Another sign of baseball's changing landscape: middle relievers cashing in
NASHVILLE—To get a setup reliever from Seattle who never has started a game in his professional life, the Red Sox traded a starting pitcher who threw more innings over the past four years than all but six lefthanded pitchers. A deal that might have been unthinkable 20 years ago inspired this assessment from most baseball people: Boston won the trade.
Monday's swap that sent Wade Miley from the Red Sox to the Mariners for Carson Smith—the principals in the four-player deal—hardly qualified as a blockbuster. But it was important because it further defined what baseball has become and what it will continue to be: a game gone crazy over relief pitching.
Slugging free-agent outfielders wait like wallflowers at a junior high dance as clubs fight over relievers—no matter how old, how surgically repaired or how well traveled. The transactions come so fast and with such ridiculous money that it’s worth stopping to marvel at what is going on:
• Mark Lowe, a journeyman 32-year-old reliever who went to spring training 10 months ago on a minor-league contract and split the season between the Mariners and Blue Jays, signed a multi-year deal with Detroit: two years, $11 million.
• Ryan Madson, another guy who 10 months ago went to spring training on a minor-league contract and who didn't pitch in the majors from 2012 to '14 because of elbow problems, set the bar for the most bizarre contract of this winter: $22 million from the Athletics for his age-35, -36 and -37 seasons.
• And then there's this trail of hyper-inflation as it relates to righthanded sinker-ball relievers: 29-year-old Joe Smith got $15.7 million from the Angels in 2013, which led to 30-year-old Luke Gregerson getting $18.5 million from the Astros in '14, which led to 33-year-old Darren O'Day getting a reported $31 million over four years to stay with the Orioles this week.
Meanwhile, the Dodgers inventively tried to replace the 222 2/3 innings they lost when Zack Greinke signed with the Diamondbacks last week by signing starter Hisashi Iwakuma (196 innings for Seattle in 2015) and trading for Reds closer Aroldis Chapman. While Los Angeles did reportedly get Iwakuma, its trade with Cincinnati for Chapman has stalled over a reported domestic violence incident involving Chapman.
Throw in the Royals giving a three year, $25 million deal to get Joakim Soria to pitch middle relief, the Cubs continuing to collect relievers such as Rex Brothers and Trevor Cahill from baseball’s lost-and-found bin, and the Red Sox happily trading Miley’s durability for Smith’s 70 innings, and it’s obvious what is going on: Even middle relief, once the wasteland of a team's roster and a player's future earnings, is gaining real value with generational kind of money.
When the Royals—a team with below average starting pitching (22nd in the majors in ERA in 2015)—won the World Series, it served to confirm this unyielding trend. Teams are now undergoing a gold rush to build a deep bullpen that keeps the ball out of play. Call it The Royals Model: Baseball is creating specialists within specialists.
Madson, for instance, obtained more than three outs in a game last season only six times. In just 10 years, the number of relief appearances of three outs or fewer jumped 23%. Such abbreviated appearances (12,137 of them) and relief appearances overall (15,095) hit record levels in 2015. Left unchecked, baseball will be driven even more by battalions of hard-throwing specialists who are groomed to keep the ball out of play, which is why baseball is giving serious consideration to a rules change that would require relievers to face a minimum of two batters rather than one.
There are more active relievers (minimum 200 games) with a career strikeout rate better than 10 per nine innings (25) than there are retired such pitchers (17). The Dodgers now have the pitchers who rank first, second and third on the list, whether retired or not (Chapman and incumbent closer Kenley Jansen); the Red Sox last month traded for the second-ranked bullpen strikeout artist (Craig Kimbrel).
Boston was the rare team that had lagged behind this trend for a specialized, power bullpen. The 2015 Red Sox, with few mid-90s power arms, ranked 26th in baseball in strikeout rate by relievers. But Kimbrel and Smith will change that dynamic. Smith relies on a 93-mph sinker and a hard slider to get 11.2 strikeouts per nine. And his sinker is electric: He has thrown 560 such pitches in his career without allowing any of them to be a hit for a home run.
The Red Sox entered the winter looking for an ace, a closer and a righthanded-hitting outfielder; they've already snapped up David Price, Kimbrel and Chris Young. “It’s amazing how this has played out,” said one Boston source. “We started with three major categories of need and ranked the players according to our need. We got the guy at the top of every one of the three lists.” The signing of Price made Miley redundant, which allowed Boston to get Smith.
The next middle reliever who could cash in? Shawn Kelley, a 31-year-old who pitched for the Padres last year, has a 3.67 career ERA and is straight off the power middle reliever assembly line. Kelley checks the boxes for Tommy John surgery (two of them, at ages 18 and 26), a ridiculous strikeout rate (11.6 over the past three years), multiple teams (three) and abbreviated outings (over his nine pro seasons, he has thrown 426 1/3 innings over 405 appearances). He is expected to sign with Washington, which already gave 34-year-old Oliver Perez two years and $7 million to pitch his 50 innings a year. Meanwhile, available at any time on the trade market are elite relievers such as Brad Boxberger, Mark Melancon, Jonathan Papelbon and Drew Storen.
There is no end in sight to teams using more and more hard-throwing relievers in shorter and shorter bursts. The job is growing in prestige—and pay.
• With the Pre-Integration Committee of the Hall of Fame rightfully electing no one Monday, it’s time to retire that committee and concentrate on candidates who made their mark in baseball after 1946. Marty Marion, for instance, has been considered on 12 baseball writers’ ballots, two runoff elections and six versions of what traditionally was called the Veterans Committee and never come close to being elected. Shortstop Bill Dahlen is still being considered 145 years after he was born and after five other contemporaries at his position have been enshrined. Frank McCormick, a first baseman with fewer career hits and home runs than Nick Markakis, never got more than 3% of the writers’ vote but was on this ballot. Meanwhile, the Hall’s special committees have not elected a living player since Bill Mazeroski in 2001.
• The Red Sox aren’t just taking Hanley Ramirez at his word that he will cut weight and show up at spring training in shape. They have given Ramirez, who turns 32 this month and was listed at 225 pounds this past season, incremental goals to hit this winter as far as his weight and the flexibility and strength of his shoulder and back. The team will continually monitor how he is progressing.
• Boston officials were blown away by Greinke’s intellect when they met with him during the recruiting process. They were especially impressed with how Greinke broke down players in the lower levels of the team's farm system. But according to a source, as soon as he left the room, Red Sox officials knew they weren’t signing him because he was a bad fit in Boston. They sensed that Greinke wanted either to slide into a rotation behind an established No. 1 or to pitch as a No. 1 in a smaller market with less pressure to lead a staff.
•Fifteen starting pitchers featured a split-finger fastball last season, but only two were in the NL: Tim Hudson and Dan Haren, both of whom have since retired. That’s good news for Iwakuma and Jeff Samardzija, who last week signed a five-year, $90 million contract with the Giants. They throw a pitch that hitters in the league are not used to seeing. Still, good luck to the Dodgers on getting a heavy workload out of Iwakuma's seasons in which he will be 35, 36 and 37 years old. In 2015, only one pitcher at those ages had a qualified season with an ERA better than 3.80: John Lackey.