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Best Fits for Top Impact Free-Agent Relief Pitchers

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Best Fits for Top Impact Free-Agent Relief Pitchers
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In the aftermath of a wild day of baseball news, from Alex Rodriguez's disappearing act to an impromptu appearance on WFAN in New York and the blockbuster that saw Ian Kinsler, Price Fielder and millions of dollars switch hands, the hot stove is burning.

Yet, for all the talk about Major League Baseball's busy offseason, including the eventual destinations of top free-agent bats like Robinson Cano and Jacoby Ellsbury and arms like Matt Garza and Masahiro Tanaka, little time is devoted to a handful, or more, of arms that have the ability to impact the 2014 pennant race.

Yes, folks, we're talking about relief pitchers. Overpaid, underused and misunderstood, the high-leverage aces on the open market are well-known commodities but receiving very little interest when hot stove banter is the topic of conversation in baseball circles.

Days after the San Francisco Giants considered rewarding, via CBS Sports, left-handed specialist Javier Lopez with a three-year contract, let's take a look at the the best fits for the top remaining relief pitchers on the free-agent market.



1. Joe Nathan (64.2 IP, 43 SV, 1.39 ERA), Detroit Tigers

Every year, one or two player-team combinations stand out as a perfect match on the free-agent market. This winter, it's an eventual marriage between Joe Nathan and the Detroit Tigers.

In 2013, Detroit's bullpen struggled during the early part of the season. By the All-Star break, former manager Jim Leyland settled on a lefty-righty combination of Drew Smyly and Joaquin Benoit to handle the eighth and ninth innings, respectively. When new manager Brad Ausmus arrives in Lakeland, Fla., for spring training, neither are likely to be available to him. Benoit is a free agent and Smyly is expected to be converted back to the starting rotation. 

That leaves an obvious hole at closer for a team on the precipice of a World Series title. After Wednesday's trade between Texas and Detroit, the Tigers have around $8 million extra in their 2014 budget to spend on the open market.

Enter the best closer on the market, Joe Nathan. The no-brainer free agent isn't just good—he might be the second-best closer, behind Mariano Rivera, of this generation. At the age of 39, he's showed no signs of slowing down and would be a perfect fit on a contender in Detroit.

2. Grant Balfour (64.2 IP, 38 SV, 2.59 ERA), Cleveland Indians

Buoyed by an excellent offseason, including the hiring of the American League Manager of the Year, Cleveland went from 68-win disaster in 2012 to an American League playoff berth in 2013. If it can fill holes this offseason, including one in the back end of the bullpen, a true challenge to the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central may commence next season.

In order for Cleveland to take the next step, it'll need to find a way to finish games stronger and beat the Detroit Tigers in head-to-head battles during the regular season.

First, fixing the bullpen. During the 2013 season, only five teams in baseball posted a worse ERA after the sixth inning, per ESPN. Moving on from the overpaid Chris Perez ($7.3 mil, 87 ERA+) is addition by subtraction for Terry Francona's bullpen. The 28-year-old reliever was released by Cleveland in October, per MLB.com, putting to rest any speculation of the team retaining his rights as an arbitration-eligible pitcher in 2014.

The next Indians closer will likely be an upgrade from the enigmatic Perez from the moment he arrives in spring training, but finding a personality ready to take on the Detroit Tigers will be an added responsibility to the job description. In 2013, Cleveland went 4-15 in 19 head-to-head games with Detroit. Despite losing 11 games in the standings, the Indians lost the AL Central crown by just one game.

Enter Grant Balfour. If your memory is short, here's a glimpse at the former Oakland closer in a big game against Detroit. His ability is evident, but there's something extra about Balfour vs. Detroit that makes him the perfect fit for the Cleveland Indians. 

 

3. Fernando Rodney (66.2 IP, 37 SV, 3.38 ERA), New York Yankees

The hardest job in New York sports is up for grabs next season. Simply put, the closer that replaces Mariano Rivera has an impossible task. Greatness isn't good enough. Dominance will be met with apathy. Every blown save will be scrutinized through the eyes of fans that just watched the best closer in history toy with opposing batters for nearly two decades.

