Finding Cheap Relievers

One of the relatively inexpensive ways a team can help itself is by finding undervalued arms for its bullpen. The trick is identifying which pitchers are undervalued. What, if any, characteristics do bargain-basement relievers share?

First I made a list of pitchers who worked 60 or more innings in relief in 2006. I ordered them according to ERA and grabbed the top 20. Of those, six were established big-league closers: B.J. Ryan, Joe Nathan, Francisco Rodriguez, Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman, Billy Wagner. We can’t learn much from them, so we throw them out of the pool. Three more were established middle relievers: Dan Wheeler, Scot Shields, Juan Rincon. They get tossed as well.

This leaves us with 11 names: Jonathan Papelbon, Joel Zumaya, Takashi Saito, Pedro Feliciano, Rafael Soriano, J.J. Putz, Jonathan Broxton, Chris Ray, Scott Downs, Chad Bradford and Geoff Geary. The Dodgers, Mets, and Mariners all are represented twice here. Two of these guys—Soriano and Bradford—were involved in off-season transactions. Oddly, one was tremendously undervalued despite coming off a brilliant season while the other was overvalued.

Let’s take a closer look at our 11 relievers:

Jonathan Papelbon

Papelbon, a former closer at Mississippi State, worked primarily as a starter over parts of three minor-league seasons before becoming Boston’s closer as a rookie in 2006. To say he excelled in that role would be a colossal understatement. Papelbon’s strikeouts remained in line with what he’d done in the minors, but his hit prevention and control both improved.

He’s tough to evaluate as a reliever because of his relative inexperience in the bullpen before last season. I guess the main thing working in his favor was the success he’d enjoyed in college back in 2003 and as a setup man for the Red Sox down the stretch in 2005. Still, I don’t see a lot in Papelbon’s minor-league statistical record that would have led me to anticipate last year’s performance.

Joel Zumaya

Zumaya is another pitcher who was used almost exclusively as a starter in the minors. He averaged better than 11 strikeouts per nine innings over parts of four seasons in the Tigers’ system, so the ability to dominate batters has never been in question. The main issues for Zumaya working his way up the ladder were his ability to go deep into games and just stay healthy. The former largely is a result of his pitching style—he throws ridiculously hard, and racks up a ton of walks and strikeouts. The latter plagued him long before he was busted for playing too much Guitar Hero.

Zumaya’s record—throws hard, dominates hitters, has trouble working deep into games—screamed for a move to the bullpen. The shift brought with it no guarantee of success, of course, but this was a smart idea. Like the Dodgers did with Eric Gagne a few years ago, the Tigers gave the ball to Zumaya and let him blow hitters away for an inning or two at a time, not forcing him to worry about pacing himself over the course of an entire game.

Takashi Saito

I’d wanted to compare this to the Padres’ signing of Akinori Otsuka a few years back, but I can’t. Except for 2002, when he saved 20 games for Yokohama, Saito mostly worked as a starting pitcher in Japan. He’d averaged around 7 1/2 strikeouts per nine innings over 12 seasons on the other side of the Pacific.

The guy was 36 years old, coming to a new league, and changing roles. Absolutely nothing in Saito’s record suggested that he would succeed, to say nothing of dominating big-league hitters. Chalk this one up to a nice scouting job by Ned Colletti and company. I guess the take-home here is that it pays to look for useful players in unexpected places.

Pedro Feliciano

Here’s a fun one. Feliciano did little to distinguish himself in the Dodgers’ farm system from 1995 to 2001. He’d enjoyed a decent season at Savannah in 1997, splitting time between starting and relieving, then put up solid numbers as Jacksonville’s closer in 2001. A 25-year-old reliever at Double-A, though, is hardly cause for excitement no matter how well he pitches.

From 2002 to 2004, Feliciano rode the shuttle between Norfolk and Shea Stadium. He pitched decently for the Mets in 2003, but his performance was nothing spectacular. After a poor showing the following season, he spent 2005 pitching for Fukuoka in the Japanese Pacific League. His numbers there weren’t great, but the Mets brought Feliciano back and he ended up becoming an integral part of their bullpen in 2006. Although he didn’t dominate, he did keep runners from reaching base and scoring.

Feliciano is a guy who never had accomplished much above Double-A, and whose record was spotty at best. I suspect this is what the San Diego Padres were hoping for when they brought Brian Sikorski back from Japan. I’m hard pressed to explain why Feliciano succeeded where Sikorski didn’t. This was a great pickup by the Mets, but if you’re looking for others in the same mold who might help a big-league club this season, good luck.

Rafael Soriano

This is the classic case of a former top prospect finding health. He’d shown serious dominance at the big-league level in his first full season with the Mariners in 2003. When he arrived on the scene toward the end of 2002, Soriano still was primarily a starter. He sort of followed the Papelbon/Zumaya path, but then missed huge chunks of time due to injury before rebounding in 2006.

