The Royals had prided themselves on their bullpen the last few seasons, and while last year they were still near the top of the league in reliever ERA, they did regress a bit from their dominating 2015 performance. The bullpen could be shaken up next year with Luke Hochevar likely facing free agency, Wade Davis possibly getting traded, and Matt Strahm potentially moving to the rotation. That, plus the disappointment of Joakim Soria, caused Dayton Moore to say at the end of the season that the club would like more bullpen depth.
"We’ve got to do better there, of course. It’s an area where we definitely have to focus on."
One potential option raised by beat writer Rustin Dodd this week is former Royals All-Star closer Greg Holland. Holland was non-tendered by the Royals after Tommy John surgery, which required him to miss the entire 2016 season. He is a free agent eligible to sign with anyone, and the Royals have expressed a desire to bring him back into the fold.
"Greg Holland is one of the very best and most talented relief pitchers that I’ve been around," Moore said last week. "The success of our bullpen is a direct correlation to his toughness and his competitive spirit. So we admire him as a person and a pitcher."
Of course, it all depends on money. Greg Holland, when healthy, is an elite closer. But he is coming off a very risky injury of his ulnar collateral ligament. The track record of pitchers returning as reasonably healthy in the year after Tommy John surgery is only about 67%. And pitchers that do return have a drop off in velocity and performance. Betting on Holland to return as the same old guy is a gamble. How much have similar players commanded on the free agent market?
Using this terrific Tommy John surgery database, I took a look at some recent elite-level closers fared on the free agent market soon after having Tommy John surgery. Below is the date of surgery, the performance of the reliever over the three seasons prior to surgery, and the deal they signed following surgery.
|Pitcher||Surgery date||Age||ERA+||SV||IP||K/9||Contract||Date signed|
|Brian Wilson||4/19/2012||30||158||122||202.0||10.2||2 years, $18.5M*||12/7/2013|
|Joakim Soria||4/2/2012||28||159||101||179.0||10.1||2 years, $8M||12/4/2012|
|Joe Nathan||3/26/2010||35||243||123||208.0||10.4||2 years, $14.5M||11/21/2011|
|Octavio Dotel||6/6/2005||32||167||46||269.2||11.2||1 year, $2M||1/4/2006|
|Bob Wickman||12/9/2002||33||148||82||174.2||8.1||1 year, $2.75M||11/24/2004|
*-Wilson actually signed a $1 million deal with the Dodgers for the remainder of the season in June of 2013.
Bob Wickman was a bit of a late bloomer, but he was a solid closer in the his 30s until he injured his elbow in the middle of the 2002 season. He got Tommy John surgery that winter and missed all of 2003 and some of 2004. Wickman was 36 with a repaired elbow, so the only contract he could get was a one-year $2.75 million offer to return to the Indians which he accepted. He led the league in saves that year with a 171 ERA+, making it a terrific deal.
Octavio Dotel was recognized as the one of the league’s best setup men before becoming closer in 2004 as part of a playoff team in Oakland. But his elbow blew out in May of 2005, leading him to sign a one-year, $2 million deal with the Yankees. He was hurt much of the 2006 season as well, leading him to sign a one-year, $5 million deal with the Royals in 2007, another injury-plagued season.
Joe Nathan is the oldest player on this list, but he was also one of the best closers in the game when he missed the entire 2010 season. He was still under contract with the Twins for that season and the next season, where he struggled with a 4.84 ERA in just 44 2⁄3 innings. That led him to sign a two-year, $14.5 million deal with the Rangers where once again dominated with 80 saves and a 2.09 ERA over that time.
Joakim Soria had his second Tommy John surgery just before the 2012 season, causing him to miss the entire year. The Royals declined an $8 million option on him, making him a free agent. Soria signed with the Rangers on a two-year, $8 million contract with a club option. A nice 2015 season netted him a bigger deal with the Royals, but he has otherwise not been quite the same.
The eccentric Brian Wilson also suffered a second Tommy John surgery after just two appearances in the 2012 season. Wilson was non-tendered by the Giants and signed a $1 million deal with the Dodgers in June of the next season. He pitched just 13 2/3 innings with them, but they were confident enough in his health that they gave him a two-year, $18.5 million deal. He would only pitch one of those two seasons.
Nathan and Wilson got fairly lucrative deals, but they also established they could return to the mound first, something Greg Holland has not done yet. Holland has yet to have a showcase for teams yet, let alone any kind of game action. With his health status still very much in doubt, it would be surprising if he got more than one-year guaranteed.
However, Holland is one of the youngest and most dominating relievers on the list of Tommy John survivors. With the market for relievers at an all-time high, there should be a considerable bidding war for Holland's services, even with his injury risk. Depending on how his medicals look, I would expect him to land a one-year deal worth up to $8 million guaranteed with potential incentives and club or vesting options attached. A team like the Dodgers - who has relief needs - could easily throw around that kind of money and take the gamble that Holland returns to elite status, making his salary a bargain.
The Royals, on the other hand, face much tighter payroll limitations. They will have to weigh the risk of bringing Holland back against other pressing needs the club faces. Holland seemed to enjoy his time in Kansas City and may feel some allegiance to the organization. But typically these things come down to money, and the Royals will have to let cold analysis trump sentimentality in budgeting for another run in 2017.