INDIANAPOLIS - Three names: Juan Cruz, Scott Linebrink, David Riske.
None is a free agent this season. None is likely to wander into the home clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park any time soon. But as the Phillies peruse the help-available listings in their quest to upgrade their bullpen, all three are worth mentioning.
Because all three signed multiyear contracts as free agents over the past two offseasons. All three were 30 or older at the start of those deals. And all three serve as a stark reminder of the inherent risk that exists whenever a general manager decides to dole out significant money to a seemingly standout reliever.
"It's a different world," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said yesterday. "The bullpen is very unpredictable, yet incredibly important for a club to have success. You'd like to be as stable as you can in the back end of your bullpen and the middle and such, but it's a bit of a crapshoot."
To be clear: The Phillies have not ruled out the possibility of signing a free-agent reliever to a multiple-year contract. In fact, given their desire to land a pitcher capable of pitching in the late innings of close games, it might be a necessity. But before you decry Amaro's hesitation to dive headfirst into what looks to be a deep relief market, know this: History suggests that his path is paved with wisdom.
Take, for example, the 30 relievers who in 2007 pitched at least 60 innings and posted an ERA of 3.00 or lower. Six of them failed to crack 20 innings the following season thanks to injuries. Another seven saw their ERA balloon higher than 4.50.
By the end of last season, only 13 of those 30 relievers had pitched at least 20 innings and recorded an ERA of 4.00 or lower in both 2008 and 2009.
In the past, Amaro has labeled his free-agent strategy as "cautiously aggressive." So while he said yesterday that the Phillies had identified a handful of players they would pursue, he also said he could envision a scenario in which the Phillies reach the latter stages of the offseason with holes still to fill.
"I think as far as the pitching is concerned, it seems like there is enough of a certain quality of guy out there that I think we would feel a little more comfortable being patient," Amaro said. "Again, there are a couple of guys that we would like to be aggressive on. That said, if those things don't work out, then it may behoove us to be a little more patient."
Over the past couple of weeks, Tigers righthander Brandon Lyon has emerged as one player the Phillies would consider making a concerted effort to land, but there were indications yesterday that his asking price remains too high for them. On paper, Lyon would seem to be a perfect fit in Philadelphia, especially if Amaro is unsuccessful in his quest to re-sign righthander Chan Ho Park. Over the past three seasons, Lyon has posted a 3.31 ERA in 212 innings, allowing 1.259 walks/hits per inning pitched. He can pitch multiple innings - 24 of his 65 appearances for the Tigers lasted longer than one inning - and he saved 26 games for the Diamondbacks in 2008.
But he is also a reliever, a position that is notoriously susceptible to unforeseen drops in production.
Take, for example, the three names in the first sentence.
In February, Cruz signed a 2-year, $6 million deal with the Royals after posting a 3.47 ERA and 1.297 WHIP while averaging 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings in his previous three seasons. In 2009, he posted a 5.72 ERA and 1.490 WHIP while averaging 6.8 strikeouts per nine.
In 2007, Linebrink signed a 4-year, $19 million deal with the White Sox after posting a 2.51 ERA and 1.101 WHIP while averaging 8.5 strikeouts per nine innings in his previous three seasons. In 2009, he had a 4.66 ERA and 1.661 WHIP while averaging 8.8 strikeouts per nine innings.
Also in 2007, Riske signed a 3-year, $13 million contract with the Brewers after posting a 3.53 ERA and 1.222 WHIP while averaging 7.1 strikeouts per nine innings. In 2009, he pitched just one inning before undergoing elbow surgery that will sideline him for at least the first half of 2010 (in 2008, he posted a 5.31 ERA and 1.701 WHIP while averaging 5.7 strikeouts per nine innings).
And the list goes on.
Last year, 10 relievers signed multiyear contracts. Seven of those pitchers proceeded to post ERAs that were at least 0.96 higher than in 2008. Lefthander Brian Fuentes, who signed a 2-year, $17.5 million deal with the Angels, saw his ERA rise from 2.73 to 3.93, his WHIP rise from 1.101 to 1.400, and his strikeouts fall from 11.8 per-nine-innings to a career-low 7.5 per-nine. The man Fuentes replaced, Francisco Rodriguez, saw a similar dropoff after signing a 3-year, $37 million deal with the Mets. Yankees lefthander Damaso Marte logged just 13 1/3innings in the first year of his 3-year, $12 million deal.
Over the last three offseasons, 30 free-agent relievers have signed multiyear contracts. There are some success stories (Francisco Cordero, Mariano Rivera). But the misses are far more prevalent, both big (Danys Baez, Jamie Walker, Scott Schoeneweis, Justin Speier and Troy Percival, to name a few) and small (Luis Vizcaino's 4.99 ERA, 1.451 WHIP and 58 appearances over a 2-year, $7.5 million deal he signed with the Rockies after the 2007 season).
"You try to be creative to be in a position to acquire some of those guys," Amaro said. "There's great value in guys who can pitch in the seventh, eighth and/or the ninth inning. I would say there's a finite group of those types of free-agent pitchers, and that may push us away from being able to do something with them because their value might be too high as far as what the length of the contract may be and the kind of commitment you have to make."
For now, the Phillies will wait for the risk worth taking.