It’s been a rough week for workers in certain sectors of the American economy, but for veteran right-handed relief pitchers, business is a-boomin’. David Robertson has signed a one-year contract with the Texas Rangers worth $11.5 million, with a mutual option for 2025. Hector Neris has landed with the Cubs on a one-year deal worth $9 million, with a team option for a second year at the same amount. If you pitched in relief for the 2019 Phillies, stay by your phone — a team is going to call any moment. That means you, Adam Morgan!
Neither Robertson nor Neris is a high-end closer, or has the capacity to become one. But they’re two of the exceptions to the rule that one-inning relievers are volatile. Robertson has 11 seasons in his career of at least 60 innings, entirely in relief, and an ERA under 4.00. That’s the most among active players, and fourth-most all-time behind Mariano Rivera, Hoyt Wilhelm, and Kent Tekulve.
Neris is slightly more fickle on a season-to-season basis than Robertson is, but so is a metronome. Setting aside 2020, Neris has been a full-time big leaguer for seven seasons, and has gone over 60 innings and under a 4.00 ERA in six of those.
While $10 million (or thereabouts) might go further if spent elsewhere on the roster, that kind of consistency is apparently worth paying for, even in a seventh- or eighth-inning role, on certain teams.
If you’re old enough to read and know enough about baseball to be reading this site, you already know what Robertson is all about. He’ll turn 39 a couple of weeks into this coming season, which means he’s so old you can play the pitcher version of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon and get from Robertson to Don Sutton in three moves. But in 2023, pitching for the Mets and Marlins, he was 6-6 with a 3.03 ERA and a 29.0% strikeout rate in 65 2/3 innings.
This is Robertson’s sixth organization in the past 30 months, but that’s just a testament to the fact that good teams keep wanting to acquire him. (If I get through this entire article without saying he’s signed with the Cubs and not Neris, I’ll be shocked. Apparently his stint in Chicago in early 2022 left an indelible impression.) So you can go back and read what he was like when he got traded last July, or when he signed with the Mets in December 2022. Not much has changed.
And that’s probably why the Rangers were interested. Because, intending no undue disrespect to anyone involved, they just won a World Series with a crop of one-inning relievers that was far from championship-caliber. Texas slid by because it dominated two aspects of the game — offense and starting pitching — that are more important on the aggregate, and got some surprising lights-out performances from the likes of Jon Gray and Josh Sborz.
Sborz in particular turns into Superman when there’s a title on the line, and has for years; he pitched Virginia to back-to-back College World Series finals in 2014 and 2015, winning tournament Most Outstanding Player in the latter campaign and placing himself in the company of Dave Winfield, Adley Rutschman, and Terry Francona, among others.
But Rangers GM Chris Young is smart enough not to wait around for lightning to strike twice. That’s why he signed Kirby Yates back in December. The more veteran relievers Young brings in, the less likely it is he’ll be looking for a closer when José Leclerc’s shoulder falls off in June.
And he’s getting Robertson for less than the $11.5 million sticker price. That guarantee will count as something closer to $10.5 million against the competitive balance tax, because Robertson will only get $5 million of his base salary up front, with $5 million paid in installments between 2027 and 2031. The remainder of the $1.5 million guarantee comes in the form of a buyout against the $7 million mutual option for 2025, though it’d take quite a bit of needle-threading to get to a scenario in which both Robertson and the Rangers want to continue their partnership at that dollar figure.
By committing to Robertson, the Rangers also ended their reported pursuit of Neris, who ends up in Chicago, Robertson’s old stomping grounds.
Neris also has an interesting structure to his contract, because his club option turns into a player option if he appears in at least 60 games in 2024. Given that Neris has gotten to 70 appearances three years running, that seems like an attainable goal. Neris has gone multiple innings in the past; a little over one in 10 appearances in his career has been for more than one inning, but he was used most frequently in that role in his first and last seasons with the Phillies.
The Astros threw him in 141 regular-season games over the past two years, and only twice asked him to get more than four outs. The two longest outings of his Astros career by innings lasted 20 and 16 pitches, respectively.
Still, he can be useful to the Cubs on a one-inning-at-a-time basis. Because, well, Drew Smyly and Mark Leiter Jr. show up way earlier on Chicago’s reliever depth chart than is ideal for a team with championship ambitions. Neris’ long track record of reliability makes it difficult to find interesting “what-if” questions to ask about his potential tenure with the Cubs, with the exception of: Can he keep the ball in the yard?
Neris’ calling card has long been his wicked mid-80s splitter, which he threw about half the time with the Phillies, balancing it off with a four-seamer and a sinker in some combination. Despite throwing a notably downward-breaking pitch by default, Neris was slightly homer-prone with the Phillies: 1.3 HR/9 on a HR/FB rate of 14.9%.
Any high-leverage reliever who gets taken out that much is going to be periodically frustrating, all the more so if he plays his home games at Wrigley Field. With the Astros, Neris threw more four-seamers than ever, allowed fewer groundballs than ever, and still kept the ball in the park more than he ever did with the Phillies. This despite Minute Maid Park having a left field fence that’s about 50 feet from home plate and a right field fence that’s only six inches tall.
Since the start of the 2022 season, Neris has the 14th-lowest HR/FB% and the 39th-lowest HR/9 rate out of 150 qualified relievers. That ability to keep the ball in play probably led to him assuming a fireman role in the past two postseasons. Neris has entered seven of his 15 career playoff appearances with men on base — two of them with the bases loaded — and hasn’t allowed a runner to score in any of them.
Bizarrely, all seven of the runs he’s allowed in his postseason career — six of which came in the ALCS against the Rangers last year, which might be why Texas didn’t want to sign him — came in innings he started with the bases clear.
In general, middle relief is not the most efficient place to spend your free agent dollars, but these two pitchers have been so durable and reliable it makes sense. Particularly for the Rangers, who had no other holes on the roster to fill. The Cubs have been less somnambulant in January than they were in December, signing Shōta Imanaga and now Neris, but it still feels like they have another move or two to make. Whether spending $9 million on Neris imperils their ability to bring back Cody Bellinger or rope in Matt Chapman remains to be seen.