Indians Lose Joe Smith, Avoid Big Bullpen Spending


Joe Smith, He Gone!

You’ve probably heard it by now, but it’s worth mentioning if you haven’t. On Saturday night, news broke that former Indians reliever Joe Smith agreed to terms with the Angels on a three-year deal for $15.75 million.

The 29-year old Smith has pitched for the Indians since 2009 and was part of the 3-team, 11-player deal in December of 2008 that sent Franklin Gutierrez to the Mariners (the Indians also received Luis Valbuena in the trade).

As a fan, I’m sad to see Smith leave, but I can’t say that I disagree with the Indians’ decision to let him walk. Paying a reliever a little more than $5 million a year isn’t the best use of a team’s resources, especially on a three-year deal.

Apr 13, 2013; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians relief pitcher Joe Smith (38) delivers in the ninth inning against the Chicago White Sox at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

That’s not an ungodly amount of money. But since they play in a smaller market, the Indians can’t afford to spend a lot of money on relievers, especially considering the difference in value between them and other players. GM Chris Antonetti was smart to hold off on re-signing Smith, and the Indians can use the money saved from Smith’s departure towards improving other areas of the roster.

In fact, the Indians have already done just that. For just $1 million more per year (and one year less), the Indians signed outfielder David Murphy, who will likely platoon with Ryan Raburn in right field. Signing Murphy over Smith is a smart move by the Indians, as even an average position player will likely have more value than an above-average relief pitcher. And for a team like the Indians, it’s important to get the most out of every dollar that they spend. I just think that adding Murphy gives the team a better chance to do that than re-signing Smith would have.

Smith posted a 2.29 ERA for the Tribe in 2013, but that hides his 3.60 FIP and 3.70 xFIP. What this suggests is that Smith’s ERA isn’t completely indicative of the pitcher that he was in 2013. It also means that he’ll probably allow more runs in 2014. However, Smith’s peripheral stats in 2013 were in line with his career rates, so there shouldn’t be cause for concern.

Smith is still a terrific reliever, and he has experience in the late innings. He doesn’t have a lot of experience in the ninth inning, but he seems capable of handling that role if need be (the Angels say that they have no plans to replace closer Ernesto Frieri, but that remains to be seen).

Nonetheless, relievers are easily replaceable. Although re-signing Smith would have definitely improved the bullpen situation, the Indians have several candidates already in the organization (who are much cheaper) that can fill Smith’s role in the bullpen moving forward, even if it won’t be the same without Smith’s legendary side-arming delivery.

The fact of the matter is that signing relievers to multiyear deals generally hasn’t worked out in recent years. The unpredictability of relievers has been well-documented, and for good reason. Thanks to MLBTradeRumors, here is the list of free agent relievers who signed multiyear contracts last offseason (“QO” refers to if a player received a Qualifying Offer or not):

Notice a theme here? Although some of these contracts actually worked out for their respective teams in 2013, some haven’t turned out as well.

Consider this: these 12 relievers were paid a total of $50.25 million in 2013 (which is quite a bit on its own). According to Fangraphs, these same 12 relievers combined for a 1.7 WAR last season (WAR is a metric that measures a player’s value as compared to a replacement-level player, for those of you who don’t know). So, basically, their respective teams paid $29.56 million per win.

At that rate, the Indians would have needed a payroll of over $2.7 billion just to equal their 92 wins in 2013 (yes, you’re reading that correctly). If that’s not the craziest thing you’ll ever read, I’m not sure what is.

The scary thing about this is that Jason Grilli was only paid $2.5 million, but was worth 1.5 wins himself. So if you were to take him away from the equation, you’re looking at $47.75 million for 11 pitchers who combined for a 0.2 WAR. At that rate, the Indians’ payroll would have needed to have been almost $22 billion to reach 92 wins. I’d rather spend that money on 88 million gumballs.

I know, I know. There are a few problems with this.

I understand that a baseball team isn’t made up of just relief pitchers. Clearly, there are starting pitchers and position players as well.

While many Indians fans are disappointed to see Joe Smith leave the Indians, the Tribe can use the money saved to fill other holes on the roster. (Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports)

I understand that WAR isn’t the best stat to use for measuring relief pitchers. I’m also not usually a huge fan of using WAR because of its fluctuation depending on which source it’s taken from. (For argument’s sake, all WAR calculations I’m using are from Fangraphs.)

However, these numbers are worth including to show that (at least in my opinion) relief pitchers are extremely overvalued in today’s game.

Of the 12 pitchers in the table above, 5 of them — League, Burnett, Broxton, Affeldt, and Adams — had a negative WAR in 2013. What this says is that these 5 all performed below replacement level, which probably does a better job to truly put the value of these relievers into perspective.

The fact that a pitcher can allegedly be worth a multiyear contract one season and pitch below replacement level the next shows the extremely volatile nature of a reliever. It also questions when (if ever) a pitcher should actually be worth such a contract in the first place.

With all of that being said, let’s get back to Joe Smith.

From strictly a baseball perspective, Smith is a very good addition to the Angels. The Halos’ bullpen ranked 26th in baseball last season with a collective 4.12 ERA, and 25th with a collective 1.35 WHIP. Smith will definitely help with that.

However, I’m not too keen on the idea of paying a reliever over $5 million a year, and recent history says that this contract might not turn out well for the Angels. Signing a reliever for a few million dollars will definitely make the bullpen look better, but it’s just not necessary. The difference in value between a good reliever and a great reliever isn’t worth the difference in their costs. A reliever making over $5 million will have almost the same value as one making one-tenth of that.

So, while adding Joe Smith will definitely help the Angels’ bullpen, it wasn’t entirely necessary for them to do so.

I would have loved to see Smith back with the Indians in 2014. However, baseball is a business. A team needs to make moves designed to improve the roster, and not just for sentimental reasons. Paying over $5 million for a reliever (no matter how much he is loved in Cleveland) probably shouldn’t have been part of the Indians’ plans, and so far it hasn’t been.

With that being said, I wish the best of luck to Joe Smith. I wish him the best of luck with the Angels, and I’ll always miss having him in Cleveland.

Goodbye, Smitty.