Should the Indians Re-Sign Joe Smith?

On the surface, the question of whether or not the Indians should bring back Joe Smith is an easy one. He has been the Indians best overall reliever since 2009 and has never shown signs of regressing. In fact, he has gotten better in some ways, every year. He had never been called anything but a great teammate and is beloved by Indians fans who have a deep enough knowledge of the game to recognize relief pitchers.

However, this isn't 1920 and relievers have a definite value on the free agent market. Smith made $3.15 million for 2013, but is likely to make even more next year than even Chris Perez, possibly breaking the $10M per season barrier. He will likely be looking for at least a three year deal of more than $21M to provide him some stability as he enters into his age 30 season. There is the question of whether the Indians could even afford this (they aren't the Yankees who can give a short stop who played less than 20 games last year $12M for next season) and if they can, could it possibly be worth it?

An interesting way to look at player salaries would be to see what they would be paid if players were paid for the amount, rather than quality of their work. Based on the previous season's team salary of about $80M, a single plate appearance would have been worth $6,543. Using this base, the top three highest paid players last year should have been the top three starting pitchers, who should each have made around $5M. In total, Nick Swisher was the most overpaid by more than $6M, while Lou Marson made the biggest percent over what he should have, taking home a million for five plate appearances. Getting back to Joe Smith and the relief staff, the most used reliever according to batters faced was Bryan Shaw. With 316 batters faced, his share of the total would be about $2M. The eight most used relievers would have taken $12M under this system and they made $14.85M in reality, not very far off from the estimate.

The point of this exercise was to show that relief pitchers are generally among the least utilized players on a baseball team. Only about a third of the Indians total innings pitched in 2013 were by relievers and those innings were split among 23 different pitchers, whereas the other 2/3rds were only split among nine starters. In general, a relief pitcher's inability to pitch multiple innings in a game or in consecutive games makes a large (generally eight men in 2013) bullpen necessary, which means the money for those limited innings must be spread around to more people. If the Indians were going to keep their relief salaries to under $15M in 2014 and retain Joe Smith for even $7M (which is likely the lowest possible home town discount they could receive), one pitcher would be making almost as much as the rest of the bullpen combined. This did happen in 2013 with Perez making $7.3M, but he was a veteran closer, whereas Smith is unproven in that role.

Of course, there is more than simply throwing innings in play here. When considering players like Matt Albers and Rich Hill, that is not the case, but Joe Smith is something special. He is already one of the best right handed relievers in team history and has always came through when the Indians called on him. If he was staying, he would be the default choice to be the new closer and if he was brought back, that is probably the case as well.

While he could be the Indians next great closer, there has simply not been enough proof of that to warrant the kind of money he will be getting this off-season. There is also a tremendous risk to signing any relief pitcher to a long term contracts. There are hundreds of John Axfords and Eric Gagnes (who go from being all-stars to the point when they are considered unusable in the blink of an eye) for every one Mariano Rivera. Smith could be one of the greatest relievers in baseball history, or 2013 could have been his last effective season. The risk is simply too great for an Indians team that has always been thrifty, to give any reliever a multi-million long term contract. It is time for the Tribe to move on with Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw and Vinnie Pestano and look for the next great reliever in young stars like Preston Guilmet and C.C. Lee.

  PA % Salary Actual Difference
SP 3849 31.2% $25,184,793.11 $20,929,853.00 $4,254,940.11
RP 2323 18.9% $15,199,863.44 $17,626,140.00 -$2,426,276.56
IF & DH 3188 25.9% $20,859,735.11 $25,251,900.00 -$4,392,164.89
OF 1667 13.5% $10,907,521.46 $10,351,900.00 $555,621.46
Bench 1292 10.5% $8,453,819.87 $6,445,940.00 $2,007,879.87

For anyone interested in the premise of baseball players being paid hourly (inningly?) instead of by salary, here is the position by position breakdown of the 2013 Indians. Scott Kazmir single handedly made the starting rotation such a great deal by making the minimum while actually earning $4.4M according to this system. Similarly, Nick Swisher and Mark Reynolds were at fault for the starting infield's bloated salaries.

Joseph Coblitz

About Joseph Coblitz

Joseph is the primary writer and editor of BurningRiverBaseball.com and has been since it's inception in 2011. He is a graduate of the University of Akron and currently resides in Goodyear, Arizona the Spring Training home of the Cleveland Indians.

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