above replacement value but will not likely require the $9 million pay out.

While the more statistically inclined organizations like the Indians may run numbers on everyone until their word processors explode, the Twins have proven quite adept at nabbing arms who require a bit more scouting acumen over the stats. Well, that, and the sheer numbers game. The Twins philosophy when it comes to relief pitching appears to stem from Branch Rickey's farm system mantra: From quantity comes quality.

Last year the Twins signed a bushel of low cost minor league relief arms including Jared Burton, Jason Bulger, Luis Perdomo, Casey Fein and Joel Zumaya. Of the five, Burton emerged as a legitimate hurler while Fein threw well in the final two months of the season.

Expect Terry Ryan and the Twins to be very active in the reliever market, just don't anticipate them to pay the going rate. After all, there are bigger fish to fry.

 

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