I’m not sure you know this about me, but there are two things I’ve always loved doing. First, I like doing things about myself, even if the connection is tenuous. Secondly, I like to review my past decisions and see if there is anything I can learn from them, hopefully without being too selfish. I have great news – well, at least for me. Two free agent signings last week – Robert Suarez to Padres and Rafael Montero to Astros – gave me the opportunity to do both.
Obviously, I don’t want to give either player a minimum of attention. Both are excellent in their own right, the overdue relievers that come from the actual seasons of 2022 and high-leveraged post-season work. Selfish as I am, I cannot completely ignore them and speak only of myself. As a compromise, I’ll start by profiling each player and their new contract. From there, we’ll move on to discussing why neither of them was in my Top 50 Free Agents ranking and what I think I did wrong in making the list.
Robert Suarez, San Diego Padres
Suarez is one of the best stories in baseball. This year he wasn’t just a 31-year-old rookie; he was a 31-year-old making his affiliate ball debut after blossoming into a dominant rescuer in NPB. He gave up three runs without registering an out in his major league debut, then launched a 1.70 and 3.03 FIP ERA for the remainder of the season, earning a setup role ahead of Josh Hader in a solid San Diego bullpen.
Suarez relies on his four-stitching more frequently, and it’s easy to see why. He pairs top flight speed – he averaged 98 mph last year – with solid motion, aiming at the top of the zone for wobbles and errors. He mostly complements it with a gearbox approaching 90 mph, with a smattering of cutters (versus right-handed) and cornering. He also throws a sinker that is really more of a variation of his four-stitched; fewer sinkers in baseball fall less on the return flight, and the field is essentially a four seamer that swaps a few inches of vertical travel for horizontal movement.
That package is close enough to the modern relief starter kit, but with a key twist. He took out 31.9% of the hitters he faced in 2022, but had the same problems – home runs and walks, more or less – that most four-stitch relievers have. The twist is that his ballast received a lot of grounder and didn’t allow for a single extra base hit all year. I don’t think the performance will repeat itself – it hasn’t thrown a ton and probably won’t allow a BABIP .167 on it anymore – but the extra wrinkle definitely helped. In the playoffs, he threw his ballast a third of the time, double the change.
His contract with the Padres establishes him as Hader’s replacement next year, but gives him room to grow further in 2024. The high-level details sell off the deal. It’s a “five-year, $ 46 million” deal, but it’s actually a $ 30 million three-year deal to get started, with one player giving up before another two years at $ 8 million each. The deal can also grow up to $ 3 million per year based on the number of games Suarez finishes; if he gets closer than the Padres in 2024, it could be more than $ 36 million in three years, followed by another bite of the free agency apple.
This is first-class relief money. Our projections are somewhat in agreement; Steamer gives him the 40th best projection among rescuers next year, behind Hader and Luis García when it comes to the San Diego bullpen. I would go higher than 3.52 ERA Steamer projects, as I am concerned about the likelihood of sustaining his sinker effectiveness by keeping his strikeout rate high, but I think a mid 3.00 ERA is a reasonable guess as to his effectiveness . Quite simply, the guy can throw, even though major league teams have taken a long time to realize this.
Rafael Montero, Houston Astros
Montero went from being a throw-in linked to the Kendall Graveman exchange in 2021 – the Mariners had designated him for the post a few days earlier which meant they would lose him to a waiver request unless they had him. swapped – to Dusty Baker’s favorite man configuration this season. Despite some scary moments in the playoffs – he has hit 15% of the hitters he has faced – he has continued his top form from the regular season and hit free agency after a year of career. The Astros kept him on a $ 34.5 million three-year contract.
Montero’s field mix is strikingly similar to Suarez’s, at least superficially. He leans on a four-stitch and a gearbox, particularly against left-handers. Against the right-handers, he steps away from the gearbox and throws sinkers. He doesn’t have Suarez’s raw speed, but he launches very strong – 96 mph on average. He also boasts a low release point which combines with his excellent vertical movement to create a shallow approach angle on his fast balls, which offers adaptations to hitters. Unlike Suarez, he has a slider that he likes to throw to the right, but for the most part it’s fastball / sinker / changeup.
If you are charitable, you could say that Montero and the Astros worked together to bring out these traits, turning it into a whole new pitcher in 2022. If you’re taking a slightly broader view, well, again, it has launched itself offshore. of the Mariners in 2021. It has had short stretches like 2022 before; eventually put it together for an entire season, which is impressive in its own right, and did so by pitching 68.1 innings.
