Digging into the Reliever Market | The Process Report

Digging into the Reliever Market

Most folks that follow the Rays are aware that they could use another stout relief arm or two down in their bullpen for late game situations. The problem is that anyone that you should expect to be really good going forward is going to cost an arm and a leg. These elite options are few enough to begin with, but below that lie many, many alternative options that should be attainable. Thing is, if you want them because they’re doing really well this year then chances are the guy is over-performing to this point. Relievers look best when things go well over short spurts. A single outing can ruin a seasonal line, while those that continuously get off the hook look far better than what should be expected going forward.

By removing the vagaries that occur on balls in play we can get a more true idea of how a pitcher has performed. Using my methods I have regressed performance on balls in play (my xwOBA*) and folded in non-ball in play events to create my twOBA* figure for every relief appearance since May first that came in the seventh inning or later. Additionally, I am keying on just those relievers that had at least 100 results for this query. These should be the ones that the Rays would have the most interest in. This should give us a great idea of who has truly been doing well, and who has merely been fortunate thus far. Let’s start at the team level:

These xwRAA figures are based on this population of relief appearances from the 7th inning through the end of the game since May first, which encompasses close to 23,000 plate appearances across the league. For players that have switched teams mid-year, roughly a dozen, I have included their full season stats with their most recent team. That will hurt someone like the Athletics who lost the services of Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson, two of the better relievers in the game, while lining the pockets of the Nationals. Know that that may skew the numbers slightly in a couple of instances. The Rays pen ranks 11th, which puts them ahead of many teams, but virtually everyone ahead of them is a contender for the playoffs other than the Padres. Each of those teams may be just as thirsty to add on as the Rays, but would seem to have less of a need. Let’s dig into just the Tampa Bay bullpen:

Tampa Bay has enjoyed good production from several relievers when it mattered most. Danny Farquhar is no longer in the organization, but Tommy Hunter and Alex Colome continue to get outs in high leverage and late in games. Alvarado may come back at some point, but maybe not for another month. Erasmo Ramirez has been mostly pretty good when called upon in the late innings. Then we get to the worse than average guys. While I don’t think either of Diaz or Garton are much help to the team I’m a little surprised to see Chase Whitley show up here. He has seemed good, and that bore out well in my look at the first half review of the pitchers. I would then infer that Whitley might be less useful in higher leverage, which would seem to mesh with the team’s usage, or lack thereof, with the game on the line late. So, yeah, there are some good stories to tell, and I think this lines up with the thinking that they could use another guy or two that is reliable and good at his job.

For funsies I wanted to list the top-50 relievers this year so that you can get an idea of how these guys shake out. Additionally, I have marked the guys that I would consider gettable, in the sense that his current team is most decidedly a seller at this point. Those teams include the Athletics, Blue Jays, Braves, Giants, Marlins, Mets, Orioles, Padres, Phillies, Reds, Tigers and White Sox. Other bubble teams will drop out as time goes by, but this is what we’re dealing with now when 18 teams vie for ten spots. Let’s focus on just those that might be up for offer:

Most of these names are fairly familiar, but immediately I want to point out a festering wound when it comes to relievers. Any reliever can do anything over 50 or even a hundred plate appearances. Kirby Yates has been utterly disgusting for the Padres this year after wearing out his welcome every single other place he has pitched. I touched on it briefly, but this is why you have to cast an enormous net with relievers. Those that have looked good may not continue that even when advanced metrics like twOBA* are in their favor. You still need eyes on guys. I don’t think any Rays fan would give up a ball of pocket lint for Kirby Yates, and yet, he has been one of the very best relievers this year.

Mixed in you will find several other names that should be more or less familiar. Those that you think most highly of would probably cost more than the team would reasonably want to spend on what is more of a luxury than a necessity. Guys like Roberto Osuna, Raisel Iglesias, Justin Wilson, Brad Hand and many others have been exceptional, and not only over this year. Each comes with extra years of control, which is one of the least important attributes of a reliever who is quite likely to be injured or ineffective next year or the year after. Teams should not pay for relief control, and yet, a trading team would be foolish to not capitalize on this aspect of player retention.

Pitchers that have been just as good, but come with either a large dollar commitment and/or an expiring deal after the season feel a little more reasonable, though the price will be just as high for the very best. Over a month and a half ago I stated that the team should be kicking the tires on Pat Neshek, but he has stayed just as dominant since then making it hard to see the Rays willing to suffer the winner’s curse in any sort of negotiation.

