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Icy relief market could be good for Indians

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Perennial bargain hunters, the Tribe might find some gems this year

World Series - Cleveland Indians v Chicago Cubs - Game Three Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

For the 2018-19 offseason, MLB Trade Rumors lists 74 notable relief free agents in their tracker. With the Winter Meetings wrapped up, here’s a breakdown of relievers who have signed (as of the Monday after the meetings):

  • Jeurys Familia
  • Joe Kelly
  • Trevor Rosenthal
  • Matt Moore
  • Kyle Ryan
  • Ruben Alaniz
  • Louis Coleman
  • Jesse Chavez
  • Jordan Lyles

The 2017 Winter Meetings took place December 9 to 13. Among the class of free agents last year, MLB Trade Rumors listed 106 relievers; as of the Monday after those meetings, these relievers (who went on to pitch in MLB in 2018) had signed (dates checked via BRef):

  • Kevin Quackenbush
  • Vidal Nuno
  • Casey Lawrence
  • Neil Ramirez
  • Tony Barnette
  • Wily Peralta
  • TJ McFarland
  • Yusmeiro Petit
  • Brandon Morrow
  • Joe Smith
  • Luke Gregerson
  • Anthony Swarzak
  • Bryan Shaw
  • Hector Rondon
  • Fernando Rodney
  • Pat Neshek
  • Jake McGee
  • Tommy Hunter
  • Steve Cishek
  • Jordan Lyles
  • Javy Guerra
  • Jacob Turner

Visually, you can see the size difference between last year’s signings and this year’s, but to recap just 12% of notable relievers (9/74) have signed deals so far this offseason. This is down quite a bit compared to last year, when 20.75% of notable relievers (22/106) had signed by the Monday after the Winter Meetings. Last year, of course, was the slowest offseason ever in general, but relievers did fairly well and went rather quick.

The free agent relievers last offseason were numerous and generally successful prior to hitting the market, with the 106 available compiling 472.6 bWAR over the course of their careers. The relievers available this offseason are less numerous but have compiled 397.3 bWAR over their careers, making this group more valuable on average (5.4 bWAR/player) than the 2017 group (4.5 bWAR/player). If you don’t like averaging out the wins over the group, the 2018 class also features a greater percentage of individuals with 4+ bWAR (58%) than 2018’s class (51%).

Despite the talent available this year, 88% of free agent relievers tracked by MLBTR are still looking for a job. Perhaps the players are hesitant to sign, but it seems likely that all but a few free agents would jump at a deal like the one Bryan Shaw got from the Rockies last year (3 years/$27 million). That kind of deal, coincidentally, is roughly what the few relievers have gotten so far.

For instance, Joe Kelly took 3 years at $25 million from the Dodgers at the same age (30) as Shaw and with similar career numbers (Kelly vs. Shaw: 4.02 vs. 3.52 FIP, 106 vs. 134 ERA+, 6.2 vs. 6.3 bWAR). Likewise, Jeurys Familia (7.2 bWAR) took 3 years and $30 million from the Mets, just above the annual value of 2 years and $16.75 million the Twins gave Addison Reed at the same age (29) and with comparable stats (Familia vs. Reed: 2.92 vs. 3.18 FIP, 140 vs. 121 ERA+, 7.1 vs. 6.2 bWAR).

Relievers who signed a big league deal during the 2017-18 offseason received and average annual value of $4.4 million. However, those relievers (63 out of 106 appeared in a game in 2018) totaled just 24.7 bWAR, with 25 (!) posting negative bWAR for the 2018, including 14 players with an AAV over $1 million (i.e., not signed to a minor league deal) that produced zero or negative value. Could the value relative to amount spent last season be a factor driving the slow-down in the market this year?

The early deals in 2018 are similar to those signed last season, but not really for the same class of player. Even though Kelly isn’t the A1 reliever on the market, Craig Kimbrel, he’s a World Series hero with a live arm, the kind of guy teams might have believed in more (i.e., paid more) last year. The fact that they got deals roughly the same as those signed last year suggests to me there could there be some kind of depression in the market this year.

The money will still be there for Kimbrel (though he ain’t getting the numbers his agent is throwing around) or even Adam Ottavino, but given the pace of signing, it seems the middle and lower class of relievers might be left waiting. As we saw with position players last year, these relievers may eventually be convinced to sign a lighter contract than they had hoped.

The Indians, regardless of cost savings from recent trades, were always going to be splashing around in this shallow end of the free agent pool. Back in October, I pointed to Kelvin Herrera as someone the Tribe should make a run at, and a slower market might depress his price below MLBTR’s 1 year/$8 million projection. Likewise, any depression in the market would play to the Tribe’s benefit, perhaps making other quality relievers more accessible.

Joakim Soria remained above average (by ERA+) throughout 2018, but his age, 34, could help him fall to Cleveland in a down market. Brad Brach, 33 in April, and his iffy peripherals with Baltimore in 2018 could make him a value for a less than the $6 million average value he was projected, provided the Tribe believes his second half is sustainable. Likewise, a reunion with Oliver Perez or bringing Justin Wilson or Dan Jennings back to the AL Central might also be good moves to shore up a position of need.

Though the Indians have shed payroll this offseason, a free agent fix for the bullpen is only likely if the cost of relievers is less than the 2017-18 offseason. I do not particularly relish the relief market being depressed, as I am a proponent of players being paid commensurate with the entertainment they provide; however, the Tribe bullpen from the first half of the season might owe me money for watching them pitch. So, I do hope the team is able to secure the services of a handful of talented relievers should the market allow. Time will tell if the current pace is indicative of anything significant.