Firing up the Hot Stove: Relievers

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This is the second article in an eight-part series examining this winter’s free agents and looking at potential trade candidates and non-tenders. I’m also predicting contracts and destinations for the major free agents, but given that it’s August, those are to be taken with a grain of salt.
Relief Pitchers
Mariano Rivera (Yankees) – Even if he were a robot, Rivera would probably have some rust on him by now. Instead, he’s on pace to establish a new career-best ERA at age 40. He’s at 1.06 at the moment, and it comes with an incredible 0.71 WHIP in 42 1/3 innings. He’s pitched significantly better in the seasons since signing a three-year, $45 million deal with the Yankees than he did in the three years prior. It’s a given that he’ll stay in New York as the game’s highest-paid reliever, and if he wants another three-year deal, how can the Yankees really say no? Maybe he’ll settle for two, though.
Prediction: Yankees – two years, $32 million
Rafael Soriano (Rays) – The poor market for closers last winter forced Soriano to accept arbitration from the Braves. Atlanta then traded him to the Rays, and he signed for $7.5 million. Now that he’s firmly established himself as a closer while going 33-for-35 in save attempts so far this season, Soriano shouldn’t have any difficulty landing a multiyear deal. He just needs to finish the season healthy. While Soriano has dealt with major arm woes several times in his career, he’s on pace to throw 60 innings for the fourth time in five seasons. The Rays figure to make an attempt to re-sign him, but they could be outbid by the Angels, White Sox or Nationals.
Prediction: Nationals – three years, $24 million
Scott Downs (Blue Jays) – Knowing that they’d be in line for two draft picks if he left as a free agent, the Blue Jays set a very high price for Downs at the trade deadline. Similar relievers have been forced to accept arbitration as free agents because no teams wanted to surrender high picks to sign them. Downs, though, seems likely to get a three-year deal with his track record. Outside of a 2009 season in which he was injured and still fairly effective, he’s been one of the game’s top setup men four years running. The Red Sox, Angels, Mariners and Phillies look like potential suitors.
Prediction: Red Sox – three years, $16.5 million
Frank Francisco (Rangers) – Francisco was a fine closer for the Rangers in 2009, going 25-for-29 in save chances. He was quickly supplanted in that role by Neftali Feliz this year, but since giving up six runs in his first three appearances, he has a 2.92 ERA and a 56/15 K/BB ratio in 49 1/3 innings. Francisco has dealt with his share of arm problems, and while his command has improved a bunch through the years, he still has his bad days. It might be that the large-market teams will shy away from offering him multiyear deals to serve as a setup man. There will be lesser teams interested in him as a closer, though.
Prediction: Pirates – two years, $12 milion
Kerry Wood (Yankees) – So far, so good for Wood in pinstripes, as he’s allowed one run in seven innings to date. Of course, the Yankees still aren’t going to touch his $11 million option for 2011. Wood has been a disappointment the last two years, so he may have to choose between closing for a non-contender or serving as a setup man on a large-market team next year. He’d need a strong finish if he expects a team like the Rays or Angels to want him as a closer.
Prediction: Rays – one year, $5 million
J.J. Putz (White Sox) – Just when it looked like Putz was on his way to taking over as the White Sox’s closer and setting himself up for a multiyear deal, he took three losses and two blown saves in his last four appearances. His numbers for the season remain stellar: 2.64 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 52/10 K/BB in 44 1/3 IP. Still, he’ll need to finish strong in order to land that two- or three-year contract. The White Sox should have the flexibility to re-sign him with Bobby Jenks likely to depart. However, they may want to go after more of a sure thing.
Prediction: White Sox – two years, $9 million
Pedro Feliciano (Mets) – Feliciano is much more of a specialist than Downs, so he can’t expect as big of a paycheck. Still, there are a lot of teams that would love to him. He’s on pace to make 80 appearances for the fourth straight season, and he has a career ERA of 3.28 in 353 2/3 innings. Odds are that he’ll have a whole bunch of two-year offers to choose from. The team that goes to three years could be the one that lands him.
