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Reviewing the relief pitching market: How did the Oakland A’s do this winter?

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Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The strongest part of the 2016 Oakland A’s was the bullpen. It was at least Top 10 in the league, if not Top 5. Other than maybe their catchers, the pen was the only area in which the A’s were meaningfully better than league average.

But relievers are notoriously volatile, and you never know when they’ll fall apart for a year for no good reason — like in 2015, when a seemingly solid Oakland contingent went completely sour. The smartest plan is to stay proactive and keep adding arms even before you think you need to.

That’s what the A’s did this winter by signing Santiago Casilla. They could have more or less returned last year’s group and banked on optimism with some prospects and minor league free agents to fill in the gaps. Instead, they went out and added another relatively reliable veteran to fix the hole that hasn’t even been formed yet — a future injury, or the spontaneous ERA combustion of a guy you thought would be good. If Casilla pushes another MLB-quality arm down to Triple-A temporarily, then good; we call that depth for a 162-game season.

But was Casilla the best possible option? Last week, we took a look back at the offseason’s outfield market, so now let’s review the free agent relievers. Since I’m working under the assumption that the A’s were correct to bring in another veteran while they have the chance (easier now than midseason), I only have two questions:

  1. Did they get a good deal?
  2. In retrospect, could they have gotten a better deal and/or better fit with someone else?

Here’s the move they made:

Santiago Casilla, RHP: 2 years, $11M ($5.5M average)

Casilla has spent substantial time as a closer, and has generally been a decent one. He struggled last year and eventually lost the job, but he has a 2.42 ERA over the last seven seasons while only exceeding 3.00 once (last year, unfortunately). His addition leaves Oakland with the following group:

Ryan Madson (R)
Sean Doolittle (L)
Santiago Casilla (R)
Ryan Dull (R)
Liam Hendriks (R)
John Axford (R)
... plus one more (Raul Alcantara, Daniel Coulombe, etc.)

And here’s how the rest of the market turned out:

Top closers

Aroldis Chapman (L), NYY: 5/$86M ($17.2M)
Kenley Jansen (R), LAD: 5/$80M ($16M)
Mark Melancon (R), SF: 4/$62M ($15.5M)

Mid-sized multi-year deals

Brad Ziegler (R), MIA: 2/$16M ($8M)
Brett Cecil (L), STL: 4/$30.5M ($7.6M)
Mike Dunn (L), COL: 3/$19M ($6.3M)
Junichi Tazawa (R), MIA: 2/$12M ($6M)
Santiago Casilla (R), OAK: 2/$11M ($5.5M)
Marc Rzepczynski (L), SEA: 2/$11M ($5.5M)
Daniel Hudson (R), PIT: 2/$11M ($5.5M)

Late-inning righties, 1-year

Joaquin Benoit (R), PHI: 1/$7.5M
Koji Uehara (R), CHC: 1/$6M
Neftali Feliz (R), MIL: 1/$5.4M
Sergio Romo (R), LAD: 1/$3M
Joe Smith, (R), TOR: 1/$3M
Drew Storen (R), CIN: 1/$3M
Fernando Rodney (R), ARI: 1/$2.8M
Shawn Tolleson (R), TB: 1/$1.2M

Lefties, 1-year

Jerry Blevins (L), NYM: 1/$6.5M
Boone Logan (L), CLE: 1/$5.5M
J.P Howell (L), TOR: 1/$3M
Brian Duensing (L), CHC: 1/$2M
Clayton Richard (L), SD: 1/$1.8M

Others (middle relief, long/swingmen)

Jesse Chavez (R), LAA: 1/$5.8M
Matt Belisle (R), MIN: 1/$2M
Dustin McGowan (R), MIA: 1/$1.8M
Casey Fein, (R), SEA: 1/$1M
Andrew Bailey (R), LAA: 1/$1M
Yusmeiro Petit, (R), LAA: MiLB deal (up to $3.5M)

Still Available

Including 2016 FIP and bWAR ... I left out Travis Wood because he’s likely to get a crack at starting this year.

Joe Blanton (R), 3.33 FIP, 1.7 bWAR
Luke Hochevar (R), 4.06 FIP, 0.3 bWAR
David Hernandez (R), 4.32 FIP, 0.9 bWAR
Tommy Hunter (R), 3.06 FIP, 0.4 bWAR
Seth Maness (R), 3.71 FIP, 0.3 bWAR
Jonathan Papelbon (R), 3.69 FIP, 0.0 bWAR
Fernando Salas (R), 4.30 FIP, 0.6 bWAR
Carlos Villanueva (R), 5.17 FIP, -1.0 bWAR

The most comparable contracts to Casilla’s were given to Ziegler, Tazawa, Rzepcyznski, and Hudson. I’d rank Casilla second in that group — if I could choose any of those signings then I’d pay the extra little bit for Ziegler instead, but the difference is marginal and not worth stressing about. If they wanted to spend around 2/$11-16M, then they did fine.

