The offseason is less than a month old, but the perception is that Joaquin Benoit's three-year, $16.5MM deal with the Tigers has busted the free agent reliever market. It's possible that the most cost effective bullpen pieces can now be found in trades, and Geoff Baker of The Seattle Times believes that David Aardsma's trade value has gone up without throwing a pitch since the end of the regular season.
Aardsma, 29 next month, emerged as Seattle's closer in 2009, and has pitched to a 2.90 ERA with 9.6 K/9 and 4.4 BB/9 in 121 innings with the Mariners. He's 69 for 78 in save opportunities in that time, numbers that are likely to push his salary north of $4MM in his second time through the arbitration process this offseason. Aardsma earned $2.75MM in 2010.
The Mariners, who finished with the game's second worst record in 2010, have a number of holes to fill. They have a replacement closer in waiting in Brandon League, and could shop Aardsma for an upgrade at basically any position not occupied by Chone Figgins, Ichiro Suzuki, or Franklin Gutierrez. As we've seen in recent years, hard-throwing relievers can fetch all kinds of returns.
Matt Lindstrom brought back three non-top prospect minor leaguers in a trade. Kerry Wood returned two low level minor leaguers and salary relief. Leo Nunez brought Mike Jacobs. Chris Perez and another player landed Mark DeRosa. Joel Hanrahan and Sean Burnett were essentially traded for each other. Jose Valverde, Rafael Soriano, Chad Qualls, Ramon Ramirez, Octavio Dotel … the list goes on and on.
The number of teams that could use a guy like Aardsma is 30, for all intents and purposes, but his expected salary will likely limit his market to teams with sizable wallets. Baker speculates about a fit with the Rays, but acknowledges their payroll crunch. The Red Sox are seeking bullpen help and are familiar with Aardsma after his 2008 stint with the team, then of course you have the usual suspects like the Yankees, Dodgers, Cardinals, