Having a top tier 7th-inning man, setup man and closer are no doubt part of a great bullpen, and a successful team. That being said, there is very little reason to pay a guy millions of dollars who is likely to pitch a mere 50-60 innings in any given season. Relievers are more easily replaceable than conventional baseball logic would suggest, and money can be saved by savvy teams in that department.
Dave Cameron of USSMariner wrote a piece about trading away David Aardsma while his trade value is highest. You can read that HERE. I would like to supplement his article with interesting stats on relievers…
Guys like Jonathan Papelbon and Jonathan Broxton came up through the Red Sox and Dodgers’ minor league systems, respectively, and both were actually gearing up to be starters. Now, despite down years, they are considered to be two of the better closers in the game. For a few seasons before arbitration, these two pitchers were paid much less than a million bucks a season on their minor-league contracts. For teams like LA and Boston, keeping A-list closers at high salaries is doable, and so they were resigned. But the point is this: high strike-out guys, which Broxton and Papelbon were as starters in the minors, make for good closers, and teams in need of quality closers can always first scour their minor league systems. This is one cheap way to find a guy to shut the door. Here’s another list of names of guys who broke onto the scene as closers in one of their first couple seasons out of the minors:
Huston Street: 78.1 IP, 1.72 ERA, 8.3 K/9, 23 Saves (three years of closing under $1M for the As).
Troy Percival (2nd full season): 74.0 IP, 2.31 ERA, 12.2 K/9, 36 Saves (three years of closing under $1M for the Angels).
Joakim Soria (first two seasons combined): 136.1 IP, 2.05 ERA, 9.3 K/9, 59 Saves (three years closing at $1M or less for Royals).
Andrew Bailey (first two seasons combined): 132.1 IP, 1.70 ERA, 9.0 K/9 51 Saves (in his second season and won’t see arbitration until 2012; the As have this game figured out).
This is just a small sampling of the pitchers who have been able to make it as closers fresh out of the minors, and get paid dirt to do it.
There are other examples of players starting as middle relievers and becoming good, if not dominant, closers once given the chance. Trevor Hoffman’s first three full years of closing duties–after being traded from the Marlins to the Padres–cost San Diego a total of $1.45M. 197.1 IP, 2.78 ERA, 10.5 K/9 and 93 Saves later they had to start paying him more. Mariano Rivera spent two seasons in the middle of the bullpen depth chart for the Yankees. Given the opportunity to close, he did not disappoint. Over next two seasons, he racked up 79 saves in 133 IP, with 7.0 K/9 and a 1.89 ERA all at a total cost of $1.3M to Steinbrenner. By the way, these guys are now numbers 1 and 2 in all-time saves.
Seattle’s own David Aardsma was a sub par middle reliever for the Red Sox before the Mariners made him an above-average closer for a cool $419K. Now he costs them $2.75M (not K, M) and that number is going to go up when he enters arbitration this off season. What have we learned, Mariners fans? Don’t resign David Aardsma. There are options available no more than 30 miles away in Tacoma. Josh Lueke–regardless of your feelings toward his criminal past–is dominating minor league batters to the tune of 32K in 24.2 innings with an ERA under 2.00 (just his Mariner affiliate stats). Dan Cortes is a pitcher whose strike out numbers have gone up since Seattle acquired him from the Royals in 2009. He walks a few too many, but closers can get away with that to some degree. Since joining the West Tennessee DiamondJaxx a year ago, he has struck out 153 batters in 151 innings between AA and AAA Tacoma. And I haven’t even mentioned Brandon League, who has performed admirably at the major league level this season, and could step in and close in the 2011 campaign.
Trading Aarsdma away and filling his spot with a capable pitcher from the minor league roster would save the Ms as much as 4 or 5 million dollars, which could in turn be spent on a guy who can actually hit.
*Josh Lueke was not called up to the 40-man roster at the end of Tacoma’s playoff run, indicating that the Mariners may not want his past as part of their future.