Free Agent Stock Watch Rumors
Edward Mujica wasn't supposed to be the Cardinals' closer. He wasn't even their backup plan or third in line to the closer's throne. However, with Jason Motte down for the year due to Tommy John surgery and early falters from Mitchell Boggs and Trevor Rosenthal, the ninth inning is precisely where Mujica finds himself. And he's thriving there.
Mujica has been nothing short of brilliant while saving 11 games through a quarter of the season. He's allowed just three runs in 16 innings of work, good for a 1.69 ERA. On top of that, he's given up just eight hits and one walk, and he's punched out 15 hitters along the way. His 43.9 percent ground-ball rate is a tick above the league average for relievers (43.7 percent), as is his 92.1 mph average fastball velocity (league average is 92.0 for relievers).
It may not seem like it, but Mujica, who just turned 29, is already a veteran of four Major League teams (Indians, Padres, Marlins, Cards), and he'll be eligible for free agency following the 2013 season. At 29 years of age, the Octagon client is slated to be one of the youngest free agents on the market.
Assuming he continues pitching well, Mujica will have a strong 2013 season and age on his side, but he's got more than that working for him. The Venezuela native has quietly established himself as a very reliable bullpen arm since breaking out with the Padres in 2009. Over his past 320 2/3 innings, he's posted a 3.34 ERA, 7.7 K/9, 1.5 BB/9 and 44.9 percent ground-ball rate. If ERA isn't your cup of tea, that's ok, because FIP (3.67), xFIP (3.36) and SIERA (3.00) are all big fans of Mujica's work.
He's not only been effective, he's been durable -- appearing in at least 59 games and firing at least 65 1/3 innings each year from 2009-12. Mujica has been to the disabled list just once in his career, and it was for a broken pinkie toe last season. He barely missed more than the minumum 15 days.
Free agent relievers aren't getting paid quite like they were when Francisco Cordero and Francisco Rodriguez were landing contracts that paid them $12MM annually, but a succesful reliever with a history of closing out games can still do just fine on the open market. For proof, look no further than Brandon League and Jonathan Broxton. League signed a three-year, $22.5MM contract with the Dodgers last November, and Broxton signed with the Reds for $21MM for that same three-year period.
That type of payday is attainable -- perhaps even surpassable -- for Mujica if he can finish strongly. He's been more consistent than League and generates more strikeouts with better command, and he doesn't have Broxton's injury history. It's also important to consider the weakness of the closer market next offseason. Rafael Betancourt's $4.25MM option should be exercised. Mariano Rivera is retiring. Joel Hanrahan had Tommy John surgery yesterday. Fernando Rodney has struggled terribly early in the year. Ryan Madson hasn't thrown a pitch yet this season. Carlos Marmol is Carlos Marmol. Grant Balfour and Mujica could be the top "proven" closers on the market, and Mujica is nearly seven years younger.
The Tigers, Yankees, Red Sox and Cubs are among the deep-pocketed teams that could be in the market for a closer next offseason, depending on their current injury situations and faith in internal alteratives. Barring a complete collapse, the three-year, $16.5MM contract that Joaquin Benoit signed with the Tigers seems like the floor for Mujica.
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Fausto Carmona was a revelation in 2007 with the Indians, his first season as a starter in the Majors. He tied for tenth in the AL with 215 regular season innings, tacking on another 15 in the postseason. He finished second in all of baseball with a 64.3% groundball rate, allowing only 16 home runs on the season en route to a 3.06 ERA. The campaign earned Carmona a fourth-place Cy Young finish, and the Indians locked up the supposed 24-year-old to a four-year deal with three club options in April the following year.
A hip strain cut Carmona's 2008 season short, and in June of the following year a 7.42 ERA across a dozen starts earned him a demotion to the rookie-level Arizona Summer League - a drastic move. Carmona had replaced Cliff Lee to earn a rotation spot in '07, and when Lee was traded in July of '09, a spot opened for him again. He was a little better to close out the year, and furthered his comeback in 2010 with 210 1/3 innings of 3.77 ball and his first All-Star nod. Carmona even became the Indians' Opening Day starter in 2011. His ERA was higher in '11, but Carmona was pretty much the same pitcher he had been in '10. It was enough to get his $7MM club option picked up for 2012.
