Memo to Orioles: Signing relievers to multi-year deals is bad.

The news of the Orioles' decision to sign Kevin Gregg to a two-year contract left many of us shaking our heads. Off the top of my head I couldn't think of one reliever signed to a multi-year deal recently that has worked out in the Orioles favor, but I thought maybe my memory was just being colored by the recent memories of Danys Baez and Jamie Walker. So, using Baseball-Reference.com, I went back to the 2000 season and worked my way to the present, identifying the relief pitchers the Orioles thought were good enough to sign as free agents for more than one year. The results, as you might guess, aren't pretty. 

Mike Timlin - In November 1998, Orioles GM Frank Wren signed Mike Timlin to a four-year, $16M contract. Timlin, 32 years old at the time, was a seven year ML veteran with great numbers as a reliever. From 1991-1998 he accumulated a 3.52 ERA (129 ERA+) with a 2.13 K/BB ratio. His 1998 season with the Mariners was especially impressive and probably led to his multi-year deal.

Timlin spent 1 1/2 seasons with the Orioles and was never a dominant closer. He blew nine saves in 1999 and four in 2000 before being traded, and lost his job as closer in both years. He was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals as part of the Orioles' 2000 fire sale. The Orioles sent Timlin and cash to the Cardinals for RHP Mark Nussbeck (who never made the majors) and utility infielder Chris Richard. All told the Orioles ended up spending $6.5M and a third-round draft pick for Timlin, who couldn't live up to his contract.

Buddy Groom - I have very fond memories of Buddy Groom. I suppose it is because he was with the Orioles for five seasons, which for a reliever is pretty rare. The Orioles signed Groom in December 1999 to a two year, $4M contract with a $2.5M option for a third year, which was ultimately exercised. In those three years Groom was a workhorse, making 70 appearances each year. Groom was an effective part of the bullpen with a K/BB of 6.0 in 2001 and 4.0 in 2002. No wonder I have fond memories of Buddy Groom.

You might say this was a multi-year deal worked out for the Orioles, but instead of counting their blessings, they ruined everything by signing Groom to an two year, $6.25M extension. This was an extension, by the way, that began when Groom was 37 years old. 2003-04 Groom wasn't nearly as successful. His home run rates shot up along with his walk rates, and in those two years his ERA was a combined 5.05.

Mike Trombley - Mike Trombley spent eight seasons with the Minnesota Twins before signing a three-year, $7.75M contract with the Orioles in November 1999. And you know what? He wasn't even all that good for the Twins. He had a couple good seasons, sure, but that's it. But he did have 24 saves in 1999 which is, as we know, very impressive. Or something. Trombley had a poor 2000 for the Orioles, with he had a walk rate of 4.8 and a 4.13 ERA that was aided greatly by a ridiculous 85.2% LOB rate. He blew seven of eleven save opportunities and allowed one-third of his inherited runners to score.

Trombley had a bit more success for the Orioles in 2001 despite a drop in his K rate thanks to his .237 BABIP. He pitched to a 3.46 ERA and only blew three saves in nine opportunities. He was traded at the deadline for Kris Foster and Geronimo Gil. The Orioles ended up spending about $4.5M and a second-round draft pick for Trombley before unloading him to the Dodgers. But hey, we got five years of a backup catcher in return!

Steve Kline - Ugh, remember this guy? What a jerk. In case you've forgotten, Kline threw his teammates under the bus saying they weren't picking him up when he made mistakes, bashed Baltimore fans for not being as good as fans in St. Louis, and publicly wished he could return to the Cardinals. This all happened after the Orioles signed him to a two year, $5.5M contract in December 2004.

Kline spent one miserable season with the Orioles, sporting a 4.4 BB/9 and 5.3 K/9. He gave up 11 HR in 61 innings pitched, got suspended for flipping out at an umpire over a balk, and generally made everyone hate him. Kline was traded to the San Francisco Giants after the 2005 season for LaTroy Hawkins, who made more money in 2006 ($4.4M) for the Orioles than Kline did for the Giants ($3.0M). Oh, and Hawkins also turned out to be kind of a crybaby.

Danys Baez, Jamie Walker, and Chad Bradford - Oh, here we go. I actually wrote about Baez, Walker, and Bradford in a 2009 piece titled, The End of the Bad Contracts. Everything you need to know about those guys can be found there. Bottom line is that the in November 2006, the Orioles spent $41.5M on those three pitchers, each signed to a three year deal. Bradford was decent, when Walker was good he was very good, and when he was bad he was awful, and Baez (whose $19M contract was the largest) was a giant hot mess from the get-go. In addition to the $41.5M, the Orioles also lost their second-round draft pick for Baez and their third-round draft pick for Bradford.

Mike Gonzalez - None of the previous contracts were given out by current O's GM Andy MacPhail, and until he signed Mike Gonzalez I thought maybe those days were behind us. MacPhail signed Gonzalez in December 2009 to a two year, $12M contract and declared him the closer. Gonzalez blew a save on Opening Day and again at the home opener three days later. After that he went on the disabled list and wasn't heard from again until July 22nd. From then until the end of the year he was good, posting a 2.78 ERA and holding batters to a .165/.258/.253 hitting line. He still has a year on his contract to prove his worth, but he lost the closer gig and I don't know how awesome he'd have to be for anyone to declare his tenure as an O successful. Maybe if he brings back something valuable in a trade? So far he has cost the Orioles $6M and one second-round draft pick, and he'll make $6M more in 2011.

Kevin Gregg - The best thing that can be said about Kevin Gregg is that he didn't cost a draft pick. The Orioles offered Gregg a two-year contract a month ago, and he hemmed and hawed, waiting for a comparable offer from another team (this is my speculation, of course). When none came, he finally agreed to slum with the Orioles for a two year, $10M contract with a vesting option for a third season. We've discussed Gregg at length here, but this appears to be another bad decision.

Since signing Mike Timlin before the 1999 season, the Orioles have, by my count, signed nine free agent relief pitchers to multi-year deals. That's nine contracts totaling $103M and costing the team three second-round draft picks and two third-round draft picks. They did get some of that back by dumping the players on other teams, but other than my boy Buddy Groom (and arguably Chad Bradford since he got traded before he got hurt), none were worth jack in their time with the Orioles. If you're a fan of the WAR, here is what each of them accumulated in their time with Baltimore (from FanGraphs):

  • Timlin: 0.1 in 1.5 seasons, cost $6.5M
  • Groom: 4.9 in 5 seasons, cost $12.25M
  • Trombley: 0.0 in 1.5 seasons, cost $4.5M
  • Kline: -0.6 in 1 seasons, cost $2.5M
  • Baez: -0.4 in 3 seasons (on on the DL), cost $19M
  • Bradford: 1.9 in 2 seasons, $6.83M
  • Walker: -0.5 WAR in 3 seasons, $12M
  • Gonzalez: 0.7 WAR in 1 season, $6M (and one more season to go)

Do you think there is any chance the Kevin Gregg will buck the trend and be super valuable? Do you think the Orioles will ever discover for themselves that for every Buddy Groom there are eight other crappy pitchers?

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