Jerry Blevins and Addison Reed, on the other hand, might be a little easier to chase down. Reed’s pre-free agency control will expire after this year, in which, he will make another $3M or so before it’s all said and done. Blevins comes with an option for next year, but at $7M to pitch or $1M to not it would be awfully hard to see the team bringing him back. He is still owed around $2M the rest of this year. This lowers the anticipated asset cost to get these guys as they mean very little to the Mets going forward this year. While the Rays are not known for spending money, duh, this could be a great example of a situation where if they are just willing to eat the money it could lower what they have to pay in assets for the players. The names aren’t sexy, but the team should be willing to try to bundle guys where they can, and let their plethora of second and third tier prospects go a little further in a quantity over quality deal.

Outside of the Mets you can see that the Reds present some intriguing options. Iglesias isn’t really an option, but Wandy Peralta might be, and since he’s a lefty he would cover perhaps the bigger need for the Rays. However, the price may be pretty steep since he comes with many years of control even if that is less useful for a non-starting pitcher. Anthony Swarzak’s control with the White Sox will expire after this year, and he hasn’t slowed down since his incredible start to the year. There may be concerns over his home run per fly ball regression, but my figures adjust for this, and still show him as a wonderful bullpen piece that is on an expiring deal.

The Blue Jays might balk at moving Roberto Osuna, but they’re most likely running away from Joe Smith who has made one appearance since a lengthy shoulder issue put him on the disabled list. I think he could be had for next to nothing. His teammate Danny Barnes has similarly performed very well, but with more control I would think the asking price would be higher. I would pay it if it is anywhere near reasonable. Braves right-hander Jim Johnson also looks like a strong get who will be owed around $2M the rest of the year and then another $4.5M next year.

Even after the big name guys that aren’t realistic there exists an entire underbelly of options that the Rays should like. While I’ve touched on a couple there is another worth exploring. The Padres are rightly asking for the moon on Hand, but what are about Ryan Buchter who has been excellent all season? Can he be had for a more reasonable price? Point is, the supply of useful relievers should be fairly large. That means the Rays should be able to knock on doors until they find a client worth working with.

So far I have only looked at what the Rays could target, but what are they willing to give up? Personally, I wouldn’t touch any of the top six prospects of Willy Adames, Brent Honeywell, Jake Bauers, Brendan McKay, Jesus Sanchez, Lucius Fox or Austin Franklin. I’d be hesitant to use guys like Garrett Whitley or Josh Lowe or Genesis Cabrera. That still leaves many players that might look like a buy low or someone that the Rays just don’t have room for.

Guys like Adrian Rondon, Chih-Wei Hu, Casey Gillaspie, Justin Williams, Kevin Padlo, Ryan Stanek, and players of this class should all be considered expendable. The team’s goal should be to combine two to three of them to get the player or two back that they really like. This will have the added benefit of helping loosen some of the impending logjam on the 40-man roster that will sure to make the offseason that much tougher. Additionally, I’d look into the idea of moving Jake Odorizzi to a team that is desperate for a starter. He is still something like a league average starter, but the Rays have a very real strength holding many alternatives that could do the same for cheaper and longer. Odorizzi presents as an affordable trade target for a team needing a starter both for now, but also for the two additional years he brings. I would love to structure something with the Dodgers that turns Odorizzi into Brock Stewart and a fringe prospect. Stewart has excelled in his limited work as a bridge guy for the best in the league Dodgers bullpen. If they don’t like him as a starter perhaps they would flip him for a guy that has established himself in the role.

The Rays have the pieces to make a deal, and they certainly have the need for another very good arm or two. I think they should try to get out in front of the market to get the best deal they can rather than a potentially better deal on a lesser player later. If they can’t fly first class then seek to work with the Mets for both Addison Reed and Jerry Blevins, the White Sox for Anthony Swarzak or the Braves for Jim Johnson. If they’re looking to make a monster move they should be doing it through the Blue Jays in an effort to get both Roberto Osuna and Danny Barnes. Lastly, with the news of Clayton Kershaw’s most recent back issue I would try to leverage the Dodgers to give up more than they would like for Jake Odorizzi or even Alex Cobb if that is what it takes. Cobb’s recent success has come with an undeniable lack of strikeouts as he is instead pounding the zone and living off ball in play luck. It hasn’t burnt him much, but that is only a matter of time. The Rays have options, but the time to pull the trigger is dwindling rapidly.


One Comment

  1. rb3 wrote:

    Read somewhere recently that Yates has moved over to the edge of the 3B side of the rubber, making him a lot more effective against righties/more Ks. (So far.) Lefties: his results haven’t improved nearly as much. Swapped change for splitter; stopped using his curve. Working the edges a little better control-wise.


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