A Minor League Contract Steal

Looking through a list of Milwaukee Brewers Spring Training invitees, I was surprised to see a name of a player I’ve heard quite a few times: Veteran relief pitcher Ryan Webb. It was hard to believe a solid bullpen piece like him could be had for the price of a minor league contract until taking a look at how his 2016 season played out. He suffered a major pectoral injury in May and was released by the Rays in June. Webb made a few rehab appearances and tried to make a comeback with the White Sox but never made it back to the major-leagues.

It would’ve been one thing if he were performing while healthy, but he posted a 5.19 ERA while he was on the mound, deeming him expendable to a low-budget team like the Tampa Bay Rays. Upon closer inspection on how Ryan Webb’s 2016 season played out, and taking into account the sustained success he enjoyed prior to the 2016 season, and betting on a clean bill of health for the veteran right-hander, the Brewers might have found themselves a valuable bullpen piece and future trade candidate.

From 2009-2015, Webb posted a 3.35 ERA in 376 innings, providing 4.0 WARP in the process. He kept the ball on the ground with a 56.5 GB percentage and the ball in the yard with a 7.2 HR/FB percentage. He excelled in multiple different ballparks and organizations, playing for the Padres, Marlins, Orioles, and Indians in that seven year period. All of this adds up to the type of player who should garner a multi-year deal around six or seven million dollars in this robust relief pitcher market. Webb never got such a contract. He signed a $1 million deal with the Rays in February of 2016 with 500K in incentives before seeing his season fall apart to injury.

On the surface it is understandable why Webb was forced to settle for a minor-league contract: the major injury, the underwhelming performance, and being on the wrong side of thirty. Taking all of this into account there is still major reason to believe the soon-to-be 31 year old will go back to his pre-2016 success in 2017. The issue of small sample size comes up immediately. Yes, he posted a 5.19 ERA while entering the declining years of his career but it was only in 17.3 innings. The bloated ERA was accompanied by a unsustainably high .419 BABIP. In turn his FIP was roughly in line with his career numbers at 3.86. He suffered from severe bad luck even before the injury. His BB/9 were actually lower than any other season is his career. He allowed 14 H/9 which screams horrible luck.

It wasn’t just luck that doomed his 2016 season, but overuse most likely played a huge role in his performance on the mound and subsequent injury. On May 25th 2016, Webb held a sparkling 2.87 ERA in 15 2/3 innings. Once again, small sample size, but this shows exactly where the right-handers season went awry. He pitched 2/3 of an inning on May 22nd without giving up a baserunner after pitching the second longest outing of his career three days prior, three shutdown innings against the Detroit Tigers. The very next day, May 26th against the Miami Marlins, he faced five batters giving up three hits and a run. A few days later he was placed on the disabled list with a pectoral strain. It’s easy to believe he was dealing with some kind of injury, whether that be from the long outing on May 22nd, the back-to-back outings on May 25th and 26th, or a combination of both.

Originally, Webb wasn’t supposed to be out long but his next outing, and eventually his final outing as a major leaguer in 2016, exactly a month later on June 26th showed that maybe he came back a little too soon. He gave up five hits in eight batters, giving up four runs in the process. He got through the inning but was designated for assignment the next day and released July 6th. He signed a minor league contract with the White Sox a couple days later but never made it back to the big leagues. It seems as though he tried to come back from the pectoral injury a bit early and it ended up costing him his second half of the season and millions of dollars in the process. The Brewers jumped on this opportunity to buy an asset at a depressed price.

There are multiple ways to look at Ryan Webb’s case. The pectoral injury could be much more serious than previously thought and he may never throw another major league pitch again. I find it much more likely that he pushed himself in search of that big contract and in the process destroyed his value with the injury and with an entire offseason rest he will go back to the solid middle relief piece he was prior to the 2016 season. Look for Ryan Webb to be a solid piece of the Brewers bullpen and a valuable trade chip at the 2016 deadline.

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