At The Ballyard ... with Steve Weissman

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Are Free Agent Relievers Worth the Annual Cost?

If there was ever a time to be a decent major league reliever, then this clearly is it! Check out this list of free-agent firemen to change uniforms during the days bracketing Thanksgiving, and you’ll see what I mean:

  • The Blue Jays signed B.J. Ryan for five years, $47 million.

  • The Mets signed Billy Wagner to four years, $43 million.

  • The Cubs signed Bobby Howry for a reported three years, $12 million, and Scott Eyre for three years, $11 million.
Now, I have no particular issue with the pursuit of pitching as a guaranteed right of MLB citizenship – in fact, I’m one of those who believes it and defense, especially in the late innings, are the keys to sustained success. But I am struck by the lengths and dollars these deals involve and was moved to see just what practical value the players might actually provide.

  • Billy Wagner throws smoke, is left handed, converted 92% of his save opportunities last season, and is going to a team that struggled to convert only 67% overall. But he’ll turn 35 midway through next year, and every pitch he throws brings him closer to the one that easily could be his last. Does this mean he’s worth $10.75 million per year? Consider this: if Wagner runs anywhere true to form, he theoretically could put a dozen extra victories on the board for a club that finished seven games out of first place and six games out of the playoffs. So perhaps the Mets are right to throw money at this particular problem.
  • B.J. Ryan is another hard-throwing lefty, and since he’ll be only 31 next season, he may represent more of the future for Toronto than Wagner does for New York. Ryan converted 88% of his save opportunities last year and is going to a team that did so just 63% of the time in total. Do the math and you’ll see that he too could mean 12 extra wins for his new team – but since the Blue Jays finished 15 games out of both first place and the playoffs, this improvement may not be as meaningful to the Birds as it is to the Mets. Will it be worth the $9.4 million per year it costs them? We’ll have to wait and see.
I won’t bore you by continuing the exercise, but you get the idea. Just how much is a relief pitcher worth? It depends on the improvement he is likely to create as viewed in context in which he is to pitch. Ralph Kiner was once famously told by his woeful Pirates that the team lost with him and could easily lose without him, and thus didn’t receive the raise he sought. The same, I believe, is true of pitching, and that’s what makes this year’s free agent dance all the more interesting.

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