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A Look At How The Cost Of Relief Help Has Changed Dramatically

Analysis and Commentary

andrew miller oriolesThe prospect bounty sent by the Cubs to acquire Aroldis Chapman from the Yankees looks like a game-changer as far as cost acquisition for rental relievers is concerned.

Yet, it is only the latest example of the rising cost of adding impact bullpen pieces.

Trading for relief help in the summer is one of the great traditions of America’s Pastime, but things have changed since 2012 when there was a rule change in free agent compensation tied with draft picks in the CBA. Since then, only six relievers who accumulated 1-WAR seasons have changed teams — four of which came before the non-waiver trade deadline. Great relievers don’t change hands too often.

It is likely that we will look at July 31, 2014 as the date in which the trade game changed. Teams have long overpaid for relief help in the open market, but the Orioles’ swap with the Red Sox for Andrew Miller was the first in which an elite, rental reliever had been dealt for an high-end prospect. Twenty innings of work from Miller cost the Orioles left-handed pitching prospect Eduardo Rodriguez, who immediately slotted as the Red Sox’s No. 4 prospect.

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Here is a before-and-after look at Miller’s performance and value in 2014.

MILLER (IP) ERA FIP xFIP K% BB% LOB% fWAR
BOS (42.1) 2.34 1.69 1.75 40.6 7.7 74.0 1.3
BAL (20.0) 1.35 1.13 1.22 47.2 5.6 86.2 1.0

Miller performed nearly as well for the Orioles as he did for the Red Sox and did so while facing 98 fewer batters. Sending a top-100 starting pitching prospect was simply the price of doing business.

You can argue the reliever trade market truly took off a few weeks before that when the Angels acquired Huston Street from the Padres. Desperate to find late-inning stability, the Angels paid a hefty price to acquire Street in the middle of July. Street cost the Angels three of their top-12 prospects, headlined by shortstop Taylor Lindsey, who was the Angels’ top farmhand and a top-100 prospect as recently as the winter of 2013-14.  

Street pitched admirably for the Angels (1.71 ERA/2.68 FIP/3.87 xFIP) but it wasn’t as well as he did for the Padres (1.09 ERA/2.89 FIP/2.91 xFIP). He did come with 1.5 years of team control.


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If that didn’t tip us off to what was on the horizon with regards to the price of acquiring high-end bullpen help, perhaps we should have been looking at recent free agent trends.

Here is a look at how spending on relief help has changed since 2011 using data from ESPN.com.

YEAR TOTAL (Mill.) $10M+ guaranteed
2015 $223.75 11
2014 $218.45 8
2013 $217.20 9
2012 $172.13 6
2011 $175.10 5

Teams have become increasingly willing (and because of growing revenues, able) to spend for all sorts of relief help in free agency. We’re looking at more than $650 million in expenditures over the last three years, highlighted by 28 players receiving $10 million or more in guarantees.

It is possible we’re seeing costs on the trade market catch up to what it had been in free agency. Take for example the two Craig Kimbrel trades. Kimbrel was another reliever who came with some team control, but his contract was not necessarily viewed as under-market.


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The Braves received the Padres’ fourth-best prospect (pitcher Matt Wisler) and outfield prospect Jordan Paroubeck, the 41st overall draft pick and two fringe big leaguers (Carlos Quentin, Cameron Maybin) for Kimbrel and Melvin Upton Jr. Less than a year later, San Diego flipped Kimbrel to Boston in a deal for four Red Sox prospects headlined by Manuel Margot (Red Sox No. 4) and shortstop Javier Guerra (Red Sox No. 6).

And to be outdone in this particular race, for Ken Giles, a pre-arbitration reliever, the Phillies received two top-100 pitching prospects (Mark Appel, Vincent Velasquez), a third young prospect arm (Thomas Eshelman) and a usable bullpen arm in Brett Oberholzer. Yes, lots of team control, but also an unbelievably high price.


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This isn’t to say the Cubs didn’t pay a relatively hefty price. They did. But it might turn out to be a price that reflects current market value.


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Luis Medina

Luis Medina is a Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at@lcm1986.

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