The Phillies Make David Robertson the Latest Well-Paid Relief Pitcher in Smart Move
For the second consecutive year, the deep freeze of winter is icing what was once a hot stove. And for the second consecutive year, the only players signing lucrative contracts are relief pitchers. The Phillies' latest transaction was not signing Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, to whom they have both been linked, but reliever David Robertson on a two-year, $23 million contract on Thursday. MLB.com's Mark Feinsand reports that the former Yankees and White Sox closer will earn $10 million in 2019 and $11 million in '20, with a $12 million club option for '21 that could make the deal up to $33 million over three years if it's exercised. The Phillies can buy out the option for $2 million, meaning Robertson is guaranteed $23 million over the next two years.
Robertson is the latest reliever to be handsomely paid in an otherwise slow offseason: The Cardinals signed Indians lefty Andrew Miller to a two-year, $25 million deal with an option for a third year; the Mets signed Jeurys Familia to a three-year, $30 million contract; the Dodgers, not known to spend on middle relievers under Andrew Friedman, inked Joe Kelly to a three-year, $25 million deal. Most notably, none of those players are expected to close for their new teams. Robertson will likely compete for the closer job with Seranthony Dominguez if Gabe Kapler even decides to name one, but he may function as a multi-inning setup man the way Miller has for Cleveland and how the Dodgers are expected to use Kelly.
Most around baseball and in the media believe that once Harper or Machado sign, the rest of the market will follow, but the only safe class of player to this point is the reliever. Robertson didn't get the third guaranteed year that Kelly or Familia did, but he will be earning a higher annual salary than both players during his age-34 and age-35 seasons. His strong payday should bode well for the remaining relievers on the market: Zach Britton, Craig Kimbrel and Adam Ottavino should each secure at least three years with annual salaries around $12 and $15 million. Kimbrel was reported to be seeking a six-year deal, but the most desired reliever on the market might be Ottavino, the slider specialist who could earn around $50 million for a team looking to fortify its bullpen.
As for Robertson, he's worth the money. With three main pitches—a cutter, slider and curveball—Robertson is a specialist in allowing soft contact and making life easy for his defense. A few disaster outings inflated his ERA to 3.23 and his WHIP to 1.03 in 2018, but he was one of manager Aaron Boone's most frequent and reliable weapons, appearing 69 times in the regular season and pitching just under 70% of his innings in either the seventh or eighth. While Boone's confidence waxed and waned with the likes of Dellin Betances and even Aroldis Chapman, Robertson was a late-inning mainstay.
He'll help stabilize a talented but generally unproven bullpen in Philadelphia. The 23-year-old Dominguez may have been the only successful part of the Phillies' nightmarish conclusion to 2019—he finished the year with a respectable 2.95 ERA and allowed an earned run in just one of his final 13 outings. After that, fellow youngster Victor Arano will likely return along with middle relievers Adam Morgan and Edubray Ramos. The odd man out may be Hector Neris, once considered the closer of the future and now struggling to find a spot in a crowded bullpen.
Phillies fans will be miffed if Robertson is the last major contract they offer over the course of this offseason, but he's another strong addition to a haul that includes Jean Segura and Andrew McCutchen. As of today, general manager Matt Klentak is making the kind of moves required for a deep playoff run. All that's missing is the star power.