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11/05/11 10:00 AM EST

Papelbon leads class of free-agent relievers

Bell, Cordero, Madson, Dotel are also attractive options

The extensive list of free-agent relievers includes a lot of "name" closers, and that will be part of the problem facing tempted teams in need. In baseball, it takes years of performance to get a name, as it does in most endeavors. The caveat for baseball relievers, however, is that soon after reaching the top of the hill, many are found sliding down on the other side of it.

That conundrum is particularly challenging this time around. Six potential free-agent closers (some bound by club options that had to be triggered within three days after the conclusion of the World Series) had 25-plus saves this season; four of them are 34 or older.

That list is topped by Jose Valverde, who was perfect (49-for-49) in leading the Majors in saves. The Tigers have already picked up the 34-year-old's $9 million option, leaving fellow 34-year-old Heath Bell and a couple of 31-year-olds -- Jonathan Papelbon and Ryan Madson -- as top gets.

Age will be a big concern throughout this market segment, guaranteeing that a lot of these relievers will end up signing Minor League make-do contracts as we near Spring Training. This is not a young man's club. Granted, you must have some tread-wear before even qualifying for free agency, but there are a lot of bald tires in this group.

Of the 59 relievers in the pool, more than half (35) will be 34-plus by Opening Day 2012.

Yet the elders are among the most effective, and will be the most attractive, of the bunch. Shopping for relief pitching is like picking out a spare tire, no disrespect meant: It doesn't have to take you a long way, only across a short haul.

No segment of the modern baseball team is as vital, or as variable, as its bullpen. The 2010-11 Tampa Bay Rays proved that case.

The track record of relievers signed to long-term contracts is extremely poor. However, with the growing emphasis on reliable bullpen chains keeping demand high, proven arms still figure to cash in handsomely.

2011 awards
MLB.com takes a glance at each position entering the Hot Stove season.

SP: Plenty of mid-tier arms
RP: Closers flood market
1B: Pujols, Prince elite
2B: Thin but reliable
3B: Aramis the lone big bat
SS: Attention on Reyes
OF: Bargains available
DH: Ortiz the top target
Hot Stove MLBlog
Hot Stove Tracker

Looking to buy: Whether it's a new deal for Papelbon or a deal for a new closer, the Red Sox and new general manager Ben Cherington will be front-and-center. ... The Mets may not be willing to commit to any of the three who shared closing duties after Francisco Rodriguez's departure, and the co-National League East hopeful Marlins will have to change closers if they can't just change the name of Leo Nunez. ... The Rays are again looking to reload, and will again be creative, so don't look for high-profile moves from them. ... Ordinarily, the Twins would be viewed as top shoppers, as they declined their option on Joe Nathan and Matt Capps could potentially leave via free agency. But they're in transition mode, and GM Bill Smith may not see the wisdom of paying big for 'pen help.

Top dog: With Valverde off the board, Papelbon becomes the bottleneck among closers. Teams needing a top-flight stopper that are willing to pay a premium for him won't budge while he is still available. As it did for most of the Red Sox, his season ended on a sour note, but Pap rebounded strongly from a mediocre 2010, posting his highest strikeout rate (12.2 per nine innings) since 2007. He seems obsessed with going down as one of history's all-time best, so at an age at which Mariano Rivera had only 165 of his 603 saves, the right-hander still has a huge upside.

Best of the rest: Teams are wary of long-term projections for Bell, but it's hard to find fault with his track record (43 saves in 2011, 132 in the three seasons since succeeding Trevor Hoffman). ... The same can be said for Francisco Cordero, who has led the league in saves with three different teams (Texas in the American League, the Brewers and the Reds in the NL), meaning that a couple of them have already been wrong. ... Madson was lights out in his first full season as a closer (32-of-34) for the Phillies. ... Octavio Dotel clearly likes pitching for high stakes and he would be a valuable setup guy for another contender. ... Jeremy Affeldt (2.63 ERA in 67 appearances for the Giants) is the best of the left-handed setup bunch.

Worth a shot: Francisco Rodrigue would would bring fresh energy to another shot at closing. He doesn't turn 30 until January, despite being only nine saves shy of 300. ... Jonathan Broxton, only 28 and just two years removed from being an absolute monster for the Dodgers (36 saves, 114 strikeouts in 76 innings), needs to regain his confidence. ... Juan Cruz has been a reliable setup man wherever he's been, which is a lot of places (six teams in 11 seasons). ... Joel Zumaya is a very long shot, and teams would have to be willing to take a flyer on a still-young (27) guy who was the right-handed Aroldis Chapman (102-mile heater) before years of injuries. ... A couple of 41-year-olds can still be dynamite setup lefties -- Darren Oliver (.227 lefty opponents average, 23 punchouts in 88 at-bats) and Arthur Rhodes (.245 lefty opponents average).

Potential class of 2013: Joakim Soria will be an arresting target, but only if he reverses his serious tailspin of 2011. Colorado's Huston Street and Seattle's Brandon League figure to be elsewhere by then, perhaps also affecting their status. Headlining the setup ranks will be Mike Adams and left-hander Sean Burnett, who between them have 104 holds over the last two seasons.

Tom Singer is a national reporter for MLB.com. Follow @Tom_Singer on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.