A baseball roster is basically a series of cost-benefit analyses, with the general manager deciding to invest a specific amount of money into Player X instead of Player Y. We often focus on the big decisions (paying Ryan Howard 5 years and $125 million now instead of waiting to spend that money later on somebody else). But pennants are often won and lost by the smallest of these allocations.
Which brings us to Chad Durbin and Brandon Lyon.
Late in the pre-2009 offseason, the Phillies agreed to a one-year, $2.5 million contract with reliever Chan Ho Park. That same year, the Astros signed veteran reliever Doug Brocail to a one-year, $2.75 million deal. Park ended up playing a key role in the Phillies' second straight World Series berth. After a lackluster tryout as a starter, the right-hander moved into the bullpen, where he helped offset the epic struggles of Brad Lidge, posting a 2.57 ERA with 52 strikeouts and 16 walks in 49 innings. Brocail, meanwhile, appeared in just 20 games, allowing four home runs and 13 walks while striking out 9 in 17 2/3 innings.
And then there was last year. The Phillies signed right-hander Chad Qualls to a one-year, $1.15 million contract, hoping the former closer could rediscover the stuff that had made him a dependable setup man once upon a time. The Rays paid a little bit more -- $2 million -- to sign another reclamation project in veteran right-hander Fernando Rodney. Qualls opened up the season as the Phillies primary setup man but quickly proved ill-equipped to handle that role, posting a 4.60 ERA while allowing 7 home runs in 31 1/3 innings before he was designated for assignment. Rodney, on the other hand, was lights out for the Rays, saving 48 games with a 0.60 ERA, 9.2 K/9, 1.8 BB/9 and 0.2 HR/9 in 74 2/3 innings. Clearly, he was wroth the extra 0.85 million that the Rays spent.
This year, the Phillies low-risk reliever acquisition is Durbin, who was a member of the team during the glory years of 2008-10. Durbin signed for one year and $1.10 million, a contract similar to those signed by veterans like Jose Veras (one-year, $1.85 million with the Astros), Jason Frasor (one-year, $1.5 million with the Rangers), and, now, right-hander Lyon, who inked a deal with the Mets reportedly worth in the neighborhood of $750,000 guaranteed with incentives that could push the total value to around $2.4 million.
I'm very interested to see how the Durbin and Lyon signings compare by the end of the season. At first, I was surprised that Lyon had taken this long to sign, and I was even more surprised when I saw his low guaranteed salary. After all, this is a guy who pitched 61 innings last season with a 3.10 ERA and 134 ERA+, 9.3 K/9, 3.0 BB/9 and 0.7 HR/9. He and Durbin are similar pitchers (Durbin also pitched in 61 pinnings with a 3.10 ERA), except Durbin struck out fewer batters last season (7.2 K/9), walked more (4.1 BB/9) and allowed more home runs (1.3 HR/9).
But I get the sense that scouts who watched Lyon down the stretch last season saw ample reason for concern. In his final 14 appearances of the year, he struck out just 4 while walking 7 and allowing 10 hits in 9 2/3 innings. In his last appearance of the season, his velocity sat around 88 miles per hour, according to pitch fX. Perhaps more concerning was his reluctance to use his cutter, a pitch that he had relied heavily on over the previous two seasons (after previously using a slider as his top secondary pitch). According to my count, he threw just 3 cutters in 38 pitches over his final four outings of the season.
The question: was Brandon Lyon a pitcher exhibiting signs of a physical breakdown, or was he a veteran in the process of reinventing himself in the later stages of his career? The Mets figured it was worth $750,000 to find out. The Phillies decided investing $1.1 million in Durbin was the safer play. I have no opinion on the matter. But I do know that this is one of those Apple A or Apple B choices that can end up playing a big role in a pennant race, for better or for worse.
The Phillies have seen both sides of it. This time around, all that's left is the wait and see.