Should the Bucs give a reliever a three-year deal?

While the Pittsburgh Pirates’ offseason plans may be up in the air at the moment, if the last few years are any indication, expect them to pick up a reliever or two.

The good news for the Pittsburgh Pirates is it’s a buyers market for relievers. There are four elite arms out there (closers Wade Davis and Greg Holland and set-up men Mike Minor and Addison Reed), but unlike previous years, there are even more depth guys who have experience pitching either the eighth or ninth. The Bucs could use a compliment for Felipe Rivero, and the quantity available may make 2018 the perfect time to strike.

After those top four, there are eleven relievers that I feel have a legitimate shot of scoring a multi-year contract this winter at a rate that could fall within the Pirates’ budget. They are:

Steve Cishek

Tommy Hunter

Brandon Kintzler

Jake McGee

Brandon Morrow

Pat Neshek

Juan Nicasio

Bryan Shaw

Joe Smith

Anthony Swarzak

Tony Watson

A few seasons ago, most of these pitchers would have likely settled for a one or two year deal. In today’s reliever craved game, all of them have a good chance at getting a third year.

That third year has been the breaking point for the Pittsburgh Pirates under Neal Huntington. The Bucs’ GM has only ever signed two relievers to multi-year contracts: Jason Grilli in 2012 and Daniel Hudson in 2016. Both were for two years.

Relief pitchers are widely regarded as the most volatile players in the game, so it’s no surprise why the often risk-adverse Pirates have been hesitant to commit a good chunk of change three or four years down the road.

In a changing environment, should the Pirates soften their stance on handing out that third year in order to get a set-up man for Rivero?

A Recent History on Multi-Year Relievers

Fangraphs’ Dave Cameron first wrote about the dangers of three year contracts for relievers in 2010. At that time, he pointed out the dozen bullpen arms who signed for at least three years from 2007 until then. Those 12 combined for 12.4 WAR at the time of publication, with half of them being below replacement level. Teams were essentially paying $17.3 million per win.

He explored the topic again in 2013, looking at the relievers who signed any multi-year contract the previous winter. At the time of that publication, each win cost $22 million. The “cheaper” way to bolster a pitching staff was becoming more and more expensive.

Since 2013, 16 relievers have signed for at least three years. As a whole, they have been a much better value than the classes Cameron looked at.

Relievers who signed a three year contract since 2013

Name/YearContractfWAR over contractERA over contractK/9 over contract
Javier Lopez/20133 years, $13 million-0.72.785.47
Joe Smith/20133 years, $15.75 million1.62.867.73
Boone Logan/20133 years, $16.5 million0.74.6411.22
Zach Duke/20143 years, $15 million0.73.029.39
Luke Gregerson/20143 years, $18.5 million2.43.669.82
Andrew Miller/20144 years, $36 million7.31.6314.41
David Robertson/20144 years, $46 million4.72.8812.02
Shawn Kelley/20153 years, $16 million-0.14.0711.25
Darren O'Day/20154 years, $31 million0.93.5511.23
Ryan Madson/20153 years, $22 million2.32.778.44
Joakim Soria/20153 years, $25 million1.74.049.68
Brett Cecil/20164 years, $30.5 million1.13.888.82
Aroldis Chapman/20165 years, $86 million1.53.2212.34
Mike Dunn/20163 years, $19 million0.24.4710.19
Kenley Jansen/20165 years, $80 million3.51.3214.36
Mark Melancon/20164 years, $62 million0.44.508.70

So far, teams have spent $267.158 million on these 16 relievers and they have produced 28.2 WAR. That’s roughly $9.5 million per win. While that is a markup of the going rate of $7-9 million per WAR on the open market, it’s not too outrageous. Yes, those combined stats are inflated a tad by the likes of Jansen and Miller, but the 2010 study had Mariano Rivera on the payroll. The best pitchers are going to get paid well.

Half of these 16 may not have all lived up to the “true value” of their contracts, but the only ones who have truly failed to be at least serviceable arms are two Colorado pitchers (Logan and Dunn), the injured Mark Melancon and Shawn Kelley, and the LOOGY Javier Lopez. It may be an overpay, but none of have been a true albatros.

The Options

Let’s do a quick runthrough of the names I mentioned earlier. The Pittsburgh Pirates know what they’ll get in Nicasio and Watson, so let’s focus on the other nine.

The Pirates were connected to Neshek during the 2014 offseason before he signed with Houston. After a brilliant 2017, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Bucs make another run at him. He is by far the oldest of this class at 37 years old, but his sidearm delivery helps negate the cons of his age and low velocity.

Morrow, McGee and Hunter all had very strong seasons coming off of injuries in 2016. Morrow’s was perhaps the most serious (shoulder), but his run in Los Angeles is probably going to get a team to overpay for him.

Swarzak and Hunter both posted a career high strikeout rate by pounding the plate on their glove side. If batters adjust, it could be trouble. If they don’t, these two will be the steals of the reliever class.

Shaw has been one of the most used relievers over the last three seasons. The Pirates saw the effects of long-term overuse last year with Watson. Even though he’s just 30, he probably is the most likely to break down.

Kintzler proved himself as a closer this year, but a 33 year old pitch-to-contact guy has red flags all over him. Joe Smith may have a downright pedestrian name, but the 34 year old has been as reliable as unheralded relievers come. He’s also already received a three year deal once before (and pitched admirably during the length of the deal) and may be in position for another lengthy pact.

Cishek has been a tad inconsistent, but has finished the last two years with an ERA in the low 2s and a combined 1.41 WPA.

Personal Picks

In the most recent episode of “Pirates Countdown” (it’s fresh off the presses), I said the Pittsburgh Pirates should make a run at McGee and Swarzak. You can check out the full podcast right here:


McGee was one of of the best southpaw relievers whenever he was with Tampa Bay. Then the Rays did the worst thing they could possibly do to a flyball pitcher: they sent him to Colorado. After a knee injury sapped him of 2 MPH on his heater, he rebounded in 2017 with a 3.61 ERA and 2.93 FIP. I believe moving him to PNC Park with its cavernous left with a flyball gobbling Starling Marte would be enough to make him revert back to his Rays form.

Swarzak struck out 30% of his batters faced last year, which was almost double his career rate coming into the year. He also thrived in clutch situations, posting a 2.41 WPA (18th in baseball).

Now for the bad news with these two. Swarzak’s 2017 was his breakout campaign. If it was a fluke, a multi-year deal could be dangerous. McGee throws his heater 95% of the time, and losing just 2 MPH was bad news for him in 2016. Despite these flaws, both of these pitchers will easily get a multi-year deal. I feel they’re both worth a third if that’s what it takes to sign them.

The safest bet would be to either stick with the current setup men (Hudson and George Kontos) or perhaps signing or trading for a one year reclamation project. But if the Pittsburgh Pirates decide it’s finally time to do something a little risky or even overpay a little for a free agent, giving a reliever a third year seems to be yielding better results now than it did earlier in the decade.

Photo credit – Flickr Creative Commons

Alex Stumpf

Alex is a credentialed Pirates beat reporter with The Pittsburgh Sports Report. If you want to keep up to date on the team or have a story idea, you can follow or reach him @AlexJStumpf.