Prediction: Mets – three years, $10.5 million
Grant Balfour (Rays) – Before suffering an intercostal strain horsing around in the bullpen, Balfour had a 2.08 ERA and a 44/13 K/BB ratio in 43 1/3 innings this season. He’s lost something on his fastball since striking out 84 in 58 1/3 innings in 2008, but he’s become more of a pitcher now and he’s probably a better bet going forward as a result. A team could do worse in the closer’s role.
Prediction: Braves – two years, $8 million
Jesse Crain (Twins) – Crain has been unable to fulfill expectations since winning 12 games in relief as a rookie, but he’s setting himself up for a nice contract with his performance of late. He’s allowed only one run in his last 23 1/3 innings, lowering his ERA from 5.33 to 2.90. He’s just 29 and some teams may view him as not having reached his ceiling yet, so it’s possible he’ll get a three-year deal.
Prediction: Brewers – two years, $8 million
Jon Rauch (Twins) – Rauch filled in more than adequately for Joe Nathan for four months, picking up 21 saves in 25 chances. It’s helped a bunch that Target Field has been an awful park for home runs. Rauch functions best in a big ballpark, and he’d be a fine choice to set up for Nathan next year if the Twins want to go that direction. The only way that happens, though, is if Matt Capps gets traded. He should be in line for about $3 million per year.
Prediction: Mariners – two years, $7 million
Matt Guerrier (Twins) – When Guerrier struggled in 2008, it appeared that the league had caught up with him. However, 2010 will be his fifth excellent season in the last six. Apart from 2008, his highest ERA as a major leaguer was a 3.39 mark in 2005. Some will remain skeptical, since Guerrier’s success comes with a below average fastball and a modest strikeout rate. Still, his track record will get him at least a two-year deal.
Prediction: Twins – two years, $7 million
Joaquin Benoit (Rays) – Back from the shoulder surgery that cost him all of 2009, Benoit has been amazing for the Rays this season, giving up just six runs in 43 2/3 innings. He has an incredible 60/7 K/BB ratio. Benoit has never done anything like this before, though he did have a 2.85 ERA in 82 innings for Texas in 2007. He’s sure to get some multiyear offers if he finishes strong, but he’ll be a risky signing. I think he’ll probably end up as a setup man for a large-market club.
Prediction: Angels – two years, $6 million
Koji Uehara (Orioles) – Uehara just hasn’t been able to stay healthy since leaving Japan and signing a two-year, $10 million deal with the Orioles, but he’s been terrific this year when he’s been able to pitch. Through 24 innings, he has a 1.88 ERA and a 28/5 K/BB ratio. Uehara has always preferred to start, but it seems clear that his best chance of avoiding the DL lies in pitching out of the pen. If he’s content being a setup man, there will be plenty of interest in his services.
Prediction: Red Sox – two years, $6 million
Arthur Rhodes (Reds) – Like Rivera, Rhodes may well finish with the best ERA of his career at age 40. He’s at 1.42 through 44 1/3 innings. What makes it especially impressive is that he’s facing more right-handed hitters than he has of late, and he’s holding them to a .138 average. His success means he’ll probably get another two-year deal. The Reds should be able to afford to retain him at a modest raise from the $2 million he’s making now.
Prediction: Reds – two years, $5.5 million
Jose Contreras (Phillies) – Contreras started out his first season as a reliever in terrific fashion, amassing a 0.59 ERA and a 22/2 K/BB ratio in 15 1/3 innings through the end of May. The results haven’t been nearly as good since the Phillies started giving him more work, but he still has a fine 45/13 K/BB ratio for the season and he’s allowed just three homers in 40 innings. Since he probably does need to be babied a bit in order to make it through 162 games, he shouldn’t be a candidate for another multiyear deal at this stage of his career. He’d be a reasonable option to close for a non-contender, though.
Prediction: Diamondbacks – one year, $3 million
Chad Qualls (Rays) – An exceptionally reliable reliever five years running, Qualls picked a terrible time to have an off season. The 31-year-old right-hander has given up 45 runs in 44 2/3 innings for the Diamondbacks and Rays, though since six of them were unearned, his ERA stands at 7.86. His peripherals aren’t nearly so bad and he’s still getting plenty of grounders, so he hardly seems like a lost cause. However, it’s hard to imagine him getting a multiyear deal unless he suddenly turns things around in a big way.
