clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The (potentially) cheap second-tier reliever market

Elite relievers have been going for enormous prices over the last several months. The pitchers just below them aren't much worse, however, and might be a heck of a lot cheaper.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

With the trade deadline rapidly approaching, another big move happened on Sunday or Monday, with the Cubs acquiring Aroldis Chapman from the Yankees in exchange for Gleyber Torres, Adam Warren, Billy McKinney, and Rashad Crawford. That's quite the haul for less than half a season of a reliever: a blue-chip shortstop prospect, ranked 27th on Baseball America's midseason rankings and 34th on Baseball Prospectus's; a swingman with two years of cheap team control, who was worth about 3.5 WAR from 2014–15; and two prospects with potential but enough distance from the majors that I'm comfortable lumping them together as lottery tickets. Chapman is very good, possibly the best reliever in MLB and certainly the best available at this trade deadline, but that is a steep, steep price.

That said, it's not a price that's out of line with what's been paid for other elite relievers, as Dave Cameron points out at FanGraphs. At the end of last season, the Padres sent the Red Sox three years of Craig Kimbrel and his $12mm annual salary in exchange for a very good prospect in Manuel Margot plus three other, less prestigious prospects. A few weeks later, the Phillies sent Ken Giles and his four years of cost-controlled pitching to the Astros, and got back Vince Velasquez, a top starting pitching prospect on the cusp of the majors. (Some other players changed hands too, but Velasquez and Mark Appel were the highlights in both directions.) The Cubs gave up a ton of value for Chapman, to be sure, but it seems that's just the current going price for this very top tier of reliever.

That's not to say it's worth it, though. As Dave noted in that piece, while it's true that relievers play an outsize role in the playoffs, and there's some evidence that we aren't giving them enough credit for their performance throughout the season, these are still players who throw about 60 innings a year, which makes them inherently unreliable and should depress their trade value. It's totally possible these kinds of prices are too high, even for these elite relievers, and they'll fall back down sometime soon.

We probably won't know for sure until after this year, as it seems possible that Chapman will be the last elite reliever moved this deadline. The Yankees seem inclined to hold on to Andrew Miller (though that could change rapidly if they get a good enough offer), and while David Robertson has the history and contract of an elite reliever (he's owed about $30mm through 2018), he hasn't performed like one to date in 2016, so even if he gets moved, I'm not sure how much information that will give about this top tier. That leaves Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis, one or both of whon will potentially be available if the Royals decide to sell off some pieces, as the only excellent bullpen arms that might get moved this year, and neither is a sure thing.

A question that will get answered this year, however, is whether this price spike has impacted the entire reliever market, or just the very top tier. For the most part, teams haven't shown an inclination to pay more for top talents; they seem to treat two four-WAR players roughly the same as one eight-WAR player. I don't think that holds for relievers, however. There's long been a cachet around the role of closer, with teams placing much more value on the players who get saves, even if they have similar skill levels to the players pitching the seventh or eighth. This is slightly different than that much-maligned trend — this is about skill, not timing, and there are much fewer of these elite players available than players with closing experience — but I think the same principle will hold.

If I'm right, there should be a big price gap between Chapman (and the asking price for Herrera or Davis) and the amount required to acquire, say, Alex Colome of the Rays, or Mark Melancon of the Pirates, or Will Smith of the Brewers. The specific names weren't picked for any reason and don't really matter; these players are just standing in for this large class of relievers who have been good recently but have some issue(s). Maybe they don't have much of a track record, or maybe that track record has some serious blemishes, or maybe they just aren't that well known. The thing is, they aren't projected to be much different from these top tier relievers, who we know have been fetching extremely high prices. Here's a table with the projected rest-of-season stats of Herrera and Davis, as well as Colome, Melancon, and Smith.

Kelvin Herrera 3.92 3.11 2.68
Wade Davis 3.26 3.24 2.47
Alex Colome 3.84 3.43 4.07
Mark Melancon 3.61 3.07 2.64
Will Smith 3.25 3.45 3.19

Just as the specific names don't matter that much, the specific numbers don't matter that much. The point is that relievers are a crapshoot, and paying more for someone with a great reputation doesn't mean you'll get anything extra in return. I already mentioned David Robertson; Craig Kimbrel, after singlehandedly reviving the Padres farm system, has been merely good this year, with a 2.83 FIP and 3.05 DRA. Much of that is probably the result of some bad home run luck, and he's likely better than that makes him look, but that's the whole point: Relievers throw so few innings that a bit of misfortune can take a huge chunk out of their value.

If I were a team looking to upgrade my bullpen at the trade deadline (AKA every contending team), and I either didn't have or didn't want to give up the prospects to needed to spring for a Herrera/Davis/Miller, I'd be looking very hard at the big group of guys below them. Obviously there are differences in projected performance, but they're slight, and I think the price differences won't be.

Of course, it's possible I'm wrong, and the price inflation evident at the top end of the reliever market will affect every part of it. But I don't think I am. There are at least a dozen relievers I'd expect to change hands before next Monday; if every one of them was bringing back something even resembling the Chapman package, something within the same magnitude at all, it would alter the entire minor league landscape. I simply don't think there's the buying power for that kind of inflation to be sustained all the way down to the Will Smiths of the world. If, as Dave suggests, this is a blip, and the market price at the top end is going to correct itself, this is how it would happen – teams looking at the higher prices and choosing not to pay them, and going toward substitutes instead.

Anyway, we won't have to wonder for much longer. Happy Trade Deadline, everyone – may your days be busy and your nights full of Chris Cotillo tweets.

. . .

Henry Druschel is a Contributing Editor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.