Then came surprising news in January 2012: Carmona's real name was Roberto Hernandez Heredia, and he was arrested in the Dominican Republic for using a false identity. He was found to be three years older than originally believed. Charges were dropped, and Hernandez's name, age, and contract were changed. He rejoined the Indians to make three starts in August before an ankle sprain ended his season. Though Hernandez's option price had been reduced from $9MM to $6MM, the Indians still chose to move on last October.
Enter the Rays, always open to a project, whether in terms of a performance issue, an off-the-field issue, or both. They signed Hernandez to a one-year, $3.25MM deal with another $1.25MM in incentives. The Rays were not able to obtain a club option, a wise choice by agent Charisse Espinosa-Dash of Draft Pix Sports. As explained by Bradley Woodrum of FanGraphs, Hernandez has tweaked his repertoire with the Rays. We're only six starts in, but Hernandez has whiffed more than a batter per inning, a rate to which he's never come close in the Majors. He's still getting groundballs, too. A 9.0 K/9 and 50% groundball rate is a rare combination, as a qualified starter hasn't managed the feat since Jon Lester and Francisco Liriano in 2010. This year, Yu Darvish, A.J. Burnett, Jeff Samardzija, C.J. Wilson, Edwin Jackson, and Hernandez have done it in the early going.
Hernandez's ERA sits at an unimpressive 4.66, because 23.1% of his flyballs have left the yard - the worst rate in baseball. That home run per flyball rate figures to come down significantly moving forward, and the ERA estimator SIERA suggests Hernandez should be well below 4.00 from here on out if he maintains his skills. If Hernandez can post a sub-4.00 ERA and pitch close to 200 innings with 175 strikeouts or so, he should be quite popular in a free agent market light on above-average, healthy starting pitchers. The false identity issue may suppress interest, as well as the question of whether Hernandez can maintain success away from the Rays (assuming he does pitch well for the remainder of the season). A multiyear deal should still be in order, with two years and $16MM a possible floor. We'll be following Hernandez closely to see if his volatile stock continues to rise.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
What was already shaping up to be one of the weakest free agent classes in history has gotten weaker since Opening Day. Injuries have ravaged the available crop of starters, in particular, including several of the names on Tim Dierkes' Free Agent Power Rankings. Let's take a look at those names as well as other free agents to be that are dealing with various maladies...
- Josh Johnson: That Johnson is hurt isn't much of a surprise to anyone. He's on the disabled list for the fifth time since 2007, and it could've been his sixth but he was never placed on the DL when he missed the final month of 2010. Triceps inflammation is the injury du jour in this instance, with Jon Paul Morosi of FOX Sports noting (via Twitter) that Johnson could be sidelined until late May. MLBTR readers voted Johnson the best arm on the free agent market just 21 days ago, but I have a feeling there would be a different outcome this time around.
- Roy Halladay: Doc looked to have turned things around following a run of three vintage starts, but he imploded over his past two outings and hit the disabled list this morning. Halladay conceded that he's been battling shoulder soreness since April 24. A 36-year-old with diminished velocity who happens to be fresh off a shoulder injury and the worst ERA of his career isn't exactly an appealing commodity, even if he does have a pair of Cy Youngs under his belt. Perhaps if he returns and looks good, he could sign a contract similar to Dan Haren's with the Nationals.
- Matt Garza: MLB.com's Carrie Muskat tweets that Garza had good results in a rehab outing today. Garza told Jim Bowden of ESPN and MLB Network Radio that he felt good after throwing 55 pitches (Twitter link). The Cubs want to get him up to 100 pitches before bringing him back, at which point he'll likely have four months to prove his health and effectiveness. Garza could still end up as one of the top arms available, given the injuries to his peers and his average of 198 innings per season from 2008-11.
