The Two Sides to Reliever Values

Last week the Los Angeles Angels acquired relief pitcher Ernesto Frieri from the San Diego Padres for two minor league players. Frieri had some strong numbers for the Padres, with a 2.31 ERA in 11.2 innings, along with a 13.9 K/9 and a 3.1 BB/9 ratio. Last year he posted a 2.71 ERA in 63 innings, with a 10.9 K/9 and a 4.9 BB/9 ratio.

He struggles with his control, but he’s a dominant pitcher, with a career 11.5 K/9 and a 6.4 hit/9 ratio in the majors. He throws a 92-94 MPH fastball and a high-70s curve. The Angels have seen some struggles in their bullpen, and could now be looking at Frieri as a short term closer option with Scott Downs injured.

To get Frieri, Los Angeles gave up infielder Alexi Amarista and right hander Donn Roach. Amarista came in to the year ranked the 19th best prospect in the Angels’ system by Baseball America. He seems more like a utility infielder, similar to Josh Harrison.

Roach was rated the number 23 prospect in the system. He moved to high-A at the age of 22, and was having good numbers this year prior to the deal, with a 2.16 ERA in 41.2 innings, along with a 29:3 K/BB ratio in the very hitter friendly California League. He profiles as a back of the rotation starter or a middle reliever who gets a lot of ground balls.

I’ve talked a lot about the value of relief pitchers, noting the high prices that are paid to closers, but also noting how you can get closers for much cheaper if you just invest in a guy who hasn’t established himself as a closer. Frieri has five years of control remaining, with 2012 counting as one of those years. His trade value, based on his WAR from 2011, was $7.9 M. The Angels got a big value by only giving up $2.6 M in prospect value, dealing two Grade-C relievers.

Part of me feels that any price paid for a reliever is too expensive. Frieri has some dominant numbers and some control issues. The Pirates added Chris Resop for free in 2010. He’s combined for a 9.9 K/9 and a 4.1 BB/9 ever since. They added Jason Grilli for free last year. He’s posted an 11.7 K/9 and a 4.1 BB/9 ratio. I’d say Grilli is more comparable to Frieri as far as stuff goes, as Grilli has also limited hits, while Resop has given up close to a hit per inning. The point is that the Angels gave up two top-30 prospects for a guy, while the Pirates added two similar valued guys for free over the last two years. That’s just an example with the Pirates. I’m sure I could find examples from every other team of adding cheap relievers.

The other part of me feels that the Angels have made an investment. If Frieri works out as a closer, his value goes up. At that point, the Angels would be able to get much more in return for him than they paid. It’s kind of like the trade that brought Joel Hanrahan to the Pirates. Hanrahan wasn’t the main part in the deal. In fact, at the time he was seen as the fourth best player in the deal. Looking back, even though Lastings Milledge didn’t work out, I’d still make that deal, as the Pirates could get more for Hanrahan than Nyjer Morgan and Sean Burnett.

When talking about the relief pitcher market, there is an extra emphasis on the word “market”. It’s all about buying low and selling high. If the relief pitcher market was the stock market, teams that go out and spend $50 M on a guy like Jonathan Papelbon are the same as people who buy Apple stock right now. You’re not going to get rich buying Apple now, just like you’re not going to see a big return on investment spending a ton of money on a top closer. You wanted to buy Apple stock in 2005, just like you wanted to find Papelbon in 2005. Teams are better off investing in future closers, hoping to find the next Papelbon. That’s where this metaphor ends. It’s much easier to find a good closer than it is to find the next Apple stock. And that’s why I’ll never understand why teams pay closers eight figure salaries, or deal top prospects in trades for them.

Analysis

  • Good points!

  • one of the things is that a top 23 or top 19 prospect in one organization is not the same as top 23 or 19 in another. A lot depends on how much talent is in a specific team’s system.
    I see no reason to trade for middle relief or closers unless your team is in contention and you need some experienced.

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