Last week, prompted by my own opinion that the Yankees could stand to add a set-up relief arm to their bullpen for next season and Brian Cashman's statement that finding a left-handed reliever would be among his priorities this offseason, I took a look at this fall's crop of free agent lefties. My conclusion was that Scott Downs is obviously the most desirable pitcher, but that his Type-A status (which, if the Blue Jays offer Downs arbitration, would cost the team that signs him their top draft pick), could remove him from consideration as a top pick is too high a price to pay for a short-term return from an aging reliever (Downs will be 35 on St. Patrick's Day). If not Downs, the Yankees' top targets should be Jeremy Affeldt or Hisanori Takahashi, both of whom are viable against righties as well as lefties and thus can be used for an inning or more rather than as match-up relievers limited to fractions of an inning at a time. The upshot being that, I'd rather have Affeldt or Takahashi and the draft pick than Downs.
However, I don't think the Yankees should limit their search to lefties. I've always believed, as Steve has written many times in this space, that it's less important what hand a pitcher, even a reliever, throws with, than whether or not he's any good to begin with. I'd rather have a very good righty face the tough lefty batters in the league than a mediocre (or worse) lefty. Downs is very good, but might come at too high a cost. Affeldt and Takahashi are better than mediocre, but there are plenty of righties available I'd rather have than either one of them. Here, then, is my overdue look at the right-handed relievers (not counting Mariano Rivera) on the market this winter.
First, here are the other Type-A free agents, who could be pulled from consideration by an arbitration offer from their former teams. Six of the 25 fall into that cateory: Rafael Soriano, Frank Francisco, Grant Balfour, Jason Frasor, Dan Wheeler, Matt Guerrier. The good news here is that three of those men (Soriano, Balfour, and Wheeler) are former Tampa Bay Rays, and I can't imagine the Rays would offer arbitration to all of them. Also, Frasor is, like Downs, a former Blue Jay, and there's similar doubt that the Jays would offer arbitration to both of them.
Guerrier doesn't interest me. He's been a key cog in the Twins bullpen for the last six years, but when I look at his record, all I see are red flags. He has been worked hard the last four years, twice leading the league in appearances, averaging 75.5 games per year and 78 innings. His strikeout rate is falling, his home run rates are typically above average, and the last two years his opponent's batting averages on balls in play have been minuscule. An excess of infield pop ups played a role in that this year, which suggests something more than luck at work, but the impression I get is that the Twins have an opportunity here to cut bait at exactly the right time.
As for Frank Francisco, he goes on the list of pitchers likely looking for a place to close. However, there are only 30 closer jobs in the majors, only a fraction of which are vacant heading into 2011. Looking around the league, I can see just four teams likely to be in the market for a closer this winter (not counting the Yankees, who are all but guaranteed to bring back Mariano Rivera). Those four teams are the Rays, Blue Jays, Orioles, and Diamonbacks, and the Rays are rumored to be interested in re-signing non-closer Joaquin Benoit (also a free agent) to replace Soriano. Meanwhile, there are at least six free agent relievers with closer experience who are likely hoping to land one of those vacant closer jobs. That list starts with Soriano, Brian Fuentes, Francisco, Kevin Gregg, Kerry Wood, and Jon Rauch.
If the Rangers move Neftali Feliz into their rotation, as I believe they should but doubt they will, you can add them. If the White Sox non-tender Bobby Jenks, as I expect they will, you can add them (though that also adds a closer to the free agent pool, the White Sox have plenty of in-house arms who could fill the job, and it also seems likely the will simply re-sign Jenks at a lower salary). The Angels have Fernando Rodney, but might prefer to keep him in the eighth inning, so perhaps you could add them. I don't think the Pirates will bother bringing in an established closer, and will likely go with Evan Meek or Joel Hanrahan in the role. The Nationals will likely stick with Drew Storen. The Braves will replace the retiring Billy Wagner in-house, likely with Craig Kimbrel, and everyone else has an "established closer." If the Red Sox cut ties with Jon Papelbon, which I really don't think they will, it will only be to give Daniel Bard the job, which actually tips the balance further in favor of the buyers by adding a closer to the market without opening up a job. The same is true if the Rays try to fill their vacant spot by re-signing Benoit.
I've already come out against the Yankees re-signing Wood (that, in fact, is the primary motivation for these two posts on free agent relievers). Rauch seems to me a bad fit given his fly-ball tendencies, though I may be misguided there, as he, unlike Guerrier, has shown a consistent ability to induce infield pop-ups, which inflate his fly-ball rate while actually having an impact more like that of strikeouts (easy out, freeze the runners). In reality, Rauch is probably a superior option to Affeldt or Takahashi, though I'm not sure what the Yankees team policy is regarding neck tattoos.
I'd also rather have Rauch than former Marlins, Cubs, and Blue Jays closer Kevin Gregg, due to Rauch's lower walk rate. Using their stats from the last four years, Gregg strikes more men out (8.8 per nine innings to Rauch's 7.3), but also walks almost twice as many (4.4 to Rauch's 2.3). The result is a considerable advantage in K/BB rate for Rauch (3.14 to 2.00). Gregg has the associated increase in wild pitches and hit batsmen that go along with that infalted walk rate, while Rauch has slight advantages in ERA and WHIP despite being far less hit-lucky that Gregg. Simply put, Rauch is the better pitcher.
