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The Indians are right to let free agent relievers walk

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You should be rejoicing rather than lamenting.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Minnesota Twins Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

An earlier version of this piece suggested that Kyle Crockett remained in the Indians’ farm system. We regret the error.

Bryan Shaw - gone.

Joe Smith - gone.

Shawn Armstrong - gone.

These three Indians relievers are now dearly departed, all signed or traded this offseason so far. The Winter Meetings aren’t even over it and isn’t clear whom, exactly, the Tribe plan to keep, move, or acquire in order to build it’s 2018 bullpen. The consternation on Twitter Dot Com is palpable; I don’t even want to know what Cle Com looks like.

Regardless, the Indians are making the right decisions by not signing free agent relievers and clearing room for higher-caliber prospects on the roster. There are several reasons why free agent relievers aren’t a great deal. In addition, the Indians are well-positioned to fill those needs from within.

I have a long-held belief that relievers in general — and closers in particular — are often grossly overpaid. Joe Smith is set to make $7.5M on average for the next two seasons; Bryan Shaw will make $9M over the next three. Barring injury, both Andrew Miller and Cody Allen will make north of $10M per year after their contracts expire next season, and perhaps significantly more. Remember the contracts Chapman, Jansen, and Melancon all received? I have a feeling they’re going to look stupid in comparison to what the Indians bullpen backend can command. And good lord, Craig Kimbrel’s $13M option is probably a bargain in 2018 compared to what he would have commanded on the open market.

Relievers are a strange commodity. If your team has the money to pay for an elite arm on the open market, it sometimes makes sense to do so. If you’re a smaller market, it is not nearly as wise.

What is the most abundant commodity in baseball? Decent arms that aren’t good enough to cut it as a starter. Every team has dozens sitting in their own farm system. Sometimes they are even on their 40-man roster, waiting to be converted. Almost all of these are cost-controlled, which is an overwhelming priority for a small-market team like the Indians. We might not like hearing it, but teams like Houston (who intentionally rebuilt their team around cost-controlled players and now have World Series cash to blow on top of that) and even the Rockies have more to spend on a proven reliever. Don’t even get me started on the Dodgers, Giants, Yankees, et al. The Indians, who sat at $124,861,165 in payroll to start the 2017 season, spent nearly $40M more than they had in the previous season. They simply cannot afford to sign free agent relievers this offseason.

We also cannot forget how volatile a reliever’s value can be. One excellent season from a pitcher doesn’t necessarily mean that pitcher can sustain such value, let alone multiple. Eric Gagne is an interesting example - a converted starter, he dominated for three straight seasons with the Dodgers. Then, at age 29, he evaporated due to elbow and back injuries. The Dodgers paid him $18M for his services in 2005 and 2006. They netted an additional 0.4 bWAR from him. I also submit for examination the name, “Jose Mesa”. From 1993-1997 he provided 10.1 bWAR. This is substantially better than the average reliever’s peak, and his career bWAR is 11.7. His last consistently effective year, he was 31. Shaw and Smith are both on the wrong side of 30.

The Indians don’t even need to look that far back. Remember Chris Perez? He dazzled in 2010 to win the closer role, then followed it up with All-Star nods in 2011 and 2012. He was out of baseball for good by 2015. The Tribe signed Boone Logan this past offseason and assumed he would be the Missing LOOGY to complete the bullpen. He struggled early, and when he finally appeared to have straightened things out, his shoulder betrayed him. While the Indians made their run at the postseason, he was probably stuck watching at the Winking Lizard. Including the 2018 buyout, this was a $6.5M gamble on the part of the Indians. At best, he would have been worth about a win and a half.

Juxtapose that with the outrage over the $12M option the Indians the Indians exercised with Brantley. A full-health Brantley is worth five wins, most likely. A medium-health Brantley provided two last season. With baseball’s current usage patterns, a reliever will never approach the potential value provided by a position player.

This does not mean that the Indians bullpen is going to be a worthless husk in 2018. I will be shocked if we do not see Danny Salazar move to a full-time roll as a reliever now. Furthermore, players like Nick Goody and Tyler Olson wait in the wings to fill the now-empty relief spots. They will need to prove themselves throughout the course of the season, but each — and especially Olson — has hinted in the past at the future promise they might hold.

One criticism that I acknowledge to this is that the postseason puts a bigger premium on elite relief pitching. Yes, that’s true — but the additional time off means that depth is typically not as big of an issue. Andrew Miller and Cody Allen can easily shoulder the bulk of the innings required in the postseason assuming every starter avoids a complete meltdown. That, combined with a 4-man rotation, puts the Indians in a happy place when considering its October pitching options. As always, remember that they need to get there. You cannot tell me with a straight face that spending a combined $16 or $17M on two middle relievers is money better spent than on extending or acquiring a proven position player.

Would I love it if the Indians could spend infinite money? Yes. My recommendation, though, is to imagine a scenario in which the bloated contracts of three middle relievers past their prime keep the Indians from extending Francisco Lindor.