Before the 2015 Orioles' season even started, the talk about the impending free agent purge coming this off season was on the table. Chris Davis, Matt Wieters, and Wei-Yin Chen, cornerstones of the past four seasons of relatively successful baseball, all destined for a major league payday. The big three. The triumvirate. However, almost as important of a cornerstone is Darren O'Day and he is also set to hit the free agent market for the first time in his career.
It is somewhat conventional wisdom among the baseball analysts of the world that committing large dollars and lots of years to relievers is a bad idea. Relievers are too volatile from year to year, especially non-closers, and they do not pitch enough to warrant being paid like a starter. The Orioles of recent vintage of shown this principle to be somewhat accurate. The Orioles signed such relievers as Danys Baez and Mike Gonzalez to--what was at the time--big money deals for multiple years. They both struggled in their time in Baltimore and cost the Orioles payroll room and roster flexibility.
However, with some team's recent successes, namely the 2014 Royals, bullpens have gained a new respect. Orioles fans should remember 2012 as well in which the team was basically led by an elite level bullpen. Being able to shorten the game with high quality one inning pitchers in the most high leverage situations is an excellent weapon. So while a good reliever may throw only 70 innings in a single year, those are likely to be some of the most important of the season. In particular, come playoff time when starters are pulled earlier and bullpens are foisted into the spotlight.
In steps Darren O'Day, a side arming right hander who cannot top 90 mph. O'Day has been a key cog in the Orioles bullpen for the past four years as the 8th inning setup man/high leverage situation and the backup closer. Over the past four years O'Day has posted a 1.93 ERA striking out hitters 27 percent of the time and walking them only 6 percent of the time.
O'Day ranks fourth best among relievers over the past four seasons with at least 200 innings pitched in ERA and has the fifth lowest WHIP. He also ranks first in LOB% (Left on Base Percentage) an important statistic for relievers because they needs to be able to strand runners. Furthermore, he posted the ninth highest WPA (Win Probability Added) proving that when it counted the most, O'Day has been one of the best relievers in baseball to have in the game.
If you go all the way back to 2009, Darren O'Day has the best ERA for a reliever with at least 350 innings pitched. He maintains his spot atop of the LOB% rankings and moves up to sixth in WPA. I'm not sure how many more ways I can convey that Darren O'Day has been really good for a really long time and probably is one of the ten best relievers in baseball.
While many middle relievers struggle with year over year consistency, O'Day has not been one of them. That makes handing him a longer term deal seem less risky. Yet the Orioles were able to sign O'Day very cheap on a two year deal with an option back in 2012 even though he had already proven to be an effective reliever. I believe that teams look for high end velocity in the bullpen these days as teams look to jump on the ever increasing velocity bandwagon. O'Day scares some teams because he has a funky delivery and will never light up a radar gun. However, with three more excellent years under his belt, he is set for the big payday. The question then becomes how big.
Besides his low velocity and funky arm action O'Day also has the fact that he turns 33 in October against him. Even side armers can succumb to age and betting on a 33 year old reliever can be a tough bet to make for most teams.
Andrew Miller and Davis Robertson both received four year deals last off season to become their team's closer. Miller signed for $36 million total while Robertson received $46 million (the closer bump). Right below them were the likes of Luke Gregerson, Koji Uehara, Pat Neshek, and Zack Duke whom all received two to three years and somewhere between $12 and $18 million total.
Again though, O'Day is a bit of a tricky situation. With him going into next season at 33, he probably cannot get over a three year deal. The average annual value could get pretty high though. Remember, O'Day has consistently been one of the best relievers in baseball for the past seven seasons. Somewhere around $8 or $10 million per year for O'Day is not out of the question and that could go even higher if a team wants him to close.
My prediction for his contract is 3 years/$27 million this off season. A steep contract that will double his current career earnings. The Orioles may not be able to afford a $9 million dollar man in their bullpen and may even have some guys ready to come up behind O'Day to fill in his role, but they will very likely not get the same kind of consistency. Furthermore, no bullpen has ever struggled because they had too many elite relievers. I have not considered yet whether or not the Orioles should or should not sign O'Day, but he will certainly be missed if he signs elsewhere.