Pitchers bring no relief to payroll

The simultaneous sounds of the relief-pitching market this offseason – cha-ching, followed by muahahaha – resounded their deepest yet this week when the contract craziness that started with Joaquin Benoit(notes) reached a laughable nadir.

Though only a fool would deny the importance of relief pitching – the vast majority of playoff teams rank near the top of their league annually – acquiring it via free agency is the most inefficient, wasteful use possible of an owner’s money. And the fashion in which general managers this offseason are wielding Zippos and setting aflame their bosses’ cash continues to confound.

Jesse Crain was snapped up by the White Sox.
(J. Meric/Getty)

Multiyear deals for relief pitchers almost never work. GMs should be forced to wear down a piece of chalk to its nub rewriting this concept. They ought repeat it in their sleep. Instead, they go out and make the same silly mistake year after year, history more an impediment than something by which they can educate themselves.

GMs already have handed out 11 multiyear deals to relievers this offseason, a number that matches the high in the last five free-agent periods, and at least seven more relievers have legitimate chances of getting at least two years. That’s a potential 18. In 2007, only 25 players at any position signed for more than one year.

This market, however, better parallels the year before, when teams were awarding multiyear deals to anybody with an ability to breathe. Relievers received 11 multiyear contracts in 2006, totaling 28 seasons, at a combined price of $97.3 million. In 14 of those seasons, the pitchers finished with zero Wins Above Replacement (as measured by Baseball-Reference.com) or fewer, meaning their performance was as bad as that of some schlub toiling in Triple-A. Eight of the 11 were either released, traded or suffered season-ending injuries sometime during their contracts.

Outlier? Hardly. Last season, four of the nine relief pitchers who signed multiyear contracts finished the year with a negative WAR, which means not only did the GMs commit arson on the boss’ money, they would’ve been better off letting those pitchers stay at home nightly.

The moral of this story: Relief pitching is fungible. Because it is an asset, however, managers beg their GMs for a reliever for Christmas, and GMs believe there’s no way their reliever will be one of the bad ones, and blunders ice a gaffe cake.

All of this started with the Benoit deal. Near the beginning of free agency, Detroit gave three years and $16.5 million to a reliever with a history of arm troubles. It could be chalked up to a number of things: overzealousness, misreading the market and, of course, complete lack of care for marginal value.

It wasn’t an excuse for the rest of baseball to jump off the bridge with the Tigers. Only there they went.

Matt Guerrier got three years from the Dodgers.
(Wayne Kryduba/Getty)

“Wheeeeeeee!” Dodgers GM Ned Colletti (Matt Guerrier(notes): three years, $12 million) said.

“Kowabunga!” White Sox GM Kenny Williams (Jesse Crain(notes): three years, $12 million) yelped.

“Ahhhhhhhhh!” Angels GM Tony Reagins (Scott Downs(notes): three years $15 million) bellowed.

There’s plenty more to come. Rafael Soriano(notes), one of the best remaining free agents available, will get at least three years and $10 million per season. Grant Balfour(notes) could sneak into the Crain/Guerrier territory, if another one of the cool-kid GMs that still doesn’t give half a damn about statistical analysis bites.

Even the deal Boston inked with Bobby Jenks(notes) for two years and $12 million was hefty, and the Red Sox are the most statistically inclined team in baseball. It’s simply a fact of this market, and a shocking one considering what history tells us.

Take 2008, another offseason with 11 multiyear deals. Over their 22 total seasons, they have produced fewer than 13 wins at a total cost of $116.25 million. That’s more than $8.9 million per marginal win, whereas the cost is usually estimated at about $4 million.

The ratio is about the same in other years (2006: $8 million, 2007: $8.6 million), and last year’s crop of nine relievers with multiyear deals combined for two WAR at nearly $40 million.

So for those GMs tempted to hit Brian Fuentes(notes) and Pedro Feliciano(notes) and Kevin Gregg(notes) with two-year deals, and for those who could be convinced Jon Rauch(notes) and Joe Beimel(notes) deserve the same, take a long needle full of restraint. These deals almost never work. And the only reason to include almost is because of one person.

Take Mariano Rivera’s(notes) 10.1 WAR over the last three years away from that free-agent Class of ’07, and the price per win goes up to $21.2 million. Rivera is the exception to this rule: the consistent relief pitcher, the ageless wonder, the marvel whose specialty work never fades. He is one of a kind.

Repeat: One. Not two. Not five. Certainly not 11. And, heaven forbid, not 18. But baseball is going there, sense be damned, because the market has gone haywire and people don’t learn from their face plants and relievers are really nothing more than shiny objects.

Man, they look pretty on the outside. But they’re a pain in the ass to maintain, lose their luster eventually and end up on the scrap heap, discarded without concern, just like always you knew they would.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Dec 17, 2010