Seattle, apparently not recognizing a good thing, gave him to the Braves this winter for lefty slopballer Horacio Ramirez. Unless the M’s have lingering doubts about Soriano’s ability to remain healthy, I don’t understand why they would do this or how they weren’t able to extract more (or any) value out of another big-league club.

J.J. Putz

Putz, like Soriano, had enjoyed success at the major league level before 2006. Last year, though, he made the extraordinary leap from decent middle-relief option to dominant closer. Converted full time to relief work in 2003 while at Triple-A, Putz spent most of the following two years working out of the Mariners’ bullpen. Nothing really stands out about his lines in 2004 and 2005, except perhaps that he served up a few more homers than you’d like to see. He gave up about a hit an inning, kept his ERA around 4.00, and struck out just under seven batters per nine innings—about twice as many as he walked.

At age 29, Putz turned into a complete monster; all his ratios inexplicably improved by leaps and bounds. He stopped allowing hits and homers, and kicked his strikeout rate up to near 12 per nine innings, for a Saberhagenesque 8-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Nothing in Putz’ record foretold this sort of leap. This might just be a case of a guy making the most of his opportunity. The Padres’ Scott Linebrink could do something like this if ever given the chance, as could the three established middle relievers we identified at the top.

Jonathan Broxton

Broxton is another who falls into the Zumaya category, or Bobby Jenks if you prefer. The guy threw extremely hard, blew hitters away in the minors and had trouble working deep into games. Converted to the bullpen in mid-2005, Broxton thrived in his first full big-league season.

Not everyone who fits this profile works out, but if I had to limit myself to one type of pitcher to take a chance on as a potentially useful reliever, it would be the kid who throws hard and who has some semblance of control, but who maybe needs to just sling his two or three best pitches to a handful of batters rather than use a deeper repertoire to fool guys over six or seven innings. Here’s the ball; go out there and throw it past everyone for an inning, then sit down and get ready for tomorrow.

Chris Ray

See Zumaya and Broxton. Like those two pitchers, Ray was a starter in the low minors. On reaching Double-A, he switched to the bullpen and became untouchable, allowing 4.10 hits per nine innings in half a season as Bowie’s closer in 2005 before being recalled by the Orioles. After working in a setup capacity for Baltimore in the second half of that year, he assumed closer duties in 2006. His peripheral numbers have suffered a bit since he arrived in the big leagues, but he was cheap and effective last year.

Scott Downs

This might be the most surprising name on our list. Downs’ overall ERA in 2006 was 4.09, but that includes five terrible starts. As a reliever, he fashioned a fine 2.77 ERA over 62.2 innings. Downs had posted some decent numbers at Double-A while with the Cubs organization. That was in 1999; since then, he’d failed in a couple of shots as a big-league starter and generally underwhelmed at Triple-A. In 2005, the Blue Jays used Downs as a swingman. He made 13 appearances as a starter and 13 as a reliever, compiling a nearly identical ERA in each role.

Why would a 30-year-old journeyman suddenly emerge as an effective big-league pitcher? Good question; ask Brendan Donnelly. Downs falls in the Saito/Feliciano category. Toronto deserves credit for identifying a guy who appeared to have no value and making use of him.

Chad Bradford

You know the Bradford story. He was a minor-leaguer in the White Sox organization who relied on a funky delivery. He didn’t throw hard, but he got batters out at every level, including the big leagues in his few cups of coffee with the Sox. They didn’t appear to recognize what they had in Bradford and sent him to Oakland, where he blossomed. After a poor showing in 2004 and an injury-plagued 2005, Bradford came back strong last season with the Mets.

This was simply a case of a guy who had been good before finding health and returning to previous levels—sort of like Soriano, but with more of a record of success. Ironically, while his team gave Soriano away this past winter, Bradford cashed in with a long-term deal from the Orioles, who spent most of the off-season pursuing expensive bullpen options. If you want a primer on how not to build a bullpen, just look at Baltimore’s moves over the past several months.

Geoff Geary

Geary is another failed starter. Unlike many others on this list, he never displayed much dominance in the minors. What he did was throw strikes. After spending each of the previous three seasons shuttling between Philadelphia and Scranton, Geary spent all of 2006 with the Phillies and did what he’s always done. He didn’t miss many bats, but he kept the ball around the plate and in the park. He and Downs probably are the least likely of this group to maintain their success, but the fact remains that Geary was a cheap option who paid big dividends last year.

Enough about the past. Who are this year’s bargains? Here are some pitchers who changed addresses this past winter and who could help their new clubs in 2007 for a reasonable price:

Not all of these guys will pan out, and I’m sure I’m missing others. Still, if a team looks hard enough and in the right places, it can avoid the embarrassment of throwing huge wads of cash at the likes of Danys Baez and Scott Schoeneweis. And assuming you’re not Baez or Schoeneweis, who doesn’t want that?

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