Prediction: Rays – one year, $2.5 million
Other free agents: Jason Frasor (Blue Jays), Aaron Heilman (Diamondbacks), Will Ohman (Marlins), Dennys Reyes (Cardinals), Chad Durbin (Phillies), Guillermo Mota (Giants), Joe Beimel (Rockies), Chan Ho Park (Pirates), Jeff Weaver (Dodgers), Miguel Batista (Nationals), Russ Springer (Reds), Juan Cruz (FA), Jason Isringhausen (Reds), Scot Shields (Angels), Bobby Seay (Tigers), Randy Choate (Rays), Randy Flores (Rockies), Ron Mahay (Twins), Kelvim Escobar (Mets), Kiko Calero (Dodgers), Brian Moehler (Astros), Claudio Vargas (Dodgers), Jamey Wright (Mariners), Brendan Donnelly (FA), Mike MacDougal (Cardinals), Brett Tomko (Athletics), Elmer Dessens (Mets), Brad Thompson (FA), Jesus Colome (Dodgers), Bobby Howry (FA), Juan Rincon (Rockies), Orlando Hernandez (Nationals), Josh Fogg (FA), Mike Lincoln (Reds)
Frasor needs a strong finish to get into position to receive a two-year deal. The former closer has lowered his ERA from 5.01 on July 6 to 4.00 now. … Heilman has had a bounce-back season, amassing a 3.33 ERA in 54 innings. The Diamondbacks figure to make an attempt to re-sign him. … Ohman and Reyes would seem to be the remaining lefty specialists in line for two-year deals. Ohman has held left-handers to a .203 average this year. Reyes has disappointed, with left-handers hitting .281 off him, but he has the better track record overall.
Brian Fuentes (Angels) – $9 million club option (vests w/55 GF)
Trevor Hoffman (Brewers) – $7 million mutual option, $500,000 buyout
Billy Wagner (Braves) – $6.5 million club option, $250,000 buyout (vests w/50 GF)
Kyle Farnsworth (Braves) – $5.25 million club option, $250,000 buyout
David Riske (Brewers) – $4.75 million club option, $250,000 buyout
Octavio Dotel (Dodgers) – $4.5 million mutual option, $250,000 buyout
Kevin Gregg (Blue Jays) – $4.5 million or $8.75 million for 2011-12, $750,000 buyout
J.C. Romero (Phillies) – $4.5 million club option, $250,000 buyout
Dan Wheeler (Rays) – $4 million club option, $1 million buyout
Darren Oliver (Rangers) – $3.25 million club option, $500,000 buyout (vests w/59 G)
Matt Thornton (White Sox) – $3 million club option, $250,000 buyout
Trever Miller (Cardinals) – $2 million club option (vests w/45 games)
Mark Hendrickson (Orioles) – $1.2 million club option, $200,000 buyout
Fuentes has been on a major roll, allowing just one run in 14 innings since the beginning of July. It’s still doubtful that his option will be picked up and there’s no chance that it will vest, but he’s back looking like a viable closer. … Hoffman’s summer resurgence might be over, as he’s given up four runs in his last three appearances. He may choose to retire. … Wagner’s option will vest with two more games finished, but he still appears committed to calling it a career. … Thornton’s option is a lock to be picked up, and Wheeler looks like a good bet to stay with the Rays. Oliver and Miller are due to have theirs vest.
Trade candidates: Joakim Soria (Royals), Heath Bell (Padres), Jonathan Papelbon (Red Sox), Matt Capps (Twins), Joba Chamberlain (Yankees), Mike Gonzalez (Orioles), Leo Nunez (Marlins), David Aardsma (Mariners), Ryan Madson (Phillies), Brad Lidge (Phillies), Craig Breslow (Athletics), Michael Wuertz (Athletics), Brandon League (Mariners), Franklin Morales (Rockies), Takashi Saito (Braves), Tim Stauffer (Padres), Manny Delcarmen (Red Sox), Jared Burton (Reds), Alfredo Aceves (Yankees), Pat Neshek (Twins), Fernando Rodney (Angels), Jerry Blevins (Athletics), Craig Stammen (Nationals), Chris Ray (Giants), Ramon Ramirez (Giants), Scott Mathieson (Phillies), Mitch Stetter (Brewers), Carlos Villanueva (Brewers), Todd Coffey (Brewers), D.J. Carrasco (Diamondbacks), Collin Balester (Nationals), Joe Smith (Indians), Jensen Lewis (Indians), Jose Veras (Marlins), Jonathan Albaladejo (Yankees), Jesse Carlson (Blue Jays), Jeff Gray (Cubs)
Of the three guys topping the list, I think Soria is the most likely to stay and Papelbon is the best bet to go. Both Bell and Papelbon are eligible for free agency after next year, while Soria is under control through 2013. … Capps figures to see his salary jump from $3.5 million to $6 million or more, potentially making him one expensive setup man for Joe Nathan. The Twins will be pressed just to keep two from the group of Capps, Rauch, Guerrier and Crain. … If the Yankees fatigue of Chamberlain, there will likely be plenty of interest. He could step in right away as a closer for a team like the Diamondbacks.