Next year, presumably, he’ll have the same role as this year: man of nominal build in a bullpen made up of pitchers who could handle that role if Baker wanted to give it to him. The entire bullpen is making a comeback and bringing players back from starting injury. Bryan Abreu looks like the show’s future star; he will be pushing both Montero and Ryan Pressly for high-leverage appearances next year, although of course there are plenty of things to do.
I draw several lessons from these two purchases. Let’s start with Suarez. Frankly, I underestimated it in my initial cut of the free agency charts and never moved it high enough in subsequent shuffles. He is the kind of player who is easy to miss in an early pass; arriving in September, he had a FIP of 3.96 in the year out of 34.1 innings and had walked more than 11% of opposing hitters. He didn’t allow a run in his September or October regular season games and knocked out nearly half of the hitters he faced, but I started with him low on the list and with so many free agents to sift through, my incremental adjustments are been not enough.
A solution? Instead of an incremental tweak style, I could completely recompile a new list of potential free agents towards the end of the playoffs and compare it to my previous work. Jason Martinez went through the list the night before we released it and not seeing Suarez immediately jumped out of him. Probably should have for me but I was blinded by my previous job. I don’t think I would have put it higher than 40 or so, because the short track record really makes me think, but now I would clearly prefer Suarez to, say, Craig Kimbrel or Mike Clevinger.
Another related solution: Trust things about results. With so many potential free agents to scrutinize, I relied on many filters – 2022 stats, projections, and so on – to guide my initial rankings before applying my judgment to move things from there. For relievers in particular, I should also focus on measurable blanks. Teams don’t just look at the players as they are today; they consider what they could become, which is especially important for short-term pitchers. Using projections helps somewhat with this, but that’s not exactly what I mean. Teams are looking for more and more pitchers to work with to bring out the best in them; rankings of free agents should also.
In the case of Montero, I think the lesson is not as clear-cut as that of Suarez, but it is somewhat similar. For both players, I cared too much that 2022 was only in their track record. Montero is even more useful as a late ace reliever in my mind, despite his recent form. There are plenty of helpful rescuers available each year, but few overdue relief aces. The difference is between being the most desired 60th free agent – where I placed Montero in my final rankings – and signing a contract that would probably have ranked him around 35th.
I am adding two bonus remarks, because today I am feeling particularly introspective. First, it may be time to reconsider how we think about team behavior regarding rescuers. The price of solid bullpen innings is going up; Last winter, a lot of solid rescuers signed deals in the $ 8 million AAV range. The same was true in the pre-COVID 2020 low season. Probably one of two things is true: all free agent contracts will be higher than we are used to this low season, or teams are allocating more of their budgets to rescue launches. I think the second is more likely than the first.
Secondly, I don’t think any of these contracts are great for the signing team. Suarez could be great, but I’m still not completely convinced. We just don’t have a great champion of him pitching in the majors to rely on, and the champion we have is confused. He hits a lot of hitters and walks a lot too, which means he doesn’t have a lot of batted ball data to watch, and I don’t really think his ballast will continue to allow for a BABIP of less than .200. Also, I’m not convinced that he continues his high strikeout clip without adding another wrinkle to his game; his fast ball is an excellent pitch, but I don’t think he’s one of the 10 best fast balls in the game or anything like that. This places a lot of weight on his change and command of him. The Padres clearly think it will work well, but I think there is more risk of failure here than there seems when you look at his 2022 rate stats.
As for Montero, the Astros are really good at mistaking for guys like him and helping them excel. Their entire bullpen is made up of unannounced prospects or commercial acquisitions that have turned into excellent rescuers thanks to tireless hard work and careful thought on the design of the camp. Perhaps this signing means they don’t see many more places to update the team and want to make sure the bullpen remains a strong point next year. Likewise, maybe they’re just expanding their budget significantly and Montero will be the first of many free agents headed to Houston. It’s hard to know exactly what approach James’s no-click front office will take for the off-season. If they continue to work as they have in the past, though, I would rather have sought help, depth of field, or an extra mid-range appetizer first.
At the end of next season, both of these signings could be great. They could also look terrible. This is how the relief seasons work; they are short and full of variances, which means external opinions about them fluctuate wildly. It wouldn’t shock me to see any of these guys post an ERA below 2.00 and look like the league class. It wouldn’t shock me to even see an ERA post pushing 5.00 and losing the high leverage job. Relief launch is difficult to predict. Hopefully, though, we will be better at predicting the contracts that those rescuers will push forward.