It’s a good thing the Blue Jays have Roberto Osuna locking down games for them because the relief market’s gone bonkers this winter. If you want a brand new elite arm in your bullpen, you better have either a young flamethrower in Triple-A ready to call up, or a dump truck full of money.
The three biggest prizes in this aisle have already been sold out for a week now, and they went for nothing less than record setting prices. Here’s the details on the three biggest contracts MLB teams have ever handed out to relievers:
Aroldis Chapman: Five years, $86 million
Kenley Jansen: Five years, $80 million
Mark Melancon: Four years, $62 million
The madness doesn’t stop there. What if you’re after a setup man who’s really tough on hitters from the left side? Well, that’s going to cost a pretty penny too as the Blue Jays found out the hard way in losing Brett Cecil to the Cardinals. Here’s what two of those deals have looked like:
Brett Cecil: Four years, $30.5 million
Mike Dunn: Three years, $19 million
When Mike Dunn is getting $19 million, you know the market’s officially reached Looney Tunes land. This is problematic for the Jays because while their bullpen isn’t in as rough shape as some teams, they still need more help in middle relief.
So far, the front office’s reaction to losing out on Cecil has been to sign a bunch of left handed arms to minor league deals and hope they catch lightning in a bottle. In just the last two weeks they’ve added Brett Oberholtzer, T.J. House and Jeff Beliveau to the mix. (Now to be fair, this is what they’ve done through December 22. It would be foolish to assume that they plan to show up to spring training with Aaron Loup as their top left handed option out of the pen. In fact, rumors have been swirling this week that Toronto is in on several left handed options.)
With that said, the Jays could still use another right handed option as well with Joaquin Benoit lost to the Phillies, and one player that should be getting more attention - or any attention for that matter - is Matt Belisle, especially considering this market.
At this point in his career, Belisle isn’t going to completely shut guys down or be your top option in a high leverage spot, but he’ll likely be a positive addition to any club that decides to sign him. For more perspective, let’s take a look at Belisle’s career numbers from baseball reference splitting his time in the big leagues at the 2009/2010 off season.
Here’s Belisle’s career through 2009:
Pretty unimpressive right? Belisle looked like a guy barely hanging onto the major leagues. He’d bounced from reliever to starter with little success, gave up far too many home runs, and was about to turn 30.
Then he found himself in 2010 with the Rockies while working with pitching coach Bob Apodaca, and since that season, he’s quietly turned himself into one of the most under the radar solid middle relievers in the game.
Here’s his baseball reference numbers compiling his 2010 through 2016 season:
Nothing overwhelmingly dominant, but pretty impressive when you consider what he looked like through 2009 and also take into account that he spent five of those seven seasons pitching in Coors Field. After a down season with the Rockies in 2014, he’s bounced back in limited action in St. Louis and Washington the last two years; but despite being a free agent and posting a 2.14 ERA in his last 80 innings pitched, he’s been completely out of the news this winter. This baffles me considering the contracts other arms are getting.
Belisle will be far from the best arm signed this winter, but the way things are going, he might be the guy signed for best team value. Let’s take a look at some of the positives he brings to the table:
- In five of the last seven years, Belisle’s posted an ERA+ of 125 or higher (and it’s been 148 and 239 the last two years). While this is not the best measuring stick of effectiveness in small sample size, you don’t put up those types of numbers in a seven year period if you’re not an effective reliever. (I used ERA+ here because I wanted a park adjusted stat to account for his seasons at Coors Field)
- Belisle’s been really good at limiting home runs since 2010. Only 1.6 percent of the nearly 2,000 plate appearances batters have had against him in that time have ended in home runs.
- Belisle’s been really good at limiting walks since 2010. (In other words, if you have a good defense, especially a good defense up the middle, you’re going to be Okay with Belisle on the mound because he’s going to force the opponent to put the ball in play.)
- This is a guy who’s flexible and will be willing to take the ball in any spot to help the team. Belisle’s a good clubhouse presence who you can put in any middle relief role you need as the season dictates.
Now to be fair, there’s also a couple of areas of concern with Belisle too:
- The Rockies rode him hard. After averaging 74 appearances a year from 2010 through 2014, he only made 34 appearances in 2015 after missing all of July and August with right elbow inflammation. Then last season, he made it into just 40 games after missing seven weeks from late April to mid June with a calf strain. He was pretty darn effective once he came back from that injury however.
- He’s never pitched for an American League team, so his transition to this division with deeper lineups would be an unknown. At the same time though, pitchers often gain an early advantage when hitters haven’t faced him before.
At the very least, Belisle is an interesting arm a team like the Blue Jays should be considering. In 2015, he was paid $3.5 million on a one-year contract with the Cardinals, and last year the Nationals got him on a one-year deal for just $1.25 million. If the Blue Jays can get him for anywhere near that price range, they should probably pull the trigger. Bullpen depth tends to be very useful in the summertime.