Non-tender candidates: Bobby Jenks (White Sox), Matt Capps (Twins), George Sherrill (Dodgers), Takashi Saito (Braves), J.P. Howell (Rays), Hideki Okajima (Red Sox), Carlos Villanueva (Brewers), Todd Coffey (Brewers), Chad Gaudin (Yankees), Tony Pena (White Sox), Ramon Ramirez (Giants), Brian Tallet (Blue Jays), Lance Cormier (Rays), D.J. Carrasco (Diamondbacks), Micah Owings (Reds), Joel Peralta (Nationals), Joe Smith (Indians), Jensen Lewis (Indians), Rafael Perez (Indians), Santiago Casilla (Giants), Tyler Walker (Nationals), Javier Lopez (Giants), Robinson Tejeda (Royals), Angel Guzman (Cubs), Matt Albers (Orioles), Nelson Figueroa (Astros), Tim Byrdak (Astros), Chris Sampson (Astros), Brad Thomas (Tigers), Zach Miner (Tigers), Clay Condrey (Twins), Doug Slaten (Nationals), Dustin Nippert (Rangers), Jose Veras (Marlins), Sean Green (Mets), Raul Valdes (Mets), Blaine Boyer (Diamondbacks), Sean Gallagher (Pirates), Jeremy Accardo (Blue Jays), Jesse Carlson (Blue Jays), Scott Atchison (Red Sox), Jeff Fulchino (Astros), Garrett Olson (Mariners), Sean White (Mariners), Brian Stokes (Angels), Boof Bonser (Athletics), Josh Kinney (Cardinals), Taylor Tankersley (Marlins), Chris Resop (Pirates), Leo Rosales (Diamondbacks), Randy Williams (White Sox), Matt Palmer (Angels), Warner Madrigal (Rangers), Brian Burres (Pirates), Marco Estrada (Brewers), Dale Thayer (Rays), Justin Germano (Indians), Scott Proctor (Braves), Chris Jakubauskas (Pirates), Brian Sweeney (Mariners), Chris Seddon (Mariners), Enrique Gonzalez (Tigers), Dick Hayhurst (Blue Jays), Philip Humber (Royals), Mike Ekstrom (Rays), Cristhian Martinez (Braves), Gustavo Chacin (Astros), Freddy Dolsi (White Sox), Armando Gabino (Orioles), Wilfredo Ledezma (Pirates)
Jenks, who is making $7.5 million this year, is almost surely a goner. He’ll probably take a paycut and a one-year deal to close elsewhere. … The Rays should keep Howell if he’s willing to take the same $1.8 million he made this year. He’s missed the entire season following shoulder surgery. … Saito and Okajima still don’t qualify as free agents because they don’t have six years of service time in. Saito has been just fine for the Braves, posting a 3.00 ERA in 45 innings. Still, Atlanta probably won’t want to go to arbitration with him and give him a significant raise from the $3.2 million he’s making now. Okajima has struggled mightily, and he’ll likely have to take a cut in order to remain with the Red Sox.
Pre-2012 free agents: Jonathan Broxton (Dodgers), Heath Bell (Padres), Jonathan Papelbon (Red Sox), Francisco Rodriguez (Mets)*, Jose Valverde (Tigers)*, Matt Capps (Twins), Joe Nathan (Twins)*, Francisco Cordero (Reds)*, Matt Thornton (White Sox), Bobby Jenks (White Sox), Brad Lidge (Phillies)*, Ryan Madson (Phillies), Mike Gonzalez (Orioles), Michael Wuertz (Athletics)*, Fernando Rodney (Angels), Ryan Franklin (Cardinals), Jeremy Affeldt (Giants)*, Rafael Betancourt (Rockies), Joel Zumaya (Tigers), Damaso Marte (Yankees)*, LaTroy Hawkins (Brewers), George Sherrill (Dodgers), Takashi Saito (Braves), John Grabow (Cubs), Chris Ray (Giants), Scott Linebrink (White Sox), Danys Baez (Phillies), Matt Belisle (Rockies), Shawn Camp (Blue Jays), Trever Miller (Cardinals), Todd Coffey (Brewers), Brian Tallet (Blue Jays), Chad Gaudin (Yankees), Tony Pena (White Sox), Javier Lopez (Giants), Tim Byrdak (Astros), Tyler Walker (Nationals), Ryota Igarashi (Mets), Clay Condrey (Twins)
2012 options: Rodriguez – $17.5 million ($3.5 million buyout, vests w/55 GF), Valverde – $9 million, Nathan – $12.5 million ($2 million), Cordero – $12 million ($1 million buyout), Lidge – $12.5 million ($1.5 million buyout), Wuertz – $3.25 million ($250,000 buyout), Affeldt – $5 million ($500,000 buyout), Marte – $4 million ($250,000 buyout)
Pre-2013 free agents: Joakim Soria (Royals)*, Carlos Marmol (Cubs), Huston Street (Rockies)*, Matt Lindstrom (Astros), David Aardsma (Mariners), Sean Marshall (Cubs), Hong-Chih Kuo (Dodgers), Leo Nunez (Marlins), Manny Corpas (Rockies)*, Brandon League (Mariners), Mike Adams (Padres), Peter Moylan (Braves), J.P. Howell (Rays), Sean Burnett (Nationals), Brandon Lyon (Astros), Taylor Buchholz (Rockies), Casey Janssen (Blue Jays), Mark Lowe (Rangers), Hideki Okajima (Red Sox), Carlos Villanueva (Brewers), Ramon Ramirez (Giants), D.J. Carrasco (Diamondbacks), Robinson Tejeda (Royals), Jeremy Accardo (Blue Jays), Angel Guzman (Cubs), Blaine Boyer (Diamondbacks), Sean Green (Mets)
2013 options: Soria – $8 million ($750,000 buyout), Street – $9 million mutual option ($500,000 buyout), Corpas – $8 million ($500,000 buyout)
Listed options are club options unless otherwise noted.