All of that explains why the Yankees don't plan on just handing the job, per NJ.com, to David Robertson, the obvious in-house heir apparent to Rivera's throne. The 28-year-old should have to earn the job. If he can't, competition is necessary to rescue Robertson from a firestorm of criticism. 

Brian Blanco/Getty Images

Fernando Rodney, off two highly successful seasons in Tampa Bay, is a perfect fit. As a free agent, he'll command more on the open market than the Rays can offer. If he joins the Yankees as a setup man, the opportunity to close could open up quickly, positioning the 36-year-old to star in a big market. 

At worst, Rodney could pitch well as a setup man before reentering the free-agent market in a year or two. The path, from Rays closer to Yankees insurance policy, would be reminiscent of Rafael Soriano's trek from Tampa to New York prior to the 2011 season. That career arc led Soriano back to a full-time closing position and $22 million in Washington.

4. Brian Wilson (13.2 IP, 0.66 ERA), Los Angeles Angels

If Wilson were willing to shave his beard, he would have been listed as the best option for the New York Yankees in the same capacity as Fernando Rodney. He's not, per CBS New York, so expect his free-agent options to remain on the West Coast.

After dominating (130 ERA+) for the San Francisco Giants from 2006-2011, Wilson underwent Tommy John surgery in 2012. When his one-year rehab was complete, the eccentric flamethrower resurfaced with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2013. 

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In a small sample, Wilson profiled as a different, yet effective, pitcher than before injury. Despite a noticeable drop-off in velocity, the 31-year-old reliever posted career-best ground-ball (56.3) and xFIP rates, per Fangraphs, for the Dodgers. If Wilson can regain some of his velocity in 2014, along with generating ground balls at a rate of 50 percent, he could be the steal of the free-agent market. 

While the Angels do have Ernesto Frieri under contract, his ERA (3.80) was below average and his 3.9 BB/9 rate is too high for any manager to be comfortable with. If the Angels plan on making a run at the postseason in 2014, they'll need a stable arm at the end of games. Wilson, despite only throwing 15.2 total innings since 2011, can be that arm.

 

5. Joaquin Benoit (67 IP, 24 SV, 2.01 ERA), Seattle Mariners

For some reason, there is a negative connotation around Benoit as a star relief pitcher. Perhaps it's due to a journeyman career, Detroit's unwillingness to hand him the closing job until midseason in 2013 or the fact that he's not a "proven" closer, but, when looking at the numbers, it's ridiculous.

Over the last four seasons, spanning Benoit's time in Tampa Bay and Detroit, he's posted a 2.53 ERA in 259.1 innings pitched. How good is that number? Unless we're talking about David Robertson, Grant Balfour or Brad Ziegler, it's better than any other reliever in baseball (with at least 250 IP) over that span. 

Best ERA Among RP's (2010-2013, min. 250 IP)
Reliever IP ERA
David Robertson 255 2.36
Grant Balfour 254.2 2.47
Brad Ziegler 260.2 2.52
Joaquin Benoit 259.1 2.53
Tyler Clippard 323 2.73
Jim Johnson 256.1 2.77
Luke Gregerson 272 2.78
Craig Breslow 257 2.84
Wilton Lopez 279.2 3.03
Jonathan Papelbon 263 3.05

Baseball Reference

Even if we threw in star reliever like Craig Kimbrel or Aroldis Chapman, both with less than 250 innings since 2010, Benoit's numbers would still stand out among MLB relief aces.

For a team like the Seattle Mariners, attempting to turn rebuilding into winning in 2014, Benoit would be a perfect fit. As the franchise attempts to find bats this winter to complement a good, young pitching staff, close games are to be expected again next season. If a pitcher like Benoit can close those games, Seattle might be a .500 team for the first time since 2009.

Agree? Disagree?

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