Winter Meetings: Reliever Roulette
Image courtesy of Peter G. Aiken, USA Today (Fernando Rodney)A few popular Twins targets have come off the market this week, with Pat Neshek (Phillies), Brandon Morrow (Cubs), Bryan Shaw (Rockies) and Tommy Hunter (Phillies) all reaching agreements. And while you may be feeling bummed to miss out on some of these names – especially a hometown guy like Neshek, or a reliable stalwart like Shaw – it should be negated by these two facts:
One, there are still plenty of options left in a deep class. And two, these particular hurlers signed at very steep rates.
Morrow got $21 million over two years. Neshek got $16.25 million over the same term. Shaw is looking at "three years, somewhere in the range of $9 million annually."
These are hefty prices to pay for relief pitchers, the most notoriously volatile of baseball assets. Brian Dozier will make $9 million in 2018 and is in line to be the fourth-highest paid player on the roster.
The Twins are coming into some financial flexibility, but they still need to be thoughtful about how they're allocating payroll and committing money. While we'll all agree this bullpen could use some outside help, I don't think the Twins are well served in their current position to gamble on reliever roulette with those kinds of stakes.
Dollars aren't the only finite resource for the Twins. There's also innings – this year and beyond. It seems safe to assume that (barring injury) Trevor Hildenberger, Ryan Pressly, Taylor Rogers and Tyler Duffey will be locks for the Opening Day pen. Gabriel Moya, Alan Busenitz and JT Chargois will all have very good cases for spots, if not at the start of the year then shortly after. Tyler Jay and John Curtiss are close. And then there are whichever members of the bloated starter mix end up converting to relief roles.
This shouldn't preclude Minnesota from signing a veteran to a guaranteed contract, but it does temper the desire to hand out an expensive multi-year deal. The early action on the free agent market seems to reflect a growing trend – relievers are gaining prominence in the game, and their salaries are rising accordingly. As such, promising MLB-ready bullpen arms like the ones listed above are becoming especially valuable commodities.
I honestly wouldn't feel terrible going into 2018 with the group they have, plus a few low-wattage signings with upside, but the primary issue is this: The Twins presently have no closing experience. While GM Thad Levine says he's "open-minded" that his closer of the future might be on the roster, he made clear he isn't keen on throwing any of his young arms directly into the fire.
So the Twins are pursuing someone who can at least temporarily occupy the ninth inning from the outset next season. It's not going to be Wade Davis or Greg Holland. It probably won't even be someone in the range of Morrow and Shaw.
A trade remains possible, but the same logic applies – are you going to forfeit significant assets for a piece you're not totally positive you need? The equation changes if we're talking about a potential bullpen ace like Raisel Iglesias, but I like to think the Twins are smart enough to avoid overpaying for, say, Alex Colome's 47 saves this year.
At the Winter Meetings, Minnesota has been connected to three different veteran right-handed relievers, and all seem fairly sensible to me:
1) Brandon Kintzler. The familiarity factor is there, he has a strong bond with Paul Molitor, and he has proven he can handle the job. Kintzler isn't a prototypical closer, and I'd argue that he is more useful pitching earlier in games when his heavy sinker can be deployed on-demand in tough spots. But this is part of the reason he makes sense; he's a valuable bullpen piece even if someone else steps in as closer, and despite his All-Star showing this year he probably will cost less than the likes of Morrow, Shaw, and even Neshek.
2) Fernando Rodney. He ranks third among active pitchers in saves, and performed the job well enough as closer in Arizona this year, especially in the second half: 17/18 SV, 2.55 ERA, 11.3 K/9. Rodney's age (40) and history of wildness (career 4.4 B/9) make him a bit of a risky proposition but he can probably be had on a one-year deal and that's attractive to the Twins, even at an inflated cost. Multiple reports have connected Minnesota to Rodney, so there's definitely some smoke here.
3) Juan Nicasio. It sounds like the Twins have talked to Nicasio's agent, signaling distinct interest following a breakout year for the Dominican. Bringing mid-90s heat, he posted a 2.85 ERA and 72-to-20 K/BB over 72 innings. He doesn't have much closing experience but did finish the year in that role for the Cardinals and there's really no reason to think he wouldn't be up to the task. Given his momentum heading into free agency, Nicasio will not be cheap (Morrow money isn't unrealistic), but if the Twins believe his 2017 was legit he'd be a piece worth building around with the youngsters.
Feel free to share your own thoughts on the veteran relief market in the comments section, as well as any updates and rumors as they arise on Wednesday.