The Colorado Rockies made their first relatively big splash of the offseason on Tuesday, signing relief pitcher Bryan Shaw to a three-year deal worth roughly $27 million. It appears unlikely that this will be their only addition to the bullpen, as it has been widely reported that they are looking to add multiple arms. The two relievers the Rockies have been tied to most often are closers Wade Davis and Greg Holland. It would, however, behoove the Rockies to look in a different direction.
In the current “run on relievers,” Davis and Holland project to be by far the highest paid. MLB Trade Rumors projects Davis to receive a four-year, $60 million contract with Holland not far behind at four years, $50 million. The next highest projection for a relief pitcher belongs to Addison Reed at four years, $36 million with no other available reliever projected at even half of Holland or Davis.
Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports projects things similarly. He and another expert expect Davis to receive $64 million and $72 million over four years, while Holland projects to get $60 and $64 million over four years. Both also expect Reed to receive the next richest contract for a reliever, projecting four years, $35 million and three years, $27 million. Again, no other reliever projects to make even half the amount paid to Davis and Holland.
Having a strong bullpen is of vital importance. It would be worth the additional cash to sign Davis or Holland, provided they were a clear step up from other available relievers. In this instance, that is not the case. To illustrate this, let’s compare the two with 13 other relievers who are either free agents or known to be available via trade. The categories used for comparison were each pitcher’s park-adjusted ERA-, FIP-, and xFIP, SIERA, K%-BB%, expected weighted on base average (xwOBA), and ground ball rate during the 2017 season. In each category, the pitchers were ranked 1-15 (lower is better), then all categories were added together to create a ranking of the 15 relievers. Below are the results:
It’s important to note that Davis and Holland don’t come out particularly poorly here. Davis does well in ERA-, SIERA, and in K%-BB%, while Holland is in the top three of xwOBA—the expected wOBA allowed by a pitcher in a neutral environment based on his strikeouts, walks, and quality of contact allowed. On the other hand, Davis rates in the bottom third in xwOBA and tied for the lowest ground ball rate—something that’s particularly bad for a Rockies pitcher—while Holland rated in the bottom third of FIP-, xFIP-, and ground ball rate and did not crack the top five in anything but xwOBA. Put it all together, and they come out roughly in the middle of the pack. Not bad in a vacuum, but probably not worth it when considering they project to make more than twice as much as almost all of these other pitchers.
Instead of Davis or Holland, maybe the Rockies should go another route and sign Anthony Swarzak and/or Steve Cishek. In this scenario, they’re getting a power arm in Swarzak—his fastball averaged 95 mph in 2017—who rated in the top three in every category but ground ball rate, and a sidearm pitcher in Cishek who will give hitters a different look, keep the ball on the ground, and have experience closing—Cishek has 121 career saves.
The best part? Even if they both receive the highest of any of their three respective projections—four years, $28 million for Swarzak and three years, $21 million for Cishek—at MLB Trade Rumors and FanRag, they will still combine to receive just $49 million. That’s less than the lowest of any of the six projected salaries for just one of Davis or Holland.
Another great sidearm option is Joe Smith. His ERA- rated in the bottom third of the group, but if you look beyond that you have a pitcher who was first in FIP-, xFIP-, SIERA, K%-BB%, and xwOBA and also was in the top third in ground ball rate. MLB Trade Rumors did not consider him one of the top 50 free agents and thus did not project his contract, while FanRag projected him to receive either two years, $9 million or one year, $10 million. He doesn’t have the closing experience of Cishek, but if he can repeat his 2017 season he’ll be an elite option out of the bullpen at likely a bargain barrel price for whichever team signs him.
By going this direction and signing two of the other available relievers, the Rockies would likely receive two quality relief pitchers and still have some money left to sign a hitter that they also desperately need. We know the Rockies have interest in Carlos Santana and also that he would be a great fit for them. Signing Davis or Holland may leave the Rockies having to choose between Santana and another quality reliever.
It’s understandable for the Rockies to have interest in both Wade Davis and Greg Holland. As a team in need of relief arms, it stands to reason they would look to pursue any and all quality relief options. But the Rockies must also be careful not to limit themselves in other areas by paying significantly more for a reliever who won’t justify his higher salary with performance better than his peers.