Top 8 Free Agent Relief Pitchers This Hot Stove Season

Picture I took of Rafael Soriano on 5-10-07 23...
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For many teams, especially teams that are successful in the postseason, success is predicated on a solid bullpen. However, while stalwarts like Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman grab headlines and notoriety, as a whole, bullpen arms are significantly more volatile than the two legendary closers. Bullpen arms, especially middle relievers, tend to come out of nowhere. Relievers are often times a combination of failed starters, hard-throwers with little command, and finesse pitchers with gimmick pitches (knuckleball, screwball, forkball). In the case of middle relievers, they typically possess very few of the tools of late inning relievers, and simply throw a lot of strikes.

Last year Juan Cruz and Joe Beimel spent most of the offseason unsigned, because while some teams have begun to value relievers accurately (most relievers are pretty replaceable), the Elias ranking system which determines Type A and B free agents was exposed for its flawed valuation of relief pitchers. While players like Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia were swooped up as soon as they desired, Beimel and Cruz spent most of the season unemployed, not because they were bad pitchers, but that their signing team would have had to give up a first round pick in order to sign them, and the combined compensation didn’t outweigh projected production. Sabermetricians will point to luck, and disproportionate swings of BABIP as the reason for some player’s inflated stats. Unfortunately, even the most durable, heavily-used relievers produce in such a small sample set that their overall statistical production can be massively affected by such swings, and in the case of Beimel and Cruz, positive statistical production can prove negative to their pocket books. That stated, there is essentially a split market between Type A and B free agents.

*Note: Players with options will be kept off the list unless their options are projected as unexercised. No arbitration-eligible players will be included unless they are projected as non-tender free agents. Ages represent age on June 30, 2010

Type A relievers

1. Rafael Soriano, 30 years old

Since converting to pitcher from shortstop, Soriano has always had an electrifying, mid-90s fastball. Last year, his first full season as a closer, he picked up 0.3 miles-per-hour on his fastball and almost two miles-per-hour on his slider. Soriano struck out 3.78 batters for every walk he surrendered, and struck out 12.13 batters per nine innings.

Soriano may regress some in 2010, he gave up a higher percentage of line drives than the year before, and had a lower home run to fly ball ratio than his career averages. Those numbers are especially volatile, and could regress to their mean, but he’ll still strike a lot of batters out, and is relatively young.

2. Jose Valverde, 32 years old

There seems to be a pundit-driven swing to influence fans to believe that Valverde is a lesser pitcher than he really is. Valverde seems to be stuck with a stigma of being a one-pitch pitcher, which he truly was in the early years of his career. However, much has changed in the last three years of Valverde’s career.

In the past three years, while posting a FIP around 3.50, Valverde has begun to throw his split-finger fastball with much more regularity. In the past two seasons Valverde has caused batters to swing at more pitches outside the strike zone (33 and 32 percent) than 2007, when he had batters swinging more frequently at pitches outside the strike zone than any year to that point besides his rookie season.

3. Mike Gonzalez, 32 years old

Between Gonzalez and Soriano, the Braves had one of the most formidable one-two punches to finish a game last season. What makes Gonzalez unique, apart from being a left-handed power pitcher, is that while he dominates left-handed batters (.194/.255/.327 in 2009) he’s also very effective against righties (.218/.340/.359).

Gonzalez hasn’t closed regularly since 2006, but he was dominant then and remains a high-end late reliever, and has increased value because he’s left handed. Gonzalez has a place in any bullpen, but could be very expensive.

4. Rafael Betancourt, 35 years old

Betancourt has always had good stuff, but a trip to Colorado for a pitcher who gives up a lot of fly balls, but also strikes a lot of batters out, seemed destined to prove his worth as a pitcher. Betancourt responded well, giving up 17 hits and only five runs in 25.1 innings.

Betancourt has never been given the opportunity to close regularly, but probably would have been a better option in Cleveland, where he began—and played all of his career until last year, than free agent signee Kerry Wood. Especially because, unlike Wood, Betancourt doesn’t walk many batters.

5. Billy Wagner, 38 years old

Wagner is definitely no longer the pitcher who can reach triple-digits with his fastball, but he still averages over 94 miles-per-hour. Coming off of Tommy John surgery, Wagner pitched in limited time and was very successful (1.72 ERA, 26 SOs, and a 1.021 WHIP in 15.2 innings pitched).

Wagner’s age and injury history place him lower on the list. He was an all-but-missing piece in a bad Mets bullpen in 2008, and it isn’t often that players recover from Tommy John surgery so well in their late-30s.

However, if Wagner’s arm holds up, and his numbers stay somewhere near the small 2009 sample, he’s a high-quality bullpen arm.

Type B and non-compensation relievers

1. Takashi Saito, 40 years old

Saito is far from the dominating pitcher he was as a 36-year-old rookie. The Japanese import however, has experienced far-over-documented struggles. The biggest deviation from the rest of his brief-but-consistently-dominant career was that 2009 was the first year he didn’t average more than one strikeout per inning.

Saito hasn’t lost significant velocity on any of his pitches, and figures to be a steal in this free agent class. His time remaining in the Major Leagues is probably limited, but he can be some team’s productive, late-inning reliever for the rest of his time here.

2. Joe Beimel, 33 years old

Last year Beimel, by way of his type A status, failed to cash in on three straight productive seasons as a lefty reliever in Los Angeles. This year, however, reduced status should work very much to Beimel’s benefit.

Beimel has shown consistency, and has a pretty high ground-ball-percentage, so while he allows batters to put the ball in play, and relies significantly on luck, he limits the severity of the outcome of that luck by keeping the ball out of the air.

3. Chan Ho Park, 37 years old

Park’s numbers won’t be eye-popping, but he’s something of a Swiss Army Knife in any bullpen. Last season with the Phillies he started, pitched in the middle of games, and in some late inning situations.

Park has never returned to the near-Cy-Young form he had in Los Angeles, but he’s throwing his fastball less, and mixing up his off-speed pitches well, and is a valuable, and likely inexpensive arm for a team to put in their bullpen.

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