The Miami Marlins appear to want one final piece for their 2015 puzzle, and that piece appears to be a reliever. They have been linked to rumors regarding former closer Francisco Rodriguez, though it seems that the righty reliever may be too expensive for Miami. But the Fish have not just focused on Rodriguez; rather, they have cast a wide net for various free agent relievers, according to Joe Frisaro of MLB.com and Jon Heyman of CBS Sports.
marlins have discussed joba as well as krod, coke (via @JoeFrisaro) & others— Jon Heyman (@JonHeymanCBS) February 16, 2015
The names there are not unreasonable. Phil Coke has been rumored for some time as well. Joba Chamberlain is a new name, and he had a decent season last year that was marred by a terrible second half. Further names like Rafael Soriano are still available.
Many of these players will earn different types of deals with different costs. The most is expected to be Rodriguez, who may earn himself a two-year deal worth as much as $10 million according to Frisaro. That sort of deal, and contracts in general to relievers like the ones Pat Neshek, Zack Duke, and Andrew Miller earned this season are exactly the sort of thing that irks me about the Marlins.
In even considering a reliever for a multi-year deal, the Marlins may still not have learned the lesson of Heath Bell.
Before the 2012 season, the Marlins wanted a "proven closer." They paid "proven closer" money to acquire Heath Bell, a guy who had saved 132 games in 146 chances over three years with the San Diego Padres. The Marlins thought the then-34-year-old Bell would be a rock at the end of the bullpen. At the time of the move, I posted my concerns, and they turned out to be quite valid. Bell had the worst season of his career with Miami, was traded the year after, and was never the same. He is now with the Washington Nationals on a minor league contract.
It turns out trusting old relievers to maintain their performance from years past is mostly a folly. This past season, in re-examining how long-term deals for relievers turn out, I noted that attrition for closers was high, thus making investing in them based on past performance to be a poor idea.
Once again, the attrition rate was at 75 percent. The high odds are that, if you are an elite closer over the previous three seasons, you will not be one for the next two.
Bell ended up being an extreme example of a general idea, that relievers are a poor investment over the long haul.
The Bargain versus the Market
We are not talking about a three-year, $27 million deal for Rodriguez or Chamberlain, however. At most, we would be looking at a two-year deal at around $4 million or $5 million annually. Is that really that devastating to a team?
For a club like the Marlins, it can totally be a game-breaker. The Marlins are constantly concerned about money and paying the going rate for a player. Being forced to pay the going rate for a player who may wash out in half a season like Bell did would be a travesty, even at lower costs. For a team like the Yankees, who just sunk $9 million a year on Andrew Miller, having him fall apart next year may be a moot point, as he occupies just 4.2 percent of their total payroll. For a Marlins club, even losing entirely on a $5 million investment would cost the Fish seven to eight percent of their payroll, double that of the Yankees' investment on a more expensive guy.
Money does not directly correlate to wins, but the Marlins are expecting to get something from that salary, and the high-risk nature of relief pitchers would be a bad place to go. Consider the alternative, the very same alternative the Fish used in their cheaper years. Remember that the Marlins often signed low-risk, one-year deals with guys like Todd Jones and Joe Borowski who were recovering relievers trying to recapture success. When that success did come, the Fish cashed out and the next acquiring team suffered under the weight of a multi-year deal. Meanwhile, Miami got a few nice seasons from low-budget veterans like those above and no-name guys like Kiko Calero, Clay Hensley, and others while not paying much for their services.
The Opportunity Cost
Let's dial back that $5 million annual deal even further and make it a one-year offer. If Rodriguez comes here for one season at that cost, what's the harm? There is still an opportunity cost to making that move. Relievers are inherently low-upside players, as they do not pitch enough innings to garner a lot of wins. Starting pitchers, on the other hand, can offer good upside if they pitch significant innings over a season, and there are still some starters on the market who have had past success.
Brandon Beachy in particular sticks out as a name to be considered. Two elbow injuries ago, the 28-year-old Beachy was one of the better pitchers in the National League. Things have changed since the injury, but his upside was always that of an average or better player over a full season. What is the upside on a guy like Rodriguez? Even as an elite closer, something K-Rod has not really been since 2010 or 2011 at most, his upside is at about two wins. At this stage, one win would be asking a lot of him. Yet both could easily be had for the same cost.
Before you jump to the concern that the Marlins want relief help, remember that most relievers are just failed starters. The Marlins have multiple mediocre back-of-the-rotation options like David Phelps, Brad Hand, and to a far lesser extent Tom Koehler who could easily serve as relievers and probably excel. Any one of those borderline guys have a decent chance to become an above-average reliever, and the Marlins would not have pay much to find out.
The only reason to venture into the free agent market is to find a deal on a high-upside player or guarantee wins on market value. The relief market offers none of those benefits. The Marlins still have not learned that lesson, it seems.