- Gavin Floyd: The White Sox announced today that Floyd will undergo season-ending Tommy John surgery. The best-case scenario for Floyd on the free agent market would probably be Mike Pelfrey's contract with the Twins. Pelfrey had Tommy John on May 1, 2012 and signed a one-year, $4MM contract with the Twins this offseason. Pelfrey had an abnormally quick recovery from the surgery though, and Floyd may not be so fortunate.
- Scott Baker: The Twins elected to sign Pelfrey and let Baker walk even though Baker's Tommy John surgery came one month earlier. Letting Baker walk looks like a good choice so far, as he's has yet to throw for the Cubs and doesn't have a timetable for his return to the mound following a setback in his recovery. At this point, he's looking at another one-year deal.
- Chris Capuano: Being demoted to the bullpen to open the season didn't help Capuano's free agent stock, but it certainly wasn't as bad as the outcome when the lefty did find himself in the Dodgers' rotation. Capuano lasted just two innings due to a left calf strain. He was activated from the disabled list for tonight's game.
- Jeff Karstens: Karstens re-upped with the Pirates after a surprising non-tender and an even more surprising lack of interest on the free agent market. Perhaps his medical reports scared teams away, as Karstens has yet to throw a pitch. He's rehabbing in extended Spring Training and could make his debut this month.
- Colby Lewis: Lewis has yet to throw a pitch this season as he works his way back from elbow surgery last July. He should begin a rehab assignment this month and could be back prior to June. If Lewis comes back healthy and pitches well for the remainder of the season, I can envision a two-year deal, given his durabilty from 2008-11.
- Shaun Marcum: As is the case with Johnson, it's far from shocking that Marcum has already been on the disabled list as of May 6. Marcum opened the year on the DL and seems a long-shot to remain healthy for the remainder of the season. A two-year deal is probably his ceiling on the free agent market given his injury history, and another one-year deal strikes me as a far more likely outcome.
- Johan Santana: Santana's season ended before it began, and it's safe to wonder whether he'll attempt a comeback. He said in March that he was leaning that way.
Josh Johnson, Matt Garza, Tim Lincecum, and Roy Halladay were part of our most recent Free Agent Power Rankings, but here's a look at starting pitchers who had good Aprils but didn't make the cut for that list.
- Ervin Santana. Santana, 30, is showing the best control of his career with the Royals so far. He probably won't continue to strand 90% of his baserunners, but perhaps this will be his best season since his All-Star '08 campaign.
- Hiroki Kuroda. The 38-year-old elected to take a one-year, $15MM deal with the Yankees in lieu of multiyear offers. After five starts, he's replicated last year's success but with a lower batting average on balls in play and home run per flyball rate. We don't know what Kuroda's next move will be, but he's shown a willingness to leave some money on the table for the right situation.
- A.J. Burnett. Burnett's Pirates success has continued, as he leads the NL in strikeout rate. However, walks are up and groundballs down a bit. The 36-year-old could retire after the season, but otherwise prefers staying in Pittsburgh.
- Jorge De La Rosa. After having Tommy John surgery in June 2011 and making only three big league starts last year, De La Rosa exercised his $11MM player option. His pre-surgery strikeout rate has yet to return, but he has managed a 2.86 ERA.
- Paul Maholm. With one ugly outing against the Tigers last time out, Maholm's ERA jumped from 1.03 to 3.30. If strikeouts remain up he could still have his best season, as he's shown the ability to get groundballs and limit walks at various points.
- Bartolo Colon. Colon has walked one batter in 32 innings this year, the best rate in the American League. The 39-year-old earned a 50-game suspension for testosterone last summer.
- Jason Hammel. Hammel's sub-4.00 ERA is nice, but last year's big strikeout and groundball rates have vanished. If he maintains his current peripherals, Hammel projects as a 5.00 ERA guy, so something needs to change.
- Ricky Nolasco. It's a similar story for Nolasco, who at least for once has an ERA better than his peripherals would suggest.
- Andy Pettitte. The 40-year-old stumbled yesterday against the Astros, but he's doing a lot of things right and it should be another strong season if he stays healthy. There's an assumption that Pettitte will either return to the Yankees or retire again.
