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White Sox embrace risk with David Robertson contract

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Four years (and $46 million) for a reliever is rarely a good idea, but Sox angle for benefits beyond the ninth inning

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

I've said on the podcast before that the White Sox had room for one stupid contract in their bullpen this offseason. Their biggest investment the previous year? Matt Lindstrom and his $4 million club option. With him out of the picture, the Sox entered 2015 with next to nothing committed to the bullpen, and not much in the way of truly compelling newcomers. A big, dumb splash was in the offing, and most Sox fans were ready for one after the trauma of 2014.

Now, some people might think they've thrown themselves into two of them.

I'm not inclined to slap that label on the Zach Duke deal. I understand the automatic analytical rejection of three years and $15 million for one good year of relief work. From the White Sox's side, they had no trustworthy left-handed relievers, and if he can come close to repeating his 2014, then most teams in baseball would take on the remainder of that contract.

The four-year, $46 million contract they gave to David Robertson is textbook stupid, in that he's going to be asked to live up to that contract every year for four years, and relievers are seldom so reliable. On top of that, the Sox had to give up their second-round pick, so they're putting a lot of eggs into a historically shaky basket.

I'm guessing Rick Hahn knows it's not the best of bets, and the "it's not my money" rationale doesn't work so well for him as it does for fans, so what made this so palatable?

Robertson is the best available: The Sox signed the market's top right-handed reliever, and he seems to be at the top of his game. How long his peak remains is the unanswerable question, and since he turns 30 in April, everybody has a right to be skeptical.

At the same time, Eno Sarris at FanGraphs says Robertson's success isn't nearly as velocity-based as other late-inning relievers, which may be a point in a favor:

But when it comes to David Robertson *specifically*, it seems that velocity is not hugely important to his success. You see that 92 mph fastball and wonder how he does it. One part of the equation is that he’s releasing the ball 14 inches closer to home plate than most pitchers. Maybe that, and good command, is how Robertson has managed to make it work with below-average velocity for a reliever. [...]

It’s not all about velocity for Robertson, but he does things to make his velocity play up. His command looks better by walk rates than it does when you examine his heatmaps, but the movement on his fastball makes it hard to decipher even as it comes down broadstreet. And with a whopping 18 inches of difference between the vertical movement on his cutter and curveball, his pitches may complement each other very well.

(Robertson has another weird thing going for him -- significant, consistent reverse splits -- that warrant a deeper dive.)

The Peter Principle no longer applies: Jake Petricka handled himself well enough as a closer, at least relative to expectations (he wasn't even supposed to break camp on the 25-man roster, if you can believe that). Zach Putnam came from even further off the radar and ended up outpitching Petricka at the end, showing an ability to retire lefties and strand runners (29 of 32!).

Despite the encouraging performances, nobody besides Petricka liked the idea of Petricka closing. But everybody should be cool with Robin Ventura taking his late-season idea for the ninth inning -- Petricka against righties, and Putnam against the threat of lefties -- and applying it to the seventh or eighth, depending on what's there for Duke.

That could be an underrated or underquantified aspect of this move. There's a good deal of improvement from projected WAR alone, but there could be wins on the margins just because Robin Ventura has better options available for critical situations. The Sox aren't paying for saves as much as they're paying for help establishing a hierarchy.

The domino effect continues to mid- and low-leverage relievers, too, whoever they may be. Guys like Daniel Webb and Maikel Cleto don't have to make unreasonable leaps. And now Javy Guerra can be who he is. And now there's zero pressure on Nate Jones. The Sox have a making of a good bullpen here, and it doesn't require as many strokes of good luck. Mild strides would suffice.

Zero net draft pick loss? If past history holds -- meaning Jeff Samardzija prefers to test the open market and the Sox stay out of top-starter bidding wars -- then a qualifying offer/compensation pick is the most likely outcome at this point. The Sox might be out of a second-rounder, but a compensatory pick would leave them no worse for the wear on the first day next June. The Sox could've signed a big-ticket free agent independent of Samardzija, because otherwise there's no point in getting that first-round pick protection, but the possibility of no lost picks makes it a no-brainer.

There's another idea that is too speculative to bold-face -- that Robertson will take up a smaller amount of the payroll as he proceeds through his contract.

The Sox are trying to pull off an aggressive rebuilding project. They took steps back in two seasons, tightened up the payroll from the last ill-fated push, acquired and committed to talented 20somethings with plenty of team control remaining, and now they're going about constructing an actual team around that core. It should've taken longer, but they found a pretty sweet shortcut with Adam Eaton and Jose Abreu.

If these maneuvers result in a postseason appearance in 2015, Robertson's contract will still be a ledger liability -- but it might be the only real risk on a bigger payroll with John Danks whittling down his contract to the last season. If he runs into problems immediately and the Sox win 80 games ... well, he still might be the only cringeworthy contract, just on a similar payroll. This investment might be doomed to disappoint over a whole four years, but maybe the Sox just don't see the worst of it hitting them all that hard.


Thanks to Steve, Josh and Larry for staying on top of the winter meetings while I was in Iceland. It was rough missing out on exciting news in real time, but I did OK for myself.