Big-money busts could reshape relievers market
Free-agent flops may push GMs to cash out on middle relief
In baseball, nothing impacts future trends more than present experiences. Keeping that in mind, speculation has already begun about how the tribulations of the White Sox with Adam Dunn will influence what American League clubs look for in a designated hitter.Dunn, remarkably consistent as a slugger in the National League, has struggled remarkably in his first two months on Chicago's South Side. So the thinking is that teams will be wary of extending premium free-agent deals for established position players to just hit and sit. But if you think someone like Dunn could have influence on his market, how about Joaquin Benoit, Rafael Soriano or Bobby Jenks on theirs? They are some of the relief pitchers whose past efforts earned them lucrative contracts last offseason -- and who have returned bankrupt performances. Will the episodes with them and historical examples -- like the Blue Jays' short-lived returns on a five-year, $47 million deal for B.J. Ryan -- affect the market futures for relievers? Unlikely. Relief pitching is such a valuable commodity that teams will continue to compete, and pay, for established arms on the open market. Generalizing can be hazardous, but most of the new faces emerging from bullpens got their opportunities due to flops by the veterans in front of them. Consider the Tigers. Someone sets every market, and this offseason's relief market was set by Benoit getting a three-year, $16.5 million deal from Detroit. General manager Dave Dombrowski was merely being market-competitive. "Ideally, you prefer to give shorter-length contracts. We know that, everybody else knows that," Dombrowski said. "We clearly had identified him as the top guy on our list. We were really aggressive in pursuing him. I know of two organizations that had offered three-year deals at dollars very similar to ours." But when Benoit's struggles forced manager Jim Leyland to try another reliever in the setup role, who began to pop up in the eighth inning? Rookie Al Alburquerque. Still, the pursuit of reliable experience is especially true of setup relievers, the critical bridges to closers, overall a more trustworthy group. Middle relievers are the socks in the baseball wardrobe. Every outfit needs one, but they're easily exchangeable. And there is no shortage of selection. Perhaps you haven't thought in these terms before, but there are far more relievers than players at any other position in baseball. Through the first week of June this season, big league clubs have enlisted 182 outfielders -- the second-most populous position -- and 360 relief pitchers, which breaks down to an average of a dozen per team. Few have the stuff, the stamina and the nerve to rise above such a crowd. Those who do are pursued and rewarded by teams willing to accept the risk that they might quickly face-plant into the proverbial wall. "By the time they work their way up to making big money, by the time they get good, they've logged a lot of time and a lot of innings," reasoned Bob Boone, the Washington Nationals' assistant general manager and vice president of player development. "And it's usually just handful of guys in that group. So you have to be careful with middle guys. It's always a crapshoot with everybody. "All history does," Boone added, "is make you a little smart." Recent history can also make you flinch. Among the 17 relievers who signed contracts for $3 million-plus this past offseason: Pedro Feliciano (Yankees), Scott Downs (Angels), Dan Wheeler (Red Sox), Soriano (Yankees) and Jenks (Red Sox) have spent more time on the disabled list than on a mound. Hisanori Takahashi (Angels: 4.38 ERA), Brian Fuentes (A's: 4.05 ERA and seven losses), Will Ohman (White Sox: 5.63 ERA) and Benoit (Tigers: 5.24 ERA) have been generally ineffective. Grant Balfour (A's: 2.81 ERA in 26 games), Jesse Crain (White Sox: 3.38 in 26), J.J. Putz (D-backs: 2.00 and 17 saves in 19 chances) and Kyle Farnsworth (Rays: 1.17 and 13 saves in 14 opportunities) have been good for the money -- and advocates for GMs to continue playing this market because there is the chance they may just hit right. Farnsworth is a particularly intriguing example: Tampa Bay signed the 12-season journeyman to a one-year, $3.5 million deal and has been getting the 35-year-old's best. Are the Rays lucky, or were they good as far as doing due diligence on Farnsworth's maturing repertoire, enhanced by a sinker and a cutter? "That was a big part of why we were so interested," said manager Joe Maddon. "The last two years, he's really improved in certain categories we liked, and it really does speak to him pitching more as opposed to him going out there and trying to overpower or throw the ball. That was one of the reasons why we [wanted him]." "If you dig into the numbers, the pitches he was throwing, the types of pitches that he threw, made him more effective from both sides of the plate. That's what made him [attractive to us]. Being a veteran and that he's got experience [added to the interest]. And he has the body of an 18-year-old. He's a good fit for us." And get this: The erstwhile "thrower" has walked one man all season, in his 24 appearances. "He's just been really sharp with his command," summed up Maddon of the man at the end of his totally overhauled bullpen. Of the Rays' seven regular relievers (10-plus appearances), only one -- young left-hander Jake McGee -- appeared on the 2010 AL East-winning staff. Yet Tampa Bay is back in the heat of the division race. This is why men like Andrew Friedman, Tampa Bay's executive vice president of baseball operations, will continue to riffle through that socks drawer.