Last week, former Orioles reliever Pedro Strop received a modest contract extension from the Cubs, avoiding all the free agent excitement by adding a year onto his current contract with a team option for another year. That contract, adding about $12 million onto a $5.5 million 2017 salary, could prove to be something of a blueprint for current Oriole Brad Brach.
The Orioles cast aside Strop along with Jake Arrieta in the 2013 trade that netted them Scott Feldman. Arrieta, having gone on to pitch several excellent seasons, including a Cy Young campaign, understandably gets all the attention. The Orioles rotation missed him. The bullpen has been plenty good without Strop, but he’s gone on to put together several solid seasons.
Strop will be 32 and is entering what would have been his last year of arbitration before becoming a free agent. This makes him an interesting point of reference for Brach, who is a year younger than Strop and also a year farther away from free agency.
That means that Brach will also be eligible to be a free agent following his age 32 season. If Brach posts a respectable sub-3.00 ERA in the upcoming season, his case will look similar to Strop’s. If he follows up on his 2016 success with another near-2.00 ERA kind of season, he’d be in line to look for a higher salary than what Strop has received.
Beyond just their age, there’s some similarity with Strop and Brach in that they are both relievers who’ve generally had defined back-end bullpen roles without ever being the closer.
Their recent performances, at least if you only look at ERA, also have a lot in common. Strop has pitched 211.1 innings since being traded to the Cubs. In that time, he has a 2.68 ERA. Brach has thrown 220.2 innings with the Orioles, posting a 2.61 ERA.
Even if you don’t count that they look nothing alike, you’re not very likely to confuse them for one another. That’s because Strop rates better according to Fielding Independent Pitching by virtue of a better strikeout rate.
Strop is also much more likely to get ground balls, so when the ball is put in play against him, its chances of being dangerous are smaller. As a result, despite those similar ERAs, Strop has pitched in a way that’s less luck-dependent.
Batters only hit .161 against Strop in the most recent season. It was .165 the season before that. Brach has allowed a .199 average the past two seasons - pretty good, to be sure, but not Strop-level.
With similar walk rates, Strop comes across much better in WHIP with a combined 0.984 with the Cubs. Brach, at 1.133, is fine, but it doesn’t put him in the elite reliever tier. If he has a 2017 season as good as he was last year, he’ll be looking better. A 1.038 WHIP isn’t Zach Britton-level. Again, it’s pretty good, though.
There are things that make Brach look better. Brach is more of a workhorse, pitching almost 80 innings in each of the last two seasons. That gives him more versatility as a potential multi-inning reliever. Strop, on the other hand, averages fewer than one inning per outing. Strop also spent about a month and a half on the disabled list last season.
It might actually be a bit of a surprise that Strop only took one extra guaranteed year on top of what he was already making. Before signing this new contract, Strop had already settled on a $5.5 million salary with the Cubs for 2017. He adds $5.85 million on top of that for 2018, with a $500,000 buyout on a $6.25 million club option for 2019.
Relievers with worse pedigrees than Strop or Brach have gotten contracts in the realm of two years and $12 million total over this winter. Junichi Tazawa got that exact amount and he hasn’t been good since 2014. Marc Rzepczynski, a LOOGY whose only remarkable trait is his name, got two years and $11.5 million. So did injury-plagued 5+ ERA guy Daniel Hudson.
Brach is the same age as those guys right now, though he’ll be two years older by the time he’s a free agent. Is that something that would knock him down to their level? Maybe. Above that level, the only relievers who got three-year deals this offseason were Mike Dunn (who?) and Brett Cecil. Both are left-handed.
Maybe there aren’t really three-year deals for righty relievers who are outside of the top tier. There’s a second tier of contracts that have gone out to Andrew Miller and Darren O’Day for four years each.
Brach’s not really on that O’Day tier, if you compare O’Day’s years before becoming a free agent to Brach’s. He’s definitely not on Miller’s tier either, although honestly, even Miller only had one good full season before becoming a free agent.
A narrative has taken root among media covering the Orioles that Brach is a possible heir to Zach Britton when Britton becomes a free agent. Britton is definitely in line for the big money contract, probably pricing him out of the Orioles range after 2018.
Brach has the same amount of service time remaining, so the only way he’d possibly be the heir is if he’s extended before becoming a free agent. If the Orioles are serious about having Brach around, they’re going to have to offer him at least Strop money, and if Brach’s 2017 is as good as his 2016, more than that.
Depending on how things go with the rest of the bullpen, the Orioles may feel it’s best to go in a different direction even with a modest cost for Brach. If O’Day rebounds to his past form, if Mychal Givens and Donnie Hart look like long-term bullpen answers, and if any of the crop of relievers they’re currently developing in the minors pan out, maybe they don’t even really need Brach.
That’s a lot of ifs. Not all will play out that way. The Orioles would be lucky to develop any of the younger relievers into a pitcher as good as Brach has been. They might want to spend that money on the guy who’s already proven himself over multiple seasons. Barring a disaster, Brach is on track to get that money from somewhere.