The MLB Market for Relief Pitchers is Coming to Fruition

The MLB Hot Stove is finally starting to get more heat as trades are being made, and the ones that haven’t yet, are intensifying in talks. And on the side, we are starting to see the reliever market begin to set itself, with key signings recently being made.

Jeurys Familia and Joe Kelly are the big names who found new homes while Jordan Lyles, who is more low-key, has found one as well. Charlie Morton is another name that was signed, and while he isn’t technically a reliever, the veteran is speculated to be utilized as an ‘opener’ for the Tampa Bay Rays.

Bullpens are becoming more and more valuable around Major League Baseball, in large part due to the analytics revolution. Starting pitchers do not go deep into games as they once used to so there is an increased importance on relievers to come into high-leverage situations to protect a lead or, if working from behind, maintain a manageable deficit.

And because of the demand, the financial commitment required for quality relievers has gone up. It was just a few years back when Andrew Miller scored a four-year, $36 million deal from the New York Yankees. But he was topped by Mark Melancon two years later who signed a four year $60 million deal with the San Francisco Giants.

But both of these guys were left in the dust by Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman. Jansen re-signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers for $80 million over five years and Chapman signed for $86 million over five years with the Yankees.

None of the three guys who signed are on the same level as those four at their best. Familia is but doesn’t have the duration at his peak to compare. Thus they did not get anything close to a megadeal like them. However, two of the three were comfortably compensated not even for being the best pitcher in their new bullpen.

It’s always risky business, however, when investing in relief arms. There is a lot of evidence of bullpen arms being volatile, even the best ones, so there will always be some eyebrows raised when a guy gets such a high average annual value as Familia and Kelly received. Regardless, they have set the market for relievers so teams and players will have to negotiate accordingly.

One thing to keep in mind before judging relievers, however, is that ERA is not the best, or most fair, stat to judge them by because of the small sample sizes they have. The amount of work, or lack thereof, gives them a tiny margin for error, and one bad outing can skew an entire month or season. It’s more about the stuff they possess and the matchup advantages they offer.

Jeurys Familia Returns to the New York Mets for Three Years, $30 Million

Familia was traded from the Mets to the Oakland Athletics midseason last year, and in 72 innings with both teams, he had a 3.13 ERA, 1.222 WHIP, and 83 strikeouts.

In his seven-year career, the veteran righty made 343 appearances, compiling a 2.73 ERA and 1.211 WHIP. At his peak, Familia was arguably the best reliever in the game. For most of his career, the 29-year-old has been good, or very good, but not elite.

But Familia is still a good pitcher and will form a lethal pairing at the backend of the Mets’ bullpen with Edwin Diaz. It’s the type of pairing that can reduce games to seven innings. Or, one of the two guys can serve as the go-to arm for high-leverage situations outside of the ninth inning.

On paper, it’s a good move. He is a good pitcher in the middle of his prime with good stuff and fastball velocity that is still holding strong, making himself an excellent addition to any bullpen.

But when you realize what New York will be paying Familia, it’s an eyebrow-raiser. As good as he is, the righty isn’t worth $10 million-per-year— there’s a lot of risk involved.

Jordan Lyles Goes to the Pittsburg Pirates for One Year, $2.5 Million

The Pittsburg Pirates just shipped out Ivan Nova, leaving an opening in the starting rotation that needs to be filled. Jordan Lyles may be coming in with an opportunity to challenge for that starting spot. But it’s more likely that he was brought in to help a bullpen that owned a 4.03 ERA as a unit.

The 28-year-old had a 4.11 ERA in his 87.2 innings with the San Diego Padres and Milwaukee Brewers last season. He made 35 appearances, eight of which were starts. 16.1 of his innings came with the Brewers where he served solely as a reliever and had a 3.31 ERA and 2.49 FIP.

Ultimately, because of his struggles, he ended up coming out of the bullpen, where he owned a 3.32 ERA, 44 strikeouts, and a .609 OPS against in 40.2 innings. His success can be attributed largely to his change in pitch usage.

His new deal puts into question Joe Kelly’s contract with the Dodgers, who gave him an astounding amount of money.

Joe Kelly Signs With the Los Angeles Dodgers for Three Years, $25 Million

Joe Kelly has completed the cycle. He was traded from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Boston Red Sox, who beat the Cardinals back during the 2013 World Series. And now he joins the team he just beat in the World Series.

Leading up to his agreement with Los Angeles, reports suggested that Kelly was highly-sought after by numerous teams. He is a starter-turned-reliever who had a 4.39 ERA and 68 strikeouts in 65.2 innings this year.

2018 was the perfect representation of Kelly in regards to his career as a whole. He has a 3.87 ERA throughout a somewhat inconsistent career. And after a 2.79 ERA in 2017, that number spiked up significantly. And this season, the Boston Red Sox saw a different Joe Kelly each month.

March/April- 3.09 ERA

May- 0.63 ERA

June- 8.31 ERA

July- 8.38 ERA

August- 1.42 ERA

September/October- 8.31 ERA

In reality, his numbers this season weren’t much different from Lyles’. Although Kelly is more established, he has not always been great. So how did Kelly get over $20 million and two years more? Because he is the perfect example of a guy who raised his stock with an excellent postseason.

During the 2018 MLB playoffs, the 30-year-old allowed just two runs (one earned) in 11.2 innings of work, including six scoreless frames with four hits, zero walks, and ten strikeouts in the Fall Classic against these same Dodgers. This after five scoreless postseason innings the last two years.

His fastball averaged 98.1 miles per hour in 2018 and his triple-digit heater completely stifled Los Angeles in the World Series. However, the one downside with his elite velocity is command or lack thereof.

Kelly is good but over $8 million-a-season good? Probably not. However, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ front office doesn’t just throw money around. They are very cautious and pragmatic with it.

They refused to match the two years, $20 million Brandon Morrow received elsewhere in 2017 to retain him. So, to see them hand out more money for someone who didn’t match Morrow’s 2017 level is perplexing.

They see something in Joe Kelly which they like and believe that they can be the ones to turn the righty into the consistent elite arm he has the potential to be. And it wouldn’t be a surprise because this Dodgers’ regime has done an excellent job of properly utilizing their relievers according to their strengths, making them look better than they previously were.

These moves have set the reliever market. Gone are the days where the relief ace gets $30 million. Now, the complementary arms are starting to as well. It only makes us wonder how much Craig Kimbrel will get, absurd asking price and all.

Featured Image via Flickr/Keith Allison

Sports and food enthusiast. Love reading thriller and Comic books. Will talk almost any movie or tv show (more recent preferred), especially Westworld!

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