Are Relievers Worth Big Money?

In the wake of the massive Jonathan Papelbon contract handed out by the Philadelphia Phillies, and the essential overpayment of Joe Nathan by the Texas Rangers, I got to wondering whether or not teams should hand out contracts involving big money to relievers. This phenomenon has been around for awhile, but it’s getting out of hand in recent years, with “proven closers” getting upwards of $10 million a season for throwing 60 innings in a season. Doesn’t seem like a worthwhile expenditure of funds.

I took a look at the top 20 relievers cumulatively over the past three seasons, as ranked by fWAR, and looked at how much they were paid, and how they were acquired by their current team. My goal with this analysis was to determine whether or not free agent relievers signed to large money contracts were among the most successful relievers in the league.

1) Matt Thornton, White Sox. 6.3 fWAR, $6.575 million. Acquired via trade with Seattle in 2006
2) Mariano Rivera, Yankees. 6.3 fWAR, $45 million. Signed as amateur free agent from Panama in 1990
3) Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox. 6.2 fWAR, $27.6 million. Drafted in 2003
4) Brian Wilson, Giants. 5.5 fWAR, $11.4175 million. Drafted in 2003
5) Sean Marshall, Cubs. 5.4 fWAR, $3 million. Drafted in 2003
6) Rafael Betancourt, Indians/Rockies. 5.0 fWAR, $10.9 million. Acquired via trade with Cleveland in 2009
7) Heath Bell, Padres. 4.8 fWAR, $12.755 million. Acquired via trade with Mets in 2006
8) Mike Adams, Padres/Rangers. 4.8 fWAR, $3.9498 million. Acquired via trade with Padres in 2011
9) Joakim Soria, Royals. 4.7 fWAR, $8 million. Acquired via Rule 5 draft from San Diego in 2006
10) Carlos Marmol, Cubs. 4.4 fWAR, $5.9 million. Signed as amateur free agent from Dominican Republic in 1999
11) Andrew Bailey, Athletics. 4.4 fWAR, $1.3 million. Drafted in 2003
12) Joel Hanrahan, Nationals/Pirates. 4.3 fWAR, $2.273 million. Acquired via trade with Nationals in 2009
13) David Robertson, Yankees. 4.3 fWAR, $1.293925 million. Drafted in 2006.
14) Ryan Madson, Phillies. 4.3 fWAR, $12 million. Drafted in 1998
15) Darren Oliver, Angels/Rangers. 4.3 fWAR, $10.415 million. Signed as free agent in 2009
16) Daniel Bard, Red Sox. 4.2 fWAR, $0.9205 million. Drafted in 2006
17) Neftali Feliz, Rangers. 3.9 fWAR, $0.85916 million. Acquired via trade with Braves in 2007
18) Rafael Soriano, Braves/Rays/Yankees. 3.9 fWAR, $23.6 million. Signed as a free agent in 2011
19) Craig Kimbrel, Braves. 3.7 fWAR, $0.419 million. Drafted in 2008
20) Jonathan Broxton, Dodgers. 3.7 fWAR, $12.825 million. Drafted in 2002

OK, so that’s a lot of information to digest. But of those 20 players, the TOP 20 relievers in fWAR over the last three years, only two were signed as gree agents from other teams: Darren Oliver and Rafael Soriano. Oliver’s contract isn’t a “big money” one, making a hair over $10 million over the last three years, while Soriano’s value absolutely tanked in the first year of the contract he signed with the Yankees this past offseason.

Look at the rest of the list. Nine of the players were drafted by the team they made their bones with, with a couple of the players making money through contract extensions or arbitration. There were a couple of international free agents, and even a Rule 5 pick. Then, there were also six trades that netted the team their ace reliever. Of those six trades, the only two to happen over the past three years were the Betancourt and Hanrahan deals. The others were acquired when they were still young players, prior to their career as stud relievers. Soriano is the most interesting case on the list, as his three seasons were spent with three different teams. The Braves gave him a two year contract to cover 2008 and 2009, traded him in 2010 to avoid paying a massive arbitration award, which the Rays did, and then the Yankees threw a truckload of money at him.

Over the past three seasons, only nine players on the list made at least $10 million, with just three making over $15 milliion. The outliers on the list are all players in huge markets, Mariano Rivera and Soriano in New York and Jonathan Papelbon in Boston. Rivera has a track record of being dominant, and the contract extension he signed this past offseason could prove to be his last. He’s never had injury problems, and his performance has matched the salary. As for Soriano, his deal in New York is already looking ugly due to injury and ineffectiveness, but injuries were a problem over his whole career. And then there’s Papelbon, who got the insane contract from the Phillies this offseason. He’ll be on the list for awhile.

But the majority of the players on this list are young and cost-controlled. You don’t see guys like Francisco Cordero, Kerry Wood, and Brad Lidge, all of whom made insane amounts of money and gave their teams minimal amounts of performance.

The way to go with relievers are low guarantee deals, and young, cost-controlled relievers. A perfect example is down in Atlanta, where the Braves bullpen was worth 7.1 fWAR, with the most expensive being veterans Peter Moylan and Scott Linebrink at $2 million (the White Sox covered the remaning $3.5 million on Linebrink’s contract). Third was George Sherrill at $1.2 million. None of those three pitchers were the most important members of the bullpen, with Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty combining for 6.5 fWAR and were on the books for just $1.7435 million.

The youth movement is here, and the sooner teams embrace it, the sooner their bullpens can thrive. Paying for the high-priced, big-name relievers isn’t a path to success.

Joe Lucia

About Joe Lucia

I'm the managing editor of Awful Announcing and the news editor of The Comeback. I also made The Outside Corner a thing for six seasons.