That answers our first question: Did the A’s get a good deal on Casilla? Yes, they paid fair market rate if not slightly under. Now the second question: Was there an even better deal to be had, or a comparable one for a more preferable reliever?

Moving up the salary scale, there weren’t any missed opportunities. Three closers cashed in huge, and it’s not a coincidence that they did so for contending teams. Even if you could make an argument that the A’s should be spending $15M of their $80-90M payroll on a closer, on a half-decade commitment no less, it wouldn’t matter anyway because they were never coming to our cellar this winter. As for Cecil and Dunn, the A’s had no reason to give out that kind of contract length to a non-closer.

Moving down to the one-year deals, the righty who interests me most off that top list is Romo — but it sounds like he wanted to go to the Dodgers, so I’m not assuming he was really an option for Oakland. I would also have been happy with a one-year deal to Feliz instead of two years for Casilla, with about equal preference for each. Rodney appears to have something left in the tank, but he’s literally Fernando Rodney and the thought of him shooting his dumb arrows in our uniform makes me quiver.

And what about the bargain bin, especially the ones still available? It’s possible someone like Blanton, Hunter, or Maness could turn out to be a better value than Casilla on a per-dollar basis, but more likely in the sense of providing 80% of the production at 50% of the price — if the A’s had a few extra bucks to spend on a proven closer instead of an under-the-radar middleman, then may as well pay a bit extra to make the upgrade.

Finally, what if the A’s had gotten a lefty instead? Your opinion on this matter will depend on how you view Sean Doolittle (can he stay healthy?) and Daniel Coulombe (can he be a reliable second lefty?). I would have liked another lefty to guard against Doo’s unreliable health and so that Coulombe could be a premium depth option, but I don’t mind going into a rebuilding season light on southpaws — and I especially don’t care about a LOOGY at a time when the pen will need to focus on maximizing its innings behind a young starting staff. That leaves Blevins as the only name on the above lefty list whom I would have preferred over Casilla.

There were a few trades, as well:

Wade Davis: KC to CHC for OF Jorge Soler
Tyler Thornburg: MIL to BOS for 3B Travis Shaw + 3 prospects
Pat Neshek: HOU to PHI for PTBNL
Vidal Nuno: SEA to LAD for C Carlos Ruiz

There was no reason for the A’s to pay for a big name like Davis or Thornburg, and the homer-happy Nuno doesn’t interest me, but Neshek was apparently available as a salary dump. All the Phillies had to do was write an I.O.U. and pick up his $6.5M option, making him functionally the same as a one-year free agent signing. Considering his last three seasons featured a collective 2.77 ERA, with 80-of-87 save/hold chances converted (92% success), I would have happily taken that deal.

That leaves us with the following list of options I might have preferred over Casilla, in order of preference. It’s honestly a complete coincidence that they are all former A’s, and fairly beloved ones at that:

  • Brad Ziegler — He’s a slightly better pitcher, and only cost slightly more
  • Jerry Blevins — He’s similar in quality and is the reliable second lefty Oakland could have used, available on a one-year deal
  • Pat Neshek — He’s a quietly effective setup man, available on a one-year deal

... But Ziegler is the only one of that trio I definitely would have chosen over Casilla, and even then it’s not enough to get upset about. I would also have been fine with Neftali Feliz, but more as a comparable replacement than as a guy I would have preferred.

All of that is to say, no, there was not an obviously vastly better option. If the A’s were looking for a non-elite late-inning arm on a short contract and were willing to pay market rate in order to ensure some reliability (rather than gambling on a bounce-back), then it turns out they got a perfectly good deal on one of the very best options out there. Honestly, I was not expecting to reach that conclusion.

Oh, and how about a comparison to last year’s free agents? Ryan Madson got 3/$23M, and John Axford got 2/$10M. Casilla is at least as good of a bet as Madson in the late innings but on a cheaper and shorter deal, and he’s significantly better than Axford at roughly the same price.

* * *

Final verdict: I’m surprisingly happy. I was not blown away by the Casilla signing, because I’ve always found him a bit overrated. But if I’m being honest, that derision was at least partly (mostly?) due to the fact that he was on the stupid Giants for seven stupid years throughout their entire stupid run of championships, right after sucking for the A’s for most of his first Oakland career. A bit of sour grapes, as it were. In reality, he’s been consistently excellent for nearly a decade, with the kind of brief intermittent slumps that you’d expect from any late-inning reliever.

The more I look at this move, the more I like it. The A’s didn’t need to shoot for the moon for a hot new closer this winter, nor did their payroll require them to dive into the proverbial dumpster to fill a bullpen spot on the cheap. Within the realm of paying market rate for a reliable late-inning arm, they didn’t just do fine by getting Santiago Casilla — they did about as well as they possibly could have. Well played, A’s.