- Roberto Hernandez. His 5.28 ERA isn't much to look at, but Hernandez's 3.41 SIERA is a better measure of his skills so far. I don't think 24% of his flyballs will continue to leave the yard, and he's flashing a nice strikeout rate, so Hernandez is one to watch.
- Phil Hughes. Hughes' ERA still sits at 4.67, but he's made three consecutive quality starts and has the seventh-best K/BB ratio in the American League. Home runs will remain a problem. At just 27 in June, Hughes will be one of the younger free agents out there.
Our 2014 Free Agent Power Rankings only go to ten, so many quality players miss the cut. Here are some position players in contract years who are on the rise as the season's first month draws to a close:
- John Buck, C. The Mets' backstop has eight home runs on the season, but a .279 OBP as well. If his power has returned, perhaps he can ultimately compile a line similar to his .281/.314/.489 performance in 2010, which led to the three-year, $18MM contract with the Marlins.
- A.J. Pierzynski, C. Pierzynski is slugging .474 on the young season, a potential hint that last year's power surge wasn't a fluke. Or at least that he's taking better advantage of his home parks.
- Mike Napoli, 1B. Now a full-time first baseman, Napoli's 108 plate appearances are more than a quarter of what he averaged the past two seasons. If avoiding catching allows Napoli to reach 600 plate appearances (and 100 RBI) for the first time, perhaps he can reinvent himself as an everyday player, silence concerns about his hip, and snag his first multiyear deal.
- Mark Reynolds, 1B. Will Reynolds return to 35 home run heights this year with the Indians? The former strikeout king has quietly pushed his K rate down under 25%, which would be a career first if it holds up.
- Omar Infante, 2B. Infante's bat has come alive for perhaps the first time since he joined the Tigers.
- Michael Young, 3B. Young has never walked in 8% of his plate appearances in a season, but so far this year he's at 10.2%. Another season above .300 wouldn't hurt, either.
- Nate McLouth, LF. 100+ runs seem possible for the Orioles' leadoff hitter, especially if his career-best 15.7% walk and 9% strikeout rates hold up to some degree. McLouth currently leads the American League with a .455 OBP.
- Nelson Cruz, RF. If Cruz reaches 30 home runs for the first time since 2009, he'll be popular in a free agent class light on proven sluggers.
- Travis Hafner, DH. A month into the season, Pronk has a line reminiscent of his 2004-06 heyday with the Tribe. As always, it will be a question of health.
Braves lefty Paul Maholm is off to an amazing start this season. He's begun the season with 20 1/3 scoreless innings, striking out 20 and walking five. The 30-year-old has nice timing -- he's eligible for free agency after the season.
Maholm was a free agent once before, when the Pirates chose a $750K buyout over his $9.75MM club option after the 2011 season. He was good that year, but his season ended in August due to a shoulder strain. Not only did the Cubs get him on a one-year deal, but they were also able to tack on a club option. That improved Maholm's trade value, and the Braves gave up a notable arm in Arodys Vizcaino to acquire him last July. Maholm finished strong with Atlanta, improving his strikeout rate over his final 11 starts. His $6.5MM club option was an easy decision to exercise last October.
Assuming the Braves do not extend Maholm during the season, they'll be faced with the question of whether to make a qualifying offer. The qualifying offer process had its first run last offseason, and the Braves were one of seven teams to make one (to Michael Bourn). That worked out well, and I think there's a good chance they'll make one to Maholm - even if the qualifying offer comes in near my projection of $14MM. Maholm does not generally feel worthy of a one-year offer in the $14MM range, though Hiroki Kuroda did better than that last winter. And while I don't know that Maholm's nice start in 2013 should change our perception of him, if he pitches at a 3.90 ERA from this point forward, his season ERA should come in below 3.50. Plus, if some of the increased strikeout rate sticks, Maholm can shake the stigma of being a pitch-to-contact guy.