If Rauch is a tick better than Gregg, Francisco is that much better than Rauch, thanks largely to his dominant strikout rate of 10.9 K/9 over the past three years, combined with solid control (3.2 BB/9 = 3.39 K/BB). Francisco has also had a reverse split over the course of his career, holding lefties to a .214/.318/.315 line, which has dropped to .212/.296/.311 over the three seasons. It's startling that there was so little mention during this year's playoffs of the impact of Francisco's season-ending oblique injury on the Rangers' bullpen (something I was largely guilty of myself, though I did eventually make mention of it during the World Series). I expect Francisco, who, at 31, is among the youngest relievers on the market, will be among the select few who actually are signed to close, along with Soriano and Fuentes who I won't even bother discussing here, but he's less of a sure thing for a closing job. If the Rangers don't offer him arbitration, he would be an excellent choice for the vacancy in the Yankee pen.
Knocking off the other Type-A guys. Grant Balfour has a shorter track record than the pitchers already discussed. He established himself in the Rays pen in 2008 with a season aided by a .219 BABIP (which translated into a 4.3 H/9). In 2009 he was below average. That leaves only 2010 to recommend him, and while it was a good season, one relief season at age 32 doesn't seem worth the gamble. His Rays pen-mate Dan Wheeler has a much longer track record, but has allowed 1.4 home runs per nine innings over the last four seasons despite pitching his home games for the last three and a half in a ballpark that suppresses homers. Jason Frasor, meanwhile, doesn't inspire much confidence. Consider his walk rates from the last three seasons (in BB/9): 6.1, 2.5, 3.8. That last matches his career rate, but his overall lack of consistency doesn't make him a compelling target. I'd take Rauch or Gregg, who are not Type-A, over any of those three.
That brings us to the middle of the pack, pitchers who are neither Type-A free agents nor likely closers. There are some compelling considerations here. Start with Benoit, the long time Texas Ranger who was almost untouchable for the Rays this year (1.34 ERA, 11.2 K/9, 1.6 BB/9, 6.82 K/BB). Benoit did that after missing all of 2009 due to rotator cuff surgery, and if you chalk up his weak 2008 as the season in which his shoulder disintegrated, you can look back at his 2007 season and see more strong relief work (2.85 ERA, 9.5 K/9, 3.11 K/BB in 82 innings). That's a bit of a reach however, and Benoit's .192 BABIP from 2010 is a giant red flag.
Koji Uehara is something of a right-handed Takahashi, a veteran Japanese starter who excelled in relief last year, finishing the year as the Orioles' closer. In fact, Uehara posted peripherals comparable to Benoit's (11.3 K/9, 1.0 BB/9, 11.00 K/BB), but had an ERA a run and a half higher due to a normal BABIP. Unfortunately, Uehara has trouble staying healthy. His elbow problems are worrisome, but his hamstrings seem almost completely incapable of holding up for a full season, which is less worrisome than just flat annoying and make him a bad gamble despite his dominance when healthy.
Sticking with the veterans, J.J. Putz had a strong comeback season for the White Sox last year (10.8 K/9, 4.33 K/BB and a career-low 14 percent line-drive rate) and was good to great for three seasons as the Mariners closer from 2006 to 2008. He'll be 34 in February, but he played for just $3 million last year and could be worth a look if he's willing to take another one-year deal for a modest increase in salary.
Next up is former Yankee Jose Contreras, whom the Phillies used exclusively in relief this year with great results. Still, he'll be 39 next month, posted a career-high line drive rate in 2010 (22 percent), and seems like a very unlikely candidate to return to New York given how frustrated the Yankees were with him in his initial stint with the team. Similarly, you can rule out Octavio Dotel, Kyle Farnsworth, and Chan Ho Park, ex-Yankees who are back on the market this winter.
This is where the available talent begins to fall off. Jesse Crain and Chad Durbin are solid middle-inning options, but not late-game, high-leverage material. Chad Qualls and Aaron Heilman have the stink of the 2010 Diamondbacks bullpen on them. Qualls, who entered 2010 as one of the most underrated relief pitchers in baseball, was supposed to thrive after escaping to the Rays, reestablishing his value, but though things did improve (his BABIP dropped nearly 100 points, albeit to a still-high .328), the end result was still poor. All signs still point to his 2010 season being a fluke, which makes him worth a gamble lower down in the bullpen hierarchy, but his failures in Tampa have likely killed his marketability as a big late-game arm. As for Heilman, his decreasing strikeout rate and high home run and line-drive rates make it easy to say no.
That's about where the list peters out. Trevor Hoffman should retire once he fails be offered a closing job. Scot Shields looks done as well. David Riske can't stay healthy and wasn't that good when he could, and the only other names worth mentioning are Guillermo Mota, who did just win a ring with the Giants, but is otherwise a middling 37-year-old has been, and Takashi Saito, who was excellent for the Braves this year (11.5 K/9, 4.06 K/BB), but will be 41 in February and missed the Division Series due to shoulder tendonitis.
Here, then, is my ranked list of the relievers I think the Yankees' should pursue to round out their bullpen:
*Type-A free agents to sign only if former teams don't offer arbitration
There are four righties there that the Yankees should favor over the lefties Affeldt and Takahashi, and I'd take any of those seven men as well as perhaps Koji Uehara, Grant Balfour, barring an arbitration offer from the Rays, and perhaps even Joaquin Benoit (BABIP aside, his peripherals were sick this year) before I'd re-sign Kerry Wood.