Ryan Madson is worth the risk

Jeff Zelevansky

Ryan Madson hasn't thrown a pitch in a major league game since 2011, but what makes him a very intriguing low-risk, high-reward pickup?

The list of right-handed relief options has essentially boiled down to a list of question marks and complementary pieces, because I'd say Tier 1 has been completely cleared. The Mariners snagged the last "proven" closer on Thursday by signing Fernando Rodney to a two-year, $14 million pact. Grant Balfour signed with the Rays last week. Joaquin Benoit is off the table, Joe Nathan and Edward Mujica are both long gone, and so on.

So now, teams still on the search for right-handed relievers are left with some interesting, yet risky, options. Among those options are Andrew Bailey, Rafael Betancourt and Joel Hanrahan. You'll probably recognize that all three of those pitchers have dealt with some sort of injury over the past year, with some being more serious than others. You'll also notice that, yeah, all three have a fairly big risk factor -- not so much money-wise, but in the are you going to actually pitch for me? sense.

Speaking of risks, let's throw one more name into the fold, one that might just have the most appeal. That'd be Ryan Madson. He's who we're here to talk about.

We need to clear the air about one very important item. Madson, too, is a victim of the injury bug, having not thrown a pitch in the majors since 2011. That's kind of noteworthy. What's even more noteworthy is that the absence can be chalked up to a whole lot of elbow problems. Sprains, surgeries and the subsequent recovery periods. You name it.

But ... word is that he's progressing. ESPN's Jerry Crasnick recently reported that Madson plans to hold a public workout for teams today (February 7th!) in Phoenix. One team has already held a private bullpen with Madson, so naturally, that mystery team is the front-runner to land him, per Crasnick.

It's tough to take much away from Crasnick's report, other than the fact that Madson will throw off of a mound, and while we can easily pump that up to be something bigger than it really is, that'd be a useless exercise. Until Madson throws in front of the public, everything is pretty much speculation. He could be fine. He could be a shell of his former self. It's a mystery.

So ... where's the appeal? Well, when Madson has been healthy, he's been darn good.

Let's take a look at some big-time stats from 2008-2011, as well as their corresponding ranks among relief pitchers.

FIP- xFIP- ERA- fWAR
16th 17th 32nd 12th

Pretty darn good indeed. It gets even better when you put some names to the numbers.

Madson's immediate FIP- company: Matt Belisle, Sergio Santos, Joakim Soria and Neftali Feliz. The same jumble of names makes up Madson's xFIP- company, with a few minor differences.

Madson's fWAR company is a tad bit better, as the likes of Sean Marshall, Sergio Romo, Francisco Rodriguez and Grant Balfour all look up to Madson. Then there's ERA-, which doesn't like him as much, but it doesn't paint an entirely different picture.

But, really, the important theme is that Madson's in some good company. Based just off the numbers and comparisons above, he would seem to be a worthy gamble. There is a bit more, though.

Besides a questionable elbow, there is one topic worth discussing: Madson's weird velocity trends. They are pretty odd, and Tommy John surgery threw a wrench into an already messy situation.

We'll start with 2006, when Madson's average fastball was 90.7 mph. A quick note: you're reading the word "fastball," and that's what FanGraphs labels it as, but in reality, there's a good chance that he was throwing something beyond just the plain four-seamer, mixing in a sinker or cutter. A quick glance at his Brooks Baseball page will confirm that, even if their PITCHf/x data only spans back to 2007.

But here's where we can kind of start piecing together the puzzle. When Madson peaked in 2009, his average fastball velocity was 95 mph. Maybe the uptick can be chalked up to the fact that he was simply wielding more straight four-seamers instead of sinkers and cutters. Maybe it's because he was working out of the bullpen, unlike 2006, when he started 17 games. Obviously, above-average velocity is tough to maintain over five-plus innings, for most starters. Maybe he tweaked his mechanics. A lot can happen over four years.

We're probably looking too far into this. The "duh" of "duh" answers is theory No. 1 above (more four-seamers), combined with the fact that he transformed into a reliever, pitching in short segments instead of starter segments.

In 2007, Madson's velocity was still in the low 90's -- 91.7 mph, to be exact -- and in 2008 he was at 92.9 mph. Simultaneously, he still preferred the sinker and cutter to the traditional four-seamer in 2008. Without the fluff, it's as simple as finesse over power. Madson started to wield a traditional four-seamer in 2009, and his fastball velocity spiked big-time. Ever since, he's been throwing north of 92 mph. So, maybe he's had it in him all along.

As for the relevancy of all this, it prompts us to ask this important question:

What will a 2014 Ryan Madson look like velocity-wise and pitch selection-wise?

It's a tough question to answer. Tommy John surgery has a high success rate, and in some cases, pitchers often return throwing harder. And then, obviously, there are guys like Cory Luebke, who don't fall in the success pool and struggle to claw their way back. In Luebke's case, he'll have to go under the knife for a second time and miss all of 2014.

Heck, Madson himself technically hasn't bounced back from Tommy John surgery. Roughly a year ago, his elbow became sore after having surgery in 2011. Initially, it was basically deemed a part of the recovery process, but it was much more significant than just general soreness.

That should be your daily reminder that the surgery isn't foolproof, and even though Madson is throwing off the mound, I warn you not to jump to any conclusions just yet. Something could go wrong. Madson's elbow could, once again, take a turn for the worse. Everyone is vulnerable to elbow problems.

However, if Madson is healthy, and there aren't any lingering effects, his velocity shouldn't drop much. Some of this will depend on his pitch selection, as we've already touched on.

Sure, signing Madson would be a pretty substantial roll of dice if what you're looking for reliability. But that's the key -- I highly doubt that any team would sign Madson for reliability. More than anything, he'd be a low-risk, high-reward addition.

With that in mind, Madson's risk factor is small, because he's likely to land an incentives-loaded deal, and that type of deal hinges on healthy or not healthy. If he's not healthy, the cost would essentially be nothing. So be it. The Angels took that route last year, and they got a big pile of nothing. It wasn't a disaster.

On the other hand, if he's healthy, there's a decent chance that he'll also be effective. And if he's effective ... bargain alert.

However, Madson isn't for everyone. A contender in need of a projectable reliever probably isn't going to look to Madson initially. But, a team looking for some extra depth that boasts plenty of upside, well, Madson's their guy. Same goes for teams not on the playoff cusp, in that if Madson delivers, they could flip him for a package of prospects at the trade deadline.

So why not roll the dice on Ryan Madson? He's certainly worth the risk.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference and Brooks Baseball.

Jake Dal Porto is a writer at Beyond The Box Score and Golden Gate Sports. You can follow him on Twitter @TheJakeMan24.

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