This article was written before the White Sox traded for Jeff Samardzija.
A month ago, when discussing the players who had received qualifying offers, I suggested that David Robertson should accept the 1-year/$15.3 million deal. My reasoning was that he could rejoin the Yankees for a season, become the highest-paid reliever in baseball (on an annual rate), and then sort out free agency (and qualifying offers) again next offseason. The idea of a team forfeiting a draft to sign a reliever — even one as good as Robertson — to a multi-year contract seemed unlikely. Last night, David Robertson confirmed how wonderful it is to not have me as his agent, by agreeing on a 4-year, $~46 million contract to become the new Chicago White Sox closer.
Robertson, entering his age-30 season, has been an elite reliever for the Yankees. Since 2009, he ranks 4th in fWAR by a relief pitcher (8.9), placing him among some well-known names: Craig Kimbrel, Jonathan Papelbon, Greg Holland and Aroldis Chapman. However, WAR is not really the best measure of relief pitching, as it does not necessarily capture the responsibilities of relievers. Statistics like WPA or RE24 do better a job. Either way, Robertson ranks highly. Since 2009, his 11.16 WPA ranks 4th, and his 70.19 RE24 ranks 7th; he also has a 3.77 SD/MD ratio. He's consistently struck batters out at an above-average rate (32.0 career K%), and has had a little trouble with walking batters (10.2 career BB%), although that rate has been at a more acceptable level the last three seasons (7.8%). I could go on-and-on through Robertson's numbers, but it will all lead to the same conclusion: he is an excellent relief pitcher.
The White Sox had a definite need in their bullpen. In 2014, the collective group the Sox ran out to the mound was one of the five worst groups in the baseball. As a matter of fact, Robertson's Steamer projected WAR for 2015 is higher than what all of the White Sox ‘pen men accumulated in 2014. He dramatically changes this aspect of their team. Factor in the Zach Duke signing, and suddenly the White Sox bullpen should be considered at least a middle-of-the-pack group in 2015.
And they may not be done. There are reports of a trade for Jeff Samardzija, who would be a really nice boost for the Sox' rotation, and signals that they are going to really make a run at winning this coming season. You don't trade for 1 year of Samardzija, or sign Adam LaRoche for 2 years, as part of a rebuilding project. Adding more relief arms (among other things; corner OF, 2B are needs) through trades, free agency, or roster shuffling happens in order to completely round out this team. Hopefully for Sox fans, the money allocated to Robertson does not entirely prevent other acquisitions. With the White Sox making this effort, the American League Central could have four teams with a realistic shot at contending for a 2015 playoff spot (sorry Twins fans!).
Now, we cannot be all sunshine and rainbows about this contract. Four years is a long time for a 30-year old reliever. Giving more than $10 million per year to a reliever (and forfeiting a draft pick in the process) is also not advisable, but the game is absolutely flush with cash and the cost of a win in free agency may be more than people expected. Regardless, there is an ugly history of long, big money deals for relievers, and there is no reason to expect that Robertson is somehow not subject to the typical aging and injury factors that reduce pitcher effectiveness.
Assuming current costs of a win (~$7 million), Robertson needs to be worth six to seven wins total over the life of the deal for the White Sox to break even on their investment, which is asking a lot. He accumulated only five wins over his last three seasons at ages 27-29, which were great years, but he will only get older, and the production a reliever can provide his team is limited given how they are used in today's game. Moreover, a few paragraphs above, I outlined the fact that Robertson is an excellent reliever (dare we say: relief ace), which is certainly true now; however, it is unlikely that that label sticks with Robertson through the end of this contract. It is probably fair to expect two good years, an average year, and a below average year, in some combination, over the next four seasons, which will fall short of fulfilling the investment the White Sox made.
Overall, this looks like a good move for the White Sox, if it is part of a larger plan. In the short term, Robertson is a strong addition to their bullpen. The White Sox appear to be making a run at things in 2015-2016, so short-term gains are good. But, with this in mind, the Robertson signing must be one addition among many, or it becomes a silly overpay for the back end of a mediocre team. A couple of playoff appearances, and maybe even a championship, will certainly help heal any wounds of having an overpaid reliever on the roster three years from now. It will be very interesting to see what else Rick Hahn and the White Sox' front office do to continue to improve this team's outlook for the coming season.
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Chris Teeter is a featured writer and editor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @c_mcgeets.