What has become apparent during the MLB offseason is that the price of relief pitching is through the roof. Mark Melancon (Giants), Aroldis Chapman (Yankees), and Kenley Jansen (Dodgers) all signed free agent pacts that easily surpassed Jonathan Papelbon’s old record for largest contract by a reliever, with Chapman and Jansen both surpassing $80 million over the duration of their contracts. In addition, the Cubs were forced to part with a talented young player in Jorge Soler in order to swing a deal for the now former Royals’ bullpen ace Wade Davis. While the Davis deal should have less of a long term impact on the Cubs, I’d be surprised those huge free agent signings didn’t turn out to be a total disaster for the clubs involved.
Before breaking down the implications and logic (or lack thereof) of these moves, let’s first try to understand why the price of relief pitching has become so sky high. Recent teams that have reached the World Series have not relied on their starting pitchers going deep into games. The 2015 Royals and 2016 Indians (at least in the postseason) lacked quality starting pitching depth and therefore counted on their starters simply keeping their teams in the game long enough to hand it over to a horde of dominant relievers. These teams possessed such a great bullpen that if the starters could get through five or six innings with a lead, you probably weren’t going to beat them.
There is a lot of merit to the idea that to win in the playoffs you need to have a good bullpen. Even last year’s Cubs, who were so talented in every facet of the game, including a major league best starting pitching staff, still won a lot of their playoff games on the strength of their bullpen. Joe Maddon went to his relievers early and often. But it takes at least three or four good pitchers to piece together a solid bullpen and that’s if you have good starting pitching. The Royals, Indians, and Cubs bullpens may have been highlighted by one incredibly good pitcher, but all of those teams had extremely deep bullpens as a whole, which is what really allowed them to rely on bullpen arms so heavily.
Despite teams in recent years advancing deep into the playoffs off of the strength of their bullpens, it’s crazy to pay relievers the same type of money that’s given to players like Ian Desmond or Dexter Fowler. As good as Melancon, Chapman, and Jansen have been, using up so much payroll space to sign a player who might pitch 70 innings is absolutely outrageous. None of them will pitch enough for their value to equal that of an all-star level position player or starting pitcher. It seems as though teams are expecting to replicate what the Royals, Indians, and Cubs have done in the playoffs, but it’s unrealistic to manage the same way that Joe Maddon or Joe Terry Francona managed in last year’s Fall Classic. You just can’t afford to pitch your best reliever for two innings every other day in mid-July in the way that Chapman or Andrew Miller did in the playoffs. As good as the two of them were, even they began to run out of gas by Game 7. Imagine if they were used that heavily over the course of the entire season. They might give their teams a significant edge in the playoffs, but their impact on that team qualifying for the playoffs is far less.
It’s obvious why the Giants made signing a pitcher like Melancon their biggest offseason priority. Their bullpen blew 30 saves in 2016, most in MLB. Melancon has been one of the best closers in baseball over the past four years, with a minuscule 1.80 ERA over that span. San Francisco may also lose both Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla, two very good pitchers in their own right, to free agency, so they had some spots to fill. But how much better does Melancon alone make the Giants, and is it really worth $62 million?
The case of Chapman is especially curious. The Yankees have the potential to be extremely good in a couple of years, but they probably aren’t ready to contend just yet. The AL East loaded and the Yankees don’t appear to be much better than they were last year. A year ago, they were a pretty average team even when they had Miller, Chapman, and Dellin Betances in the bullpen. They haven’t upgraded their mediocre offense or starting pitching much either, and chances are they won’t make too many more major moves in the offseason. Chapman could opt out of his new contract after two years, so if he indeed leaves, the Yankees could have potentially paid him a ton of money without a single postseason appearance. And if he stays for five years, that contract has all the markings of becoming one that is greatly regretted. The history of relievers on long-term deals is not promising, and while there is very little precedent for a pitcher of Chapman’s caliber, there is even less precedent for a pitcher who throws as hard as he does with his kind of delivery. It’s hard to picture Chapman throwing 102 miles per hour for the next five years. It’s possible that he’ll be able to make the necessary adjustments when his velocity inevitably diminishes, but it’s perhaps more likely that his performance comes crashing down with it. A similar type of pitcher, Craig Kimbrel, while still very good, already appears to be trending downward at age 28.
On top of all of the baseball risks the Yankees are taking on, Chapman’s off-field character is what truly puts the decision under the most scrutiny. To hand out a contract of such significant length and dollars to Chapman, who served a suspension for domestic violence last year, sets a bad precedent and a bad example. Furthermore, Chapman never seemed to show any remorse over the incident and has skated around questions that have been asked to him regarding it. From the outside, it is pretty difficult to see anything that justifies the Yankees giving Chapman the contract that they did.
Kenley Jansen got a deal of similar value and length from the Dodgers, who have now solidified the back end of their bullpen with a player who has been very valuable for them in recent years. The Dodgers are not a team that typically cares about taking risks on huge contracts, but paying a relief pitcher $16 million a year could have an impact down the road for Los Angeles, who would probably want to stay under MLB’s new luxury tax threshold. However, he is younger than Melancon, and it just feels like he’ll hold up better than Chapman over the long term, since he is less reliant on pure velocity than he is on the great movement and deceptiveness of his cutter. Also, the Dodgers are in position to contend for a World Series title this year, so it makes a lot more sense to give big money to an elite closer than it does for the Yankees or the Marlins, who were said to have interest in both Chapman and Jansen.
The other elite closer who moved during the winter meetings was Wade Davis, whom the Cubs acquired for Jorge Soler. It’s a significant price to pay for a reliever who only has one year left on his contract, but this makes sense for both teams. Soler didn’t have a defined role on a stacked Cubs team, and as reigning World Series champs, Davis solidifies the back end of the bullpen for a team that is the odds-on favorite to be the best team in baseball again. From the Royals perspective, they get a young player with a lot of potential for a pitcher who they probably wouldn’t have been able to re-sign anyway.
While this trade makes sense, it also continues a trend dating back to the last couple of years, in which teams are willing to give up high-level talent for bullpen arms. The Yankees got huge returns in exchange for Miller and Chapman at the 2016 trade deadline. It was easy to be critical of the Indians and Cubs at the time for giving up so much, but both teams knew that they had championship contending teams, and both moves worked out pretty well for them. One trade that hasn’t worked out so well is the Astros decision to trade five prospects for Ken Giles, who disappointed in his first season in Houston. That was a head-scratcher when it happened just over a year ago and it doesn’t make any more sense now.
Even if relief pitchers have become greatly overvalued, what are teams to do if they feel that their biggest need is improving their bullpen? After all, obtaining quality free agents requires meeting the market value. One strategy that could pay off is what the Marlins have done just this week. Miami reached agreements with Brad Ziegler and Junichi Tazawa, and could conceivably add a third quality reliever and end up paying about the same average annual value for three guys as they would have for Chapman. Several good pitchers are still on the market, including Boone Logan, Luke Hochevar, and Greg Holland, so the teams who have waited on adding relief pitching could be rewarded by paying much less than the teams who spent big on the top-of-the-market guys.
There’s no easy answer as to how front offices should navigate through the inflating cost of bullpen help, because a good bullpen is a very important aspect of wining in the playoffs. But if teams start to allocate large chunks of their payrolls towards single relief pitchers at the expense of more pressing roster needs, they may find themselves falling short of the postseason altogether.