So if Maholm enters free agency at age 31, coming off a sub-3.50 ERA campaign, he'll be expecting a multiyear deal this time. That means he should turn down the qualifying offer. Kyle Lohse is the cautionary tale: he was coming off 399 1/3 innings of 3.11 ball over two seasons, and faced a slow market due in part to being attached to a draft pick. But as many have pointed out, Lohse also entered the market with the standard Boras-inflated price tag, and teams shied away for that reason too. Maholm and agent Bo McKinnis might consider Lohse's three-year, $33MM contract to be close to fair value.
Lohse's contract was the fourth-largest signed by a pitcher last offseason, and the biggest for one who received a qualifying offer. Maholm will enter free agency as a 31-year-old, while Lohse was 34. A fourth guaranteed year could prove elusive for Maholm if he turns down a qualifying offer. Edwin Jackson and Anibal Sanchez were able to get it, but both pitchers were under 30 and did not require forfeiture of a draft pick. Perhaps Maholm could at least top Lohse's $11MM average annual value.
The "best free agent starter" label goes a long way, however. Just ask C.J. Wilson, a good, 31-year-old pitcher who received a five-year, $77.5MM deal after the 2011 season, with draft pick compensation attached. There is a lot of baseball left to be played -- most of it, actually -- but if Maholm keeps rolling while Josh Johnson, Roy Halladay, and Tim Lincecum remain inconsistent, the Braves lefty is a dark horse candidate for the title of best free agent starter.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
The last few seasons have been a rollercoaster for 30-year-old Nate McLouth, a former All-Star with the Pirates who finished the season as the regular left fielder for the Orioles. In between he was traded to the Braves, had his option declined, re-signed by the Pirates, released by Pittsburgh, and signed by Baltimore.
McLouth earned himself a three-year deal worth $15.75MM back in 2009 after hitting .276/.356/.497 with 26 homers, 23 steals, and a league-leading 46 doubles back in 2008. He was traded to Atlanta shortly thereafter, where he put together just a .229/.335/.364 batting line in over 1,000 plate appearances across three years. After a second tour of duty as a bench player with the Pirates failed, McLouth hooked on with the Orioles and had the best stretch of his career since breaking out in 2008.
Called up in early-August after hitting .244/.325/.461 in 209 plate appearances for the team's Triple-A affiliate, McLouth quickly assumed Baltimore's left field job full-time and even batted third for a few weeks. When Nick Markakis went down with a season-ending thumb injury, the 2008 All-Star assumed the leadoff spot. McLouth finished the season with a .268/.342/.435 batting line in 236 plate appearances for the Orioles, and he went 7-for-22 (.318) with a homer and two steals against the Yankees in the ALDS.
McLouth is now set to head back onto the open market, this time on much more favorable terms after the Braves declined his club option last winter. He's a .248/.335/.421 hitter in nearly 3,000 career plate appearances, and he's shown both speed and decent pop from the left side. As a left-handed hitter, most of his damage comes against righties (.257/.346/.447) and not lefties (.223/.303/.346). Although he's is a strong defender by reputation, the various advanced metrics actually rate him as below-average.
Two strong months and one great playoff series with the Orioles won't be enough to make teams forget McLouth's performance with Pirates earlier this year as well with the Braves. He fits best as a platoon corner outfielder who can fill in at center on occasion, and the good news is that he's on the "heavy" side of the platoon as a lefty. I think McLouth's best free agent comparable may be Casey Kotchman, another guy who bounced around and struggled for years before having the proverbial "one good year" with the Rays a season ago. He turned that year into a one-year, $3MM contract with the Indians last offseason.
Earlier today we learned that McLouth would like to return to the Orioles, but the club already boasts impressive outfield depth with Markakis, Adam Jones, Nolan Reimold, and even Chris Davis. There simply may not be a spot for him in Baltimore next season. McLouth played well enough down the stretch that he will likely be able to find a guaranteed contract (rather than a minor league deal) on the open market, but that contract may only be for one year and a few million bucks. He'll have to repeat this year's his success again in 2013 before richer opportunities come along.