Agent: Nick Senzel’s reassigment “egregious case of service time manipulation”

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Reds prospect Nick Senzel is ready for the majors. Although he battled injuries, the 23-year-old performed well with Triple-A Louisville last season, batting .310/.378/.509 with 20 extra-base hits, 25 RBI, 23 runs scored, and eight stolen bases in 193 plate appearances. Senzel has also performed well this spring, batting .308 across 39 at-bats.

The Reds, however, announced on Friday that Senzel was among a handful of players reassigned to minor league camp. Senzel was drafted as a third baseman, began playing second base last year, and had been playing in center field during spring training. The common thought is that the Reds, who have built a competitive roster, will keep Senzel at Triple-A to begin the season and call him up right after the club secures an extra year of contractual control.

Per ESPN’s Jeff Passan, Senzel’s agent Joel Wolfe calls Senzel’s reassignment an “egregious case of service time manipulation.” The full quote:

I don’t believe I’ve ever made public statements on this issue in my career, but I feel compelled to do so in this case where it feels like a simply egregious case of service time manipulation.

We are well aware of the mandate from ownership for the Reds to win this year — and this seems to fly in the face of it. The NL Central was decided by one game last year. Every game matters. This is a shortsighted move that may be frugal now but could cost them dearly later.

Nick Senzel is not a young prospect. He’s a major league-ready impact-type player. He has done everything they’ve asked this spring, including working hard to become a major league center fielder.

Nick takes pride in wearing the Reds uniform. He appreciates how much support he’s received from Reds fans. He’s going to go to Triple-A and prove every day he belongs in MLB.

We have covered the service time manipulation issue pretty extensively here, so Wolfe’s statement doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Prior to an injury, the Blue Jays were going to undeservingly stuff Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. — baseball’s No. 1 prospect — at Triple-A for the first two weeks or so of the season. The White Sox were going to do the same with Eloy Jiménez before using their leverage to nudge him into inking an extension. The Braves toyed with Ronald Acuña Jr.’s playing time last year. Kris Bryant and Maikel Franco filed respective grievances against the Cubs and Phillies for service time manipulation several years ago.

Team executives don’t outright admit to gaming a prospect’s service time to gain that extra year of control because that’s how one loses a grievance. They dance around the topic by making a nebulous claim, typically about the player’s defense needing to be worked on at Triple-A. That’s what the Cubs said about Bryant, and it’s what the Jays said about Guerrero. It’s a subjective enough evaluation that it can’t be falsified. It’s why the grievances that have been filed over this have fizzled out and it’s why more and more teams have brazenly joined the service time manipulation bandwagon.

Senzel’s case is, admittedly, a bit more murky. Though he performed well this spring, Scott Schebler has outperformed him, batting .379 with five extra-base hits and 11 walks in roughly 40 trips to the plate. The starting spot in right field is taken by Yasiel Puig and left field is taken by Jesse Winker. Schebler has ostensibly earned the starting job in center. I can’t imagine Wolfe having a compelling case if he were to file a grievance on Senzel’s behalf.

That being said, it is important that agents (and the MLBPA) speak out about this when they can. Senzel’s case may not be open-and-shut, but bringing service time manipulation into the public consciousness will have a lasting impact ahead of the December 2021 expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement. Holding team executives publicly accountable may make them less willing to manipulate their players’ service time going forward, as it may sour what could otherwise be a terrific relationship between team and player. Service time manipulation is an important piece of the labor puzzle and those on the players’ side have to seize whatever they can to potentially gain leverage. Awareness leads to solidarity.