Once the White Sox settle on a new manager and coaching staff, the front office will have a number of decisions to make on improving the young, exciting roster they have built thus far. The most difficult decision with regard to their own players will be that of Alex Colomé.
One of Rick Hahn’s more underrated transactions over the course of the rebuild, Colomé was acquired from the Mariners before the 2019 season in exchange for Omar Narváez. Colomé has been one of the better closers in the game over his two seasons with the Sox. He has posted 42 saves in 46 opportunities and a 2.27 ERA, including a microscopic ERA of 0.81 in the shortened 2020 campaign. So why would the White Sox consider moving on from the stability that Colomé has provided? Well, unfortunately there is a little more to the story.
In his final year of arbitration eligibility last season, Colomé made a hefty $10.5 million (before being pro-rated) and was already 31 years old. According to Spotrac, Colomé would fetch a deal in the neighborhood of three years and $44.3 million for an average annual salary of $14.8 million on the open market. The White Sox certainly have holes on the roster that they will need to address, specifically in the starting rotation and right field. So is it worth it to guarantee a reliever on the wrong side of 30 three years at almost $15 million/year?
Relief pitchers’ performances from year to year can be incredibly volatile, so it would make sense to analyze what teams have gotten out of relief pitchers who have signed similar deals. We have gotten a front-row seat to the worst-case scenario, as the Craig Kimbrel three-year/$43 million deal on the North Side of town has been a complete disaster, with Kimbrel not even closing games for the Cubs anymore.
Mark Melancon signed a four-year/$62 million deal with the Giants after his age-31 season in 2016. At the time, it was the largest deal ever given to a reliever. Injuries derailed the first two seasons of the deal and Melancon lost his closer role before being traded to the Braves at the 2019 deadline. Melancon did recover, however, finishing the 2019 and 2020 seasons as a reliable closer.
Last offseason, the Braves signed lefty reliever Will Smith to a three-year/$39 million contract. One shortened season into the deal, the Braves may already be regretting that, as Smith carried a 4.50 ERA with some even scarier peripheral statistics.
Even Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman, who signed long-term deals with their respective clubs, have experienced some hiccups in the postseason and injury concerns. But for the most part, they have remained relatively consistent over the course of those contracts. Clearly, Colomé is not on that level, but it is worth dissecting his peripherals to assess what type of performances he can provide in the future.
Colomé has made a career out of inducing soft contact and has not boasted the elite strikeout rates regularly seen by dominant closers. Nonetheless, his K/9 has seen a significant downturn over the past two seasons, culminating in 6.45 K/9 last season. For context, the league average in 2020 was 9.07 K/9, or about one strikeout per inning. Despite the lack of punchouts, Colomé remained remarkably effective, inducing a career-low 3.1% barrel-rate that ranked in the top 5% of the league (just two barrels all season).
But the question of sustainability is a legitimate one. Colomé did not give up a single home run all season, producing a Homerun/Flyball rate of 0.0%. In contrast, he has given up a home run on 9.0% of flyballs that he has allowed over the course of his career. If we assume some regression to the mean in this category alone, Colomé would see a pretty drastic spike in his ERA. And, for a pitcher that does not regularly record strikeouts, the fall down to earth could be a far one.
What Should The White Sox Do?
Combining the recent history of big-money contracts for relievers and some unavoidable regression for Colomé, it would not be wise for the White Sox to bring him back on that type of contract. However, there are two factors working toward a reunion. First, the aforementioned reliever contracts involved players going to new teams, with the exception of Chapman and Jansen. So the idea that familiarity with the organization could buck that trend is not completely unreasonable.
Second, the contract prediction from Spotrac is just that, a prediction. This offseason is guaranteed to throw some curveballs at players due to the loss of roughly $2.8 billion in revenue because of the pandemic. Free-agent players will undoubtedly feel that financial impact. So it is possible that Colomé could come at a discount under the circumstances, in which case the Sox would have to seriously consider bringing him back — just not at the cost that would prevent them from filling other holes.
Getting three major league hitters out in the ninth inning with the game on the line is one of the most difficult feats in sports to accomplish on a consistent basis. The mental aspect of it can simply not be ignored, and the league is littered with pitchers who have the stuff to get the job done but are missing the piece between the ears. Having a proven, reliable option at the back end of the bullpen is a necessity for any team with serious postseason aspirations. If the Sox do choose to move on from Colomé, they better have the utmost confidence in whoever takes over his role.