After the 2013 season had drawn to a close, it was easy to say that the Tampa Bay Rays had made a good move when they acquired Wesley Wright. After the Rays had acquired him for nothing but cash considerations on August 12th, Wright made 16 appearances and posted a 2.92 ERA, striking out 15 while walking 3 in 12.1 innings pitched.
Overall between the Rays and Houston Astros, Wright managed a 3.69 ERA and a 55-19 strikeout to walk ratio in 53.2 innings pitched. He was a solid lefty reliever with two years of team control remaining, and he was projected to make just $1.4 million in arbitration. It seemed like a no-brainer that the Rays would keep him. Instead, the team non-tendered him and he signed with the Chicago Cubs for $1.425 million.
The Rays part of Wesley Wright’s story was crazy enough, but the latest chapter is entering the realm of the bizarre. Wright pitched very well for Chicago, managing a 3.17 ERA and a 37-19 strikeout to walk ratio in 48.1 innings pitched. His strikeout to walk ratio was worse, but his homer rate had also gone down. Most importantly, he was projected to make just $2.0 million, a sum that the Cubs could easily pay. However, Wright has now been non-tendered again for reasons that seem incomprehensible. What in the world is going on here?
When the Rays decided to non-tender Wesley Wright, it had less to do with him than their overall bullpen depth. Just among lefty relievers, they knew that they had Jake McGee, Alex Torres (who had not yet been traded), and Cesar Ramos, and they also had players like Jeff Beliveau and Mike Montgomery at Triple-A.
For the Cubs, however, we can’t say that they have a ton of lefty relievers with Wright gone. James Russell was traded to the Atlanta Braves and both Zac Rosscup and Chris Rusin struggled mightily. The Cubs might have liked what they saw from Eric Jokisch in a small sample size, but that’s about it. With that in mind, the best explanation we’re going to get as to why the Cubs non-tendered Wright has to do with the current free agent market conditions.
$2 million does not seem like a lot of money, but only a limited number of lefty relievers have received contracts worth that much annually in the last four offseason. There were four such cases in the 2010 offseason, three in 2011, six in 2012, and eight in 2013. Seeing that number primarily increase over time seems to be a great example of salary inflation in baseball–everyone is getting more money than before. However, just looking at players receiving $2 million or more does not tell us the full story.
Of the four lefty relievers signed for at least $2 million in 2010, three of them (Scott Downs, Arthur Rhodes, and Pedro Feliciano) were truly elite, and all of them netted at least $4 million per year. There were several other solid options out there–Will Ohman, Randy Choate, J.C. Romero, J.P. Howell, and George Sherrill–but only Ohman reached $2 million as well, with the others all getting $1.35 million or less per year.
We see a similar pattern in the subsequent years as well. The elite pitchers with long track records of success end up making at least $3 million while just one or two arms get salaries between $1.5 and $3 million. Here’s a table to illustrate that point, with the column headers being the annual average salary the lefty relievers received. For the fourth column, I only included actual big league relievers who had achieved some amount of success.
[table id=14 /]
Three numbers from the table stand out the most: the six relievers receiving more than $3 million in 2013, the three relievers receiving between $1.5 and $3 million in 2012, and the just three pitchers getting less than $1.5 million in 2013. We can explain the former two of those in one shot. In 2012, two of the three who got between $1.5 and $3 million were special cases: Randy Choate, who received three years at $2.5 million per year, and J.P. Howell, who received just under $3 million at $2.85 million. If we add both of them or at least Choate to the ≥$3 million group, the 2012 and 2013 numbers look a lot more similar.
in 2013, however, couldn’t the argument be made that more pitchers received $3 million than ever before because there just weren’t many lefties out there? However, the outlier has more to do with simply the quality of the available pitchers rather than teams overpaying for relievers that didn’t deserve the money. Javier Lopez, Boone Logan, Scott Downs, and Matt Thornton had long track records of success, Howell had reestablished his value with the Dodgers, and Eric O’Flaherty deserved the benefit of the doubt after Tommy John Surgery because he also had been dominant.
The data shows that there are a couple of great lefty relievers on the market each season, and the rest are forced to compete for just one or two deals above $1.5 million. As we look at the available relievers for the season, the big thing to note is that Wesley Wright is a good lefty reliever, but also a quite ordinary one. He has good but not great stuff and had never really dominated, so he could not place himself among the elite guys like Lopez, Howell, and Downs from previous years. And as he hopes to make more than $1.5 million, he has way too much competition.
Andrew Miller and Zach Duke (who has already signed) are the elite guys on the market, and behind them, you have Joe Beimel, Craig Breslow, Phil Coke, Tom Gorzelanny, Josh Outman, Neal Cotts, and Joe Thatcher. Even if we said that Wesley Wright is one of the top two of that group (which he probably isn’t), the Cubs can lose him knowing that some rock-solid lefty will fall to them at a salary of a little over $1 million on a one-year deal.
Wesley Wright is finding out the hard way that it doesn’t pay to be a less-than-elite lefty reliever. The best he can do is join another team, deliver another strong season, and hope that he eventually is considered one of the upper-echelon lefties.