MLB teams seem hesitant to spend big on relief

Relief pitcher Grant Balfour pitches against the Seattle Mariners. (Ted S. Warren/AP)
February 5, 2014, 4:44 PM

Unless Fernando Rodney obtains a surprisingly large contract, this will be the first time in seven off-seasons that no free agent reliever has signed for $25 million or more.

So is it a one-year anomaly or a developing trend? Agents acknowledge that the climate for free agent relief arms is no longer as welcoming as it once was. Long-term contracts and $30 million deals for closers are now the exception rather than the norm.

Research into pitcher performance shows relievers are often volatile. This means team executives are now less inclined to commit long-term to relievers whose performance can vary significantly from year to year. Plus, unless you’re Mariano Rivera or Craig Kimbrel, the impact of a reliever is relatively minor when compared to starting pitchers or position players. This caps the average annual value of relief deals.

As a result, we’re dealing with a market that has changed in the estimation of veteran agents. Some teams are inclined to groom their own closers instead of spending on established arms — especially if a multiyear commitment is required. While some bristle at the notion that an inexperienced reliever can replace a proven closer, teams are now willing to take on that risk. It can pay off, too. Kimbrel, Addison Reed and Greg Holland are among the pitchers who recently evolved into 40-save closers once teams decided to rely on youth at the back of their ‘pens.

Kimbrel’s unprecedented performance will surely earn him a massive payday in time. He’s set to break an arbitration record for closers later this month, and if anyone can shatter Jonathan Papelbon’s record $50 million contract for relievers it’s the compact Atlanta Braves right-hander. But generally speaking, relievers are finding it hard to get long-term offers in free agency. While starting pitchers (Clayton Kershaw), Japanese imports (Masahiro Tanaka) and first-time arbitration eligible players (Freddie Freeman) continue setting contract records, closers are at risk of getting left behind.

As the table below shows, at least one free agent reliever has signed for $25 million or more in each of the last six off-seasons. Not this winter — at least so far. Joe Nathan obtained a $20 million deal from the Detroit Tigers, leading all relievers. Assuming Rodney doesn’t eclipse the $20 million threshold, the six-year streak will come to an end.

There’s still healthy demand for relievers — eight have signed for $10 million or more and 26 have obtained at least $2 million so far this off-season. They just aren’t getting the same lengthy guarantees that B.J. Ryan, Francisco Cordero and Francisco Rodriguez obtained within the last ten years. Relievers are now finding out the hard way that teams are simply less inclined than before to lock major dollars into long-term bullpen deals.

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Recent free agent reliever deals of $20 million or more

Joe Nathan, $20 million, 2013-14 off-season

Rafael Soriano, $28 million,  2012-13 off-season

Brandon League, $22.5 million, 2012-13 off-season

Jonathan Broxton, $21 million, 2012-13 off-season

Jonathan Papelbon, $50 million, 2011-12 off-season

Heath Bell, $27 million, 2011-12 off-season

Rafael Soriano, $35 million, 2010-11 off-season

Mariano Rivera, $30 million, 2010-11 off-season

Aroldis Chapman, $30.25 million, 2009-10 off-season

Francisco Rodriguez, $37 million,  2008-09 off-season

Kerry Wood, $20 million, 2008-09 off-season

Francisco Cordero, $46 million, 2007-08 offseason

Mariano Rivera, $45 million,  2007-08 offseason

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WIDE ARRAY OF TEAMS: While agents lament the fact that teams are disinclined to offer three and four-year deals, the new market does widen the selection of potential bidders. For example, the Tampa Bay Rays would presumably stop pursuing elite relievers if the bidding escalated past $30 million. But the bidding hasn’t risen that high this winter, so the Rays signed Grant Balfour to a $12 million contract last month.

Similarly, small-market teams including the San Diego Padres, Cleveland Indians and Oakland Athletics have invested in free agent relief. The Padres signed Joaquin Benoit, the Indians signed John Axford and the Athletics signed Eric O’Flaherty (while also trading for Jim Johnson and Luke Gregerson).

EXTRA EDGE: Teams that add experienced closers improve their bullpens without inflating salaries of top arbitration eligible arms. Saves pay in arbitration, which is why setup men David Robertson and Luke Gregerson are earning around $5 million while closer Jim Johnson pockets $10 million (the trio is similar in many respects, including service time, but certainly not in the saves column). If saves go to the established player, the young guns only earn so much in arbitration.

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