The Case for Signing a Stud Reliever

While the talk has long attached the Cubs and Jon Lester to one another, a increasing number of rumors have connected the Cubs to some of the highest-profile reliever targets on the market. And while every agent is going to try to use the Cubs as leverage to get more money for their client, it does seem like there are some legs to these stories.

Yes, both David Robertson and Andrew Miller are going to get paid a huge sum of money this offseason regardless. Jon Heyman’s excellent annual free agent prediction post estimates that Robertson is getting 3-4 years and about $45 million, and that Miller will get anywhere from 3yrs/$22 million to 4yrs/$40 million. As far as relievers go, those are borderline ridiculous contracts.

However, there are plenty of reasons the Cubs could use a stud reliever like Miller or Robertson, even at that pay scale.

The bullpen was one of the bright spots on the team last season, with new closer Hector Rondon racking up 29 saves to go with a 2.42 ERA and setup men Pedro Strop and Neil Ramirez posting ERAs of 2.21 and 1.44, respectively. That trio helped the Cubs close out a lot of games late in the season. The other members of the ‘pen, including former top prospect Arodys Vizcaino, Justin Grimm, Armando Rivero, and Wesley Wright, aren’t too shabby either.

Unfortunately, bullpens based on young guys with ridiculous stuff have as much risk as they do upside. Rondon, Ramirez, Strop, and Vizcaino all have long track records of injury or inconsistency. Fortifying that pen with a great, reliable arm would help lessen the risk that the bullpen explodes in 2015 or 2016.

If you’re not into paying a lot of money for Robertson or Miller, though, there’s a hidden value to signing a closer that lessens the impact of their large salary.

The Hardball Times had an excellent piece last offseason in which they investigated why “smart” teams like Oakland, Tampa Bay, and Seattle were spending money on proven closers, largely seen as not worth their salary. Read the article for specifics, but basically, one of the biggest escalators for arbitration awards is the save. Young relievers with a lot of saves on their resume routinely make significantly more in arbitration than relievers who don’t, even if they are better pitchers.

If you let him close next year, Hector Rondon could easily be staring at a $4 million arbitration award at the end of 2015, rather than the $1.6-$2 million deals non-closers generally receive. Arbitration awards build off one another, so a $2.5 million difference in first-time arbitration awards gets blown up into a cumulative $10+ million increase in costs over the three years, depending on how many saves a guy gets. Even if Rondon falters, letting Ramirez or Vizcaino take his place would likely inflate their arbitration awards by the same amount.

This can be avoided by signing a guy to close for you. This is where Robertson or Miller comes in. Their contract would be guaranteed, and all the saves in the world wont inflate their salary. Signing them saves you the $10 million you would have paid to Rondon and company.

That said, it’s probably better to think about whatever Robertson or Miller sign for as being $10 million less than the actual value of the contract. Instead of Robertson signing for 3-4 years and $45 million, you’re essentially signing him for only $35 million. Instead of Miller getting 3/$30 million, you’re actually paying him less than $7 million per season.

As a result, you can significantly upgrade the bullpen at a cost of just $7-$9 million per year. And at that kind of cost to the organization, I don’t know how you can turn it down.

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