Saturday, December 11, 2010

White Sox Dump Scott Linebrink and I Rail Against Long-Term Deals For Relievers

Following the 2007 season, the White Sox, needing help in their bullpen took the rather extraordinary step of extending a four year nineteen million dollar contract to relief pitcher Scott Linebrink. Despite having a bit of a down year in 2007, the White Sox were undeterred and instead invested in Linebrink's history of strong performances. Over the preceding four seasons, Linebrink put up some very strong rate stats: 8.0K/9 - 2.8BB/9 - 1.0HR/9 to go with workhorse numbers from a reliever as he racked up over 300IP in those four years. But perhaps the White Sox overlooked something important in that HR rate however, because as someone with GB rates consistently in the mid 30s, Linebrink was a heavily fly ball prone pitcher.

After spending so much time pitching in the hitters hell that is Petco Park, the move to US Cellular has proven brutal and Linebrink's home run numbers sky rocketed. It is in that regard alone where Linebrink had seen significant decline as his HR rate nearly doubled from one park to the next. The propensity for the long-ball made Linebrink a questionable late-inning option for White Sox and a favorite for fans angst. That strikes me as unfortunate, because Linebrink, for his part, never did anything differently.

In the end however, it was circumstances largely beyond Linebrink's control that led to his trade. Chiefly, the White Sox needed payroll flexibility to resign Paul Konerko. The Braves were ready and waiting and they may have made a gem of a trade because in picking up Linebrink's strong strikeout and walk rates, they lost only middling prospect Kyle Cofield who will open 2011 as a 24 year old in AA with little success at any level of the minor leagues.

Let's be clear, while Linebrink struggled at The Cell in giving up home runs, his peripherals suggested he was still a perfectly capable reliever, especially in a 7th inning role and even in a spot setup role. This was a pure salary dump, one where the Sox were giving up a solid player, yet still needed to finance 3m of his 2011 salary. Let that be a cautionary tale to those who would be willing to sign middle relievers to long-term deals.

Even the best middle relievers - all relievers actually, closers included - are replaceable. That's a result of the fact that they pitch relatively few innings and because finding capable options can be done quite easily either internally, or right off the free agent scrap heap. The teams that realize this and eschew giving out those long-term deals are the ones who will ultimately not find themselves in the position of needing to finance the departure of a solid player like the White Sox just needed to do.

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