Winter Meetings Notebook: Free Agency Reveals Unprecedented Market Value of Relief Pitchers

Teams are loading up on late-inning arms, and this offseason is Exhibit A of the premium teams are now willing to pay to staff their bullpens.
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Taking inventory of this free agent market makes clear how baseball is played these days, and what’s wrong with it.

There are 11 free agents on the market who hit at least 25 home runs this year. None have signed. They have been lingering for two months on the shelf like loaves of bread past their due date.

Meanwhile, teams have treated 30-something setup relievers like bread just before a blizzard: snapping them up at seemingly any cost. Before a single home run hitter has signed, clubs have rushed to hand out $133 million to seven veteran relievers who are not closers, covering 16 years of commitment. (An eighth, Juan Nicasio, will be next, to Seattle.) That’s an average price of $8.31 million for older guys to pitch about 60 innings a year—if these blue collar workers even manage to hold up under strenuous work, which they tend not to do.

This is no knock on the Bryan Shaws, Pat Nesheks and Jake McGees of the baseball world, but the run on relief pitching reflects one of the worst parts of today’s game: a parade of relatively anonymous, interchangeable pitchers following one another to the mound to slow down the game and depress offense. No offense guys, but nobody besides the immediate families of said pitchers ever bought a ticket to watch middle relievers face a batter or two.

The more relief pitching takes over the game, the more starting pitchers are devalued. And the more starting pitchers are devalued, the fewer marquee names there are to generate interest, viewers and ticket sales. The magnitude of the starting pitcher matchup traditionally helped sell the game. We are losing that attraction by putting more and more of the game into the hands of relievers.

“Years ago when I started out with the Diamondbacks,” said Washington general manager Mike Rizzo, “you would divide up your budget like a pie, portioning certain amounts to certain areas of the club. The one part that was always the smallest–the one place where you could cut back and save money–was the bullpen. That’s not even close to being the case any more.

“The past few years the bullpen was the place where you saw [potential playoff] teams load up in July. Now what you’re seeing is all teams loading up in the bullpen now.”

 Brandon Morrow and Anthony Swarzak are the kinds of stories that have become common around baseball. Both of them are 33 years old and never quite established a foothold in the game. They have pitched for nine combined big league teams. But both of them discovered this year they could carve out a niche by throwing mid- to upper-90s fastballs at the top of the zone in short outings—basically maxing out on high heat against a generation of sluggers vulnerable to such pitches while looking to launch the baseball.

The Cubs handed Morrow $21 million over two years. The Mets gave Swarzak $14 million over two years.

“He’s got that high fastball and developed a nasty slider,” said Mets pitching coach Dave Eiland, referring to Swarzak, and also to the winning formula in a bullpen world where sinking and deadening the baseball are becoming extinct. “And what you love is that he gets out lefthanders and righthanders.”

Eiland was pitching coach with the 2014-15 Royals, who rode a strong bullpen to repeat pennants and a World Series title.

“We kind of started it,” Eiland said. “But it used to be that you needed three guys: two set-up guys and a closer. Now you need those three guys and then you need three guys in front of them. Starters are going shorter, so there are going to be nights when one, two or three of your big guys are going to be down [for rest]. So you’re going to need three other guys. And because of that, you can’t have the soft underbelly of your staff that teams had a few years ago.”

The value and cachet of the job has increased quickly. Former Brewers general manager Doug Melvin tells the story of how his analytics advisors looked at John Axford just four years ago. The closer saved 46 games for Milwaukee in 2011 and 35 in 2012.

“They told me we were better off trading him,” Melvin said, “because he was getting expensive and relief pitchers were pretty much interchangeable. The idea back then was that relievers were fungible.”

Axford earned a $5 million salary in 2013. Before the year was out the Brewers traded him to St. Louis.

“Now the people in the room are all looking at the numbers and saying how valuable relievers are,” Melvin said.

There is no doubt relievers have become more valuable, if only because more of them are needed. But is it wise to give a reliever in his 30s a multi-year deal after it took years of back-breaking work just to get to free agency?

Let’s rewind the clock to the free agent market just two years to get an idea. After the 2015 season, teams handed out multi-year deals to 14 non-closer relievers at the cost of $197 million, or about $5.8 million per pitcher per season. In just two years, 13 of those 14 pitchers have either been hurt, pitched poorly (ERA+ worse than 100) or are no longer with the same team. Only one of the 14 pitchers has pitched effectively for his signing club for two years: Joakim Soria of the Royals.

The landscape is littered with the likes of Tony Sipp (three years, $18 million), Antonio Bastardo (two, $12 million) and Mark Lowe (two, $11 million). Last year you had Brett Cecil (four years, $30.5 million and one of the rare no-trade clauses for someone who neither starts or closes games), Brad Ziegler (two, $16 million), Mark Rzepczynski (two years, $11 million) and Daniel Hudson (two, $11 million). All of them were disappointments.

It’s hard to expect that pitchers who work often, including all the times they warm up on the chance they might get in, will continue to be healthy and productive as they age through their 30s with all those miles on their odometer–but those are the expectations teams bring to the free agent market.

This free agent market is loaded with All-Star sluggers such as J.D. Martinez, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Jay Bruce and Todd Frazier. There was a time not to long ago when teams would press quickly to get such big hitters signed. But now there are too many home runs in the game to consider 25 dingers something that needs to be chased urgently. What’s more urgent in this market is grabbing more and more faceless relievers who are hop-scotching from team to team.


Having whiffed on Giancarlo Stanton, and knowing Martinez is not a good value for a National League team, the Cardinals get one of the best impact bats on the market in arranging a trade to get Marcell Osuna from the Marlins. Ozuna doesn’t walk much, but he has tremendous bat-to-ball skills that combine power and average. Last year he hit .312 with 37 homers and 124 RBI. Only three other active players have reached those triple crown thresholds: Miguel Cabrera, Albert Pujols and Matt Kemp. St. Louis controls Osuna for two seasons before he hits free agency … Zack Greinke bounced back last season with better catchers working with him, better game-planning from the staff, and by throwing the greatest percentage of breaking balls for him since 2011. But Greinke’s contract chews up 27 percent of the team payroll as Arizona runs into big raises for arbitration eligible … Here’s Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash on why Alex Cobb virtually stopped throwing his split-change: “Coming back from Tommy John surgery, he just never had a feel for it. So he developed his breaking ball more. Alex is so studious about everything he does. Think about it: he pitched great and he didn’t have his best pitch. Imagine how great he would be with the feel for his best pitch.” … And on Chris Archer throwing more and more sliders without truly developing an effective changeup, Cash said, “His changeup can be good at times. It’s just that his slider is so good, it’s so hard when you’re looking in for the sign to shake off that slider, which is such a great pitch, to throw the changeup.” … The Marlins released Edinson Volquez, paying him $18 million to go away essentially to free up a roster spot. Here’s a reminder when you are a fan of a bad team and you want it to sign free agents this time of year: be careful what you wish for. Here are the Marlins’ free agent signings this decade: Volquez, Ziegler, Wei-Yin Chen, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Placido Polanco, Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Heath Bell, John Buck and Javier Vazquez. Ouch.