Early in this postseason a veteran agent, anticipating that most teams are going to cut payroll this winter, noted that in a year when so much has gone wrong, he was now anticipating what would be the worst outcome for players: the Rays winning the World Series.
This representative speculated that success by the team with the smallest payroll in the playoff field (and 28th out of 30 teams overall) would provide owners who want to cut salaries in normal times — and definitely want to in these revenue-challenged and abnormal COVID-19 times — a symbol of what could be done with less.
No area is more likely to feel the sting than the relief market. That’s because in no phase have the Rays spent less to get more in quality and depth. But it’s also because the most expensive relievers did not flourish in 2020. And because what already is going to be a free-agent glut of relievers is going to swell in the coming weeks with options not picked up and contracts not tendered.
Let’s take these one at a time:
1. The Golden State Warriors championed positionless basketball and the Rays climbed to an AL title with a relief crew without set roles. Despite just a 60-game season, Tampa Bay tied the MLB record with 12 different pitchers registering a save. A 13th pitcher, Peter Fairbanks, was tied for the Rays’ most saves (3) in this postseason.
This postseason, Tampa Bay has used its best reliever, Nick Anderson, in every inning from the third through the ninth, turning him into an old-fashioned fireman who comes in to put out the worst blazes, regardless of inning. So the Rays are demonstrating you don’t have to pay one person for saves.
Heck, Tampa Bay is showing you might not have to pay anyone much as long as you can gather a lot of talented, diverse arms to attack a game as a manager sees fit. The Rays do not have a reliever on a multi-year contract. Heck, even if the season had been 162 games, they had just three relievers due to make more than $1 million. Two of them, Chaz Roe (their most expensive reliever at $2.1825 million) and Oliver Drake ($1.025 million), are not on the World Series roster due to injuries.
In fact, the Rays’ depth is spectacular. Roe led the 2019 Rays in appearances and Colin Poche led in strikeouts per nine innings. Neither was on their postseason roster. Of the six Rays relievers who appeared in 50 games last year, only Diego Castillo is on the World Series roster — saves leader Emilio Pagan was traded to San Diego for Manuel Margot.
Seven Tampa Bay relievers (plus starter Yonny Chirinos) were lost to injury or not able to make it fully back due to injury. That includes the expected top three lefties — Poche, Jose Alvarado and Brendan McKay — plus two more southpaws, Jalen Beeks and Cody Reed. Yet, the Rays still have five lefty relievers on the postseason roster. Imagine having 10 lefty relievers you trust in a year.
The Rays’ pen still led the majors in Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement. It is a tribute to the organization’s devotion to run prevention and its ability to find arms. Perhaps it is not replicable. But I certainly expect a lot of owners to insist their baseball operations departments try to mimic the Rays’ low-cost, high-quality pen model.
2. Wade Davis, who at $17.3 million, is the highest-paid reliever ever on average value, was released on Sept. 21 by the Rockies before the conclusion of his three-year contract (just as Colorado had released Jake McGee and Bryan Shaw, while on their three-year $27 million deals, earlier in 2020).
Aroldis Chapman ($17.2 million annually) allowed the homer that knocked the Yankees from the playoffs for a second straight year. Kenley Jansen ($16 million) righted himself in the NLCS, but only after velocity and effectiveness concerns had Dodgers manager Dave Roberts contemplating removing him from the closer role. Craig Kimbrel ($14.3 million) was removed as closer by the NL Central champ Cubs. Mark Melancon ($15.5 million) pitched well for the Braves, but was traded by the Giants midway through his four-year, $62 million pact.
Those were the five most expensive relief deals in play in 2020. Davis and Melancon will be free agents. But what if, for the other three, their teams were given the choice of amnesty — to get out of the deals without anything in return, but also without having to pay any more of the contracts. The Cubs definitely would do that with Kimbrel (one year left at $17 million) and I think the Dodgers, with Jansen (one at $20 million), and the Yankees, with Chapman (two years at $32 million), would do so as well, feeling the money could be diversified better elsewhere.
Add the Rays’ 2020 bullpen production and this dubious use of big closer money and you wonder what the best of this year’s lot, such as Alex Colome, Liam Hendricks and Trevor Rosenthal might be able to procure. And to note the volatility of relief arms, one team executive mentioned that Hendricks has been designated for assignment four times in his career, as recently as June 2018, while Rosenthal pitched for three organizations in 2019 and was unable to consistently throw strikes.
3. Relievers annually make up the largest portion of the free-agent market. It only is expected to grow this year. Will a team such as the Indians, if unable to trade Brad Hand, simply not pick up his $10 million 2020 option? Either a trade would block a job for some other reliever expecting money or a non-tender of Hand would put him on the market with Colome, Hendricks, Melancon, Ken Giles, Blake Treinen, Brandon Workman, Kirby Yates, etc.
The Yankees have to decide after the World Series’ conclusion whether to pick up Zack Britton’s $13 million 2022 option, or else he can opt out of his $13 million 2021 salary. I expect they will pick it up, but if not, the relief market would get another talented arm. Dellin Betances has to decide whether to pick up a $6 million player option or take a $3 million buyout and go into a large free-agent relief class expected to get larger. And here is why:
Many teams are looking to cut payroll and there are only two places to do so to gain real reduction — arbitration and free agency. So there is a near universal sense that there will be more non-tenders than ever as a way to limit arbitration cases. Relievers essentially not named Josh Hader or Edwin Diaz who are looking at arbitration payouts of, say, $3 million or more, such as the Brewers’ Corey Knebel and Angels’ Hansel Robles, are strong candidates to be non-tendered. Teams are going to figure that there are similar arms that can be signed for less, because in supply and demand, the supply of relief arms is going to be high.
And the Rays’ model for constructing a high-end bullpen is going to embolden organizations that this is an area in which savings can be made without impacting quality.