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In baseball, a million dollars is basically a rounding error. Teams are valued as highly as two billion dollars, and teams spend millions upon millions filling out the cobwebbed corners of their big league rosters. So while the term "million dollar arm" may have connotations of quality, of grandeur, of fame -- if we were to take that term literally, we'd find something very, very different.
We'd find Joe Thatcher.
Thatcher is currently a reliever with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
of California of USA of Earth, but he wasn't always a reliever with the Angels. He started the season as a reliever for the Diamondbacks, and was traded to the Angels in the Great Bullpen Rebuild of 2014 That Still Couldn't Get The Team Out Of The ALDS. He was acquired along with Tony Campana for -- drumroll, please -- Zach Borenstein and Joey Krehbiel.
I know. Amazing, "Million Dollar Arm" Joe Thatcher for a couple of minor-league nobodies. What a world?
Anyway, Thatcher's arm is left-handed, and that makes him kind of useful. Not incredibly useful, but kind of useful. See, Joe Thatcher is a LOOGY, in the truest sense of the term. His modus operandi is quite simple: he enters a game, pitches to between one and three hitters, most often left-handed ones, and then gets the heck out of Dodge. In 2014, he pitched a little more than 30 innings, despite appearing in 53 games. He gets a lot of appearances, but not the most outs.
Most teams would like to have a Joe Thatcher, but not rely on him. He's going into his age-33 season, got some miles on the arm, and basically suited to be a second lefty out of the 'pen. He's the lefty you use when your best lefty won't do, unless he's your best lefty ... in which case you try to acquire another lefty. And Thatcher's all set to hit free agency for the first time in his career.
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Now, if you go by FanGraphs' Wins Above Replacement metric, you'll find that Thatcher's particular skillset is worth somewhere between two and three runs (not wins) per season over the past three years in terms of performance. And that seems about right. He's not quite a replacement-level pitcher, but his fastball-slider combo doesn't strike out guys at an elite level. He doesn't walk many, but he doesn't strike out nearly as many as he used to in his early years (especially 2009 and 2010) with San Diego.
Those couple of runs, over about 30 or so innings, they're worth something. But how much? Today, estimates for how much a win above replacement costs -- via free agency -- come in at somewhere between $6 million and $8 million dollars. To buy a win on the open market is expensive. If you're worth what I project Thatcher to be worth next year -- something like a run or two above replacement -- then it's very possible that you're worth about a million bucks on the open market.
This is all back-of-the-napkin calculation. Some guys may have skills that appeal to a particular decision-maker in a front office, and they may project better or worse performance for a guy like Thatcher. But by my reckoning, Thatcher is probably worth about a million bucks over the course of a season. And I wouldn't be surprised if, in his foray into free agency, that's about what he makes. He could wind up with a minor-league deal somewhere ... and he made considerably more than that in arbitration this year (about $2.5 million), but he's probably looking at the downslope of his career, and lefty relievers don't have the shelf life of a Twinkie.
I guess that goes to show you that in today's baseball world of billion-dollar franchises and nine-figure contracts, a million dollars doesn't go a very long way. It maybe goes about 30 innings of perfectly-acceptable left-handed pitching. It maybe buys you another year on the fringe of a big-league bullpen, moving from pretender to contender at the deadline for not-so-top prospects.
A real million dollar arm? Bring in that lefty.
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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.
Bryan Grosnick is the Managing Editor of Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @bgrosnick.