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When the Nationals signed Edwin Jackson to a one-year, $11MM contract a few days before the start of Spring Training, it was widely considered to be one of the best free agent deals of the offseason. They had just added a workhorse starter with a 3.96 ERA from 2009-2011 to a staff that already included Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and Jordan Zimmermann. The pitching rich got richer.
Jackson, 29, is now scheduled to hit the free agent market for the second time in as many years. He dumped Scott Boras in favor of the Legacy Agency in July, perhaps an indication that he was unhappy with only getting a one-year contract. Jackson passed on a lucrative three-year offer from the Pirates to join a club that many believed was poised to break through and become a contender, a belief that proved to be true. But still, he didn't get a long-term deal.
This season has been similar to the last three for Jackson. He's pitched to a 4.13 ERA in 30 starts and 183 innings while keeping his walk rate down (2.8 BB/9), his ground ball rate up (47.2%), and enjoying a boost to his strikeout rate (8.0 K/9) after a full year in the NL. Jackson is limping to the finish though, as his ERA has jumped exactly half-a-run this month. He allowed nine runs (eight earned) in 1 1/3 innings last night, and has allowed at least four runs in four of his five September starts. His fastball velocity, which averaged 94-95 mph from 2007-2011, is suddenly more 92-94 these days.
One bad month usually isn't enough to sabotage a player's free agent stock, and Jackson will have the postseason to prove that September is just a poorly-timed slump. The free agent pitching market will be headlined by Zack Greinke, but Jackson leads a group of second-tier arms that will include Ryan Dempster, Hiroki Kuroda, Kyle Lohse, Shaun Marcum, and Anibal Sanchez. More than 3,500 MLBTR readers say the Nationals should make Jackson a qualifying offer (in the $13MM range) after the season, a move that frankly feels like a no-brainer. It'll entitle them to draft pick compensation if he signs elsewhere, and in the worst case they get him back for another year.
Jackson is almost certainly going to seek the multi-year contract he was unable to land last offseason, and he should have no trouble finding suitors. Big market teams like the Red Sox, Tigers, Dodgers, and Yankees could turn to him to supplement their rotations while smaller payroll clubs like the Pirates, Royals, Blue Jays, Indians, and Orioles figure to show interest as well. Pitching is always in high demand, especially when you're talking about a just turned 29-year-old who is right smack in the prime of his career.
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Russell Martin has improved his value with a strong offensive second half, but the prospective free agent might have already turned down the largest contract offer he'll see this year. Martin, who homered again last night, is hitting well with weeks to go before his second career appearance on the free agent market.
The Yankees made Martin a three-year extension offer in the $20MM range this spring, around the time Miguel Montero (five years, $60MM) and Yadier Molina (five years, $75MM) signed multiyear deals. Martin declined, deciding to let the market for catchers establish itself. His numbers have since dropped off compared to his first season in pinstripes. Going into this afternoon's game in Minnesota, the 29-year-old has 19 home runs with a .206/.309/.389 batting line in 458 plate appearances.
Martin's batting average declined for the fifth consecutive season in 2012, and it’s be unreasonable to count on major improvements from a player whose batting average on balls in play has been below .300 every month of his two-year tenure with the Yankees. Yet he continues to draw walks and hit for some power. Plus, his second half numbers -- a .236/.318/.435 slash line with 11 home runs -- provide some reason for optimism.
The right-handed hitter has a career line of .272/.386/.448 against left-handed pitching and while he’s not a part-time player at this stage in his career, Martin could be paired with a left-handed hitting backup to great effect. John Jaso or Jason Castro also figure to get regular playing time in 2013, but this kind of player -- someone who hits right-handers much better than left-handers -- would complement Martin’s offensive skills.
Still, offensive numbers only reveal so much about a catcher’s value. Martin been durable, catching 120-plus games for the second consecutive season. He has prevented 24% of stolen base attempts so far in 2012, which is approximately league average. According to a pre-season scouting report in The Fielding Bible: Volume III, Martin has re-established himself as an above average defensive catcher. All told, advanced metrics suggest Martin continues adding value (1.3 wins above replacement, according to Baseball-Reference and 2.0 wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs), though no longer at the All-Star level he played at in the early part of his career.
