As the end of the 2016 draws nearer, the Milwaukee Brewers remain in the market for a veteran reliever with high-leverage experience after reaping the fruits of dealing four such arms over the past year or so (Francisco Rodriguez, Will Smith, Jeremy Jeffress, Tyler Thornburg). Even with Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen, and Mark Melancon having already found homes this winter, plenty of pitchers in the next tier of ‘experienced closers’ remain available on the open market. That includes former Giant Santiago Casilla, who could be a particularly strong fit at the back end of Milwaukee’s bullpen.
Casilla, 36, began his career as an international signee back in 2000 by the Oakland Athletics out of the Dominican Republic. At that time, however, Casilla was known as “Jairo Garica,” the name he pitched under for the first several years of his professional career. In 2005 it was learned that he had used falsified documents at the time of his signing, masquerading as an 18 year old when he was in fact 21 when he originally put pen to paper.
Casilla made his big league debut with Oakland in 2004 and pitched parts of six years with the A’s with a limited amount of success. In 152 games and 160.1 innings out of the bullpen from 2004-2009, Casilla worked to a 5.11 ERA and 4.70 FIP with a 138:80 K/BB ratio. The Athletics non-tendered him after he posted a 5.96 ERA in 46 appearances in 2009, and a few weeks later he moved across the bay upon signing a minor league deal with the San Francisco Giants.
The low-risk move began to pay off in spades for the Giants almost immediately. After getting called up to the big leagues in mid-May, the fireballing right-hander experienced an incredible breakout in his age-29 season. Casilla wound up pitching in 52 games and 55.1 innings for San Francisco during the remainder of the season, posting a 1.95 ERA with 56 strikeouts and just a 1.193 WHIP. He would make toss another 4.2 innings in the playoffs, allowing just one run as the Giants would go on to capture the first of their three World Series titles this decade.
Casilla has been a valuable member of the Giants’ bullpen ever since then and his performance has quietly made him one of the top relievers in baseball over the past several seasons. Since the start of 2010, Casilla has made 414 appearances and tossed 394.2 innings with a 2.42 ERA, which is 53% better than the league average during that time according to his park-adjusted 153 ERA+. Casilla has struck out 8.3 batters per nine during that time against a 3.5 BB/9. His 3.56 FIP over the last seven seasons doesn’t exactly support the level of dominance that his ERA suggests, however FIP doesn’t take into account that Casilla has held opponents to a minuscule 22.4% rate of hard contact during his career. Combined with his 48.7% career ground ball rate means that he has induced a lot of weakly-hit worm burners during his time in the big leagues. We can add “proven closer” to his mantle, as well, as Casilla has locked down 127 saves (and another 90 holds) in his career while splitting time at closer with Sergio Romo in San Francisco over the last several years.
Casilla did lose his hold on that 9th-inning role in San Francisco down the stretch last season, however, blowing a few saves in September that soured another otherwise excellent season. In spite of his advanced age, Casilla still throws hard and actually saw a small uptick in his fastball velocity from 2015 (93.6 MPH from 93.3 MPH). His curveball remains a plus offering (+3.0 runs in 2016), and he can gets outs with his hard, third-pitch slider (average velocity of 88.8 MPH in 2016), as well. Casilla’s 27% strikeout rate and 10.1 K/9 in 2016 were both career-best totals and his 7.9% walk rate and 2.9 BB/9 were well below his career averages. He posted a 3.57 ERA across 58.0 innings covering 62 appearances last season, though a cFIP of 89 and DRA of 3.31 suggest he was a bit unlucky in arriving at that number.
Casilla will turn 37 next season and is indeed quite a bit older than some of the other free agent targets we’ve profiled this winter, including Drew Storen (29), Greg Holland (31), and Neftali Feliz (28). In terms of run prevention, however, he’s been more successful than that trio when looking at their cumulative work over the last three seasons. He doesn’t come with the same injury history and concerns as Feliz (who missed time in 2012-13 with Tommy John) or Holland (who hasn’t pitched since 2015 while recovering from Tommy John surgery), nor did he struggle as mightily as Storen did last season. Given his age, Casilla may be more apt to signing a 1-year deal while the others suggested will likely be holding out for multi-year pacts.
The Brewers are currently projected for less than $60 mil in player payroll for 2017, so fitting Santiago Casilla into the budget on a 1-year contract for something like $6-8 mil (maybe with a club option and buyout for 2018) should hardly be an issue. Casilla may arguably be the best relief arm remaining in free agency and could very easily slide into the 9th-inning slot for the Brewers, becoming a potential sign-and-flip candidate at the trade deadline. If his age finally catches up with him and he struggles, then a 1-year deal for limited money is not something that would at all negatively affect the trajectory of the club going forward. There appears to be little downside in pursuing any of the arms suggested by BCB this winter, but overall Santiago Casilla appears to be the best bet to pitch successfully in 2017.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference, Baseball Prospectus, and Fangraphs