Home > MLB > The Calero Conundrum: What we can learn about the reliever market

The Calero Conundrum: What we can learn about the reliever market

To most Mets fans delight, Kiko Calero was signed to a minor-league deal that could earn him up to $1.5 million.  Many across the internet including those at Fangraphs and the Hardball Times have speculated on why he didn’t sign earlier. Naturally, the conclusion was that there were some rather large concerns about the health of his arm and shoulder. Still, most thought that the risk was more than worth the small cost he was commanding in the market and any team who landed him would get a ‘steal’. Well, the Mets seem to have inked a solid reliever to a rather small contract. Calero has a career 9.6 K/9 and 132 ERA+, and if he performs near that level for a good portion of the season, he will easily be worth his value. Nevertheless, the Calero situation has shone light on the greater reliever market which helps explain the relative lack of interest.

Relief Pitcher as a Position

In today’s major leagues, there are two primary roles which garner a lot of money and attention, the closer and the left-handed setup man. A player who can fill either of these roles effectively and has historically proven the ability to do so will likely earn a larger amount of money than other relief pitchers. While Calero has been good, his ‘stuff” isn’t terribly impressive and probably keeps him from being considered a closer candidate.  Additionally, the role of a bullpen ‘anchor’ is often given a slight premium, although these players are in many cases insurance policies for the current closer.

Look around the league this offseason and you’ll see some examples of this. John Grabow got a 2-year $7.5 million deal, Jose Valverde landed a 2-year $14 million contract, and Fernando Rodney got $11 million over two years. Each of these players is left-handed or has shown the ability to consistently get saves in the past.

The Age Factor

Calero is 35 years old. At that age, some decline is likely, especially given the fact that 2009 was his best year.  But the concern about his age goes beyond just the projected 2010 performance. For players with an injury, the potential payoff of a successful and healthy season is not just in the current year, but in a future contract. For Calero, there is less of a chance that he will be healthy and productive at age 36, 37 and 38, lowering the potential return for taking such a risk.

The Utility of the Back of the Bullpen

While a strong left hander, a closer and another ‘anchor’ are important bullpen ‘positions’ for a lot of teams, the rest of the bullpen often has a different shape. Teams would like to employ cheap and home-grown options and often have the choice of many young relievers and future starters who need major league experience. Once again, this goes beyond the current season, but also has an eye on the future. A reliever who doesn’t fill the critical roles in a bullpen is taking up space which could be used to develop arms that can pay huge dividends later on. If an older reliever becomes ineffective over the course of a season, they are often ‘stuck’ using him and cannot replace him without a release. It’s interesting to point out that the new Calero contract allows for him to be sent to the minor leagues freely.

Conclusions

These three factors show that the reasons for the lack of interest in Calero can be explained not just by injury, but by market forces as well. Some may argue, and with a lot of merit, that some of the valuations such as the ability to ‘close’ are not really indicative of the player’s value. For the most part, I agree.  Calero was a great deal for the Mets in 2010, and should solidify their bullpen greatly. For those wondering why he came cheap,  it can best be attributed to arbitrary distinctions amongst relievers in the market, a scope beyond 2010 (despite the fact that the contract is only for one year), and as many have said before, the injury risk.

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