In the view of some prominent baseball executives Martin made a mistake when he turned down the Yankees’ extension offer. Three general managers recently suggested to Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com that Martin will have to settle for a one-year contract this coming offseason. A deal in the $7.5MM range seems appropriate, though a multiyear agreement remains possible, the GMs said.
The last time Martin hit free agency he signed a one-year, $4MM contract with the Yankees. He had just missed a considerable portion of the 2010 season with a hip injury and been non-tendered by the Dodgers. Coming off of a healthy season, the Matt Colleran client figures to obtain a larger guarantee this time, even if he decides to accept a one-year, 'pillow' contract. He could also get multiyear offers given his youth and second half numbers. However, it seems unlikely Martin will see another $20MM offer following a below average offensive season.
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Established closers such as Jose Valverde, Brandon League and Jonathan Broxton will draw interest when they hit free agency this offseason. But those relievers aren't pitching as well as Jason Grilli, the Pirates right-hander who is enjoying a career year in Pittsburgh as he approaches his 36th birthday. Grilli’s breakout season figures to pay off a few months from now when he signs his next contract.
Grilli has put together a dominant season in Pittsburgh largely because of his ability to generate strikeouts. He’s fourth among MLB pitchers with 13.8 strikeouts per nine innings (minimum 50 innings pitched) for a total of 84 strikeouts in 54 2/3 innings. He’s also fourth on the Pirates in strikeouts, ahead of Kevin Correia and Jeff Karstens, who both spent most of the year in Pittsburgh’s rotation.
Grilli’s fastball averages 93.7mph, a career high. Opponents swing and miss at 14.3% of his offerings, also a career high. While he’s not quite in Craig Kimbrel/Aroldis Chapman territory when it comes to generating swinging strikes, he's ahead of swing and miss relievers such as Jonny Venters and Fernando Rodney.
Both left-handers and right-handers have struggled against Grilli, the Giants’ first round pick in 1997. He strikes out 43.1% of the left-handed hitters he faces, fourth among all relievers and tops among those headed for free agency. Right-handers have slightly more success; they strike out 31.6% of the time.
Overall, Grilli’s numbers are phenomenal: a 2.96 ERA with 13.8 K/9, 3.3 BB/9 and a 31.9% ground ball rate in 54 2/3 innings. Though 2012 has been Grilli's best season, he has had success at the MLB level before. He pitched effectively for Pittsburgh last year and his strikeout rate has risen in each of the last six seasons (excluding 2010, when Grilli didn't pitch).
He settled for a minor league deal leading up to the 2011 season, after missing all of 2010 with a leg injury. This offseason, he’ll be one of the top free agent relievers available. He’ll be guaranteed millions and a big league roster spot. It’s a question of how much money and how many years.
His agent, former MLB star Gary Sheffield, should push for a multiyear contract despite his client’s age (in case you’re wondering, the slugger turned agent was hitless in two career at bats against Grilli). Sheffield will note recent multiyear contracts signed by non-closing relievers such as Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier and Grant Balfour. Parallels also exist between Grilli and Joaquin Benoit, who missed the entire 2009 season then pitched his way to a three-year, $16.5MM contract with a dominant age-32 season.
It must be noted that the market for relief pitchers seems increasingly hostile. Multiyear contracts for free agent relievers dropped from 17 in 2010-11 to six last offseason. General managers will surely ask themselves if Grilli, who will be 36 by Opening Day 2013, can replicate his 2012 numbers.
In my view the floor for Grilli is a one-year deal with a base salary in the $3-5MM range. For someone whose career prospects seemed to be fading two years ago that’d be a notable contract, but there’s a good chance he can do even better. I expect a two-year deal in the $10MM range for Grilli, who won’t be tied to draft pick compensation thanks to the sport’s new collective bargaining agreement. He’s pitching at an elite level and that’ll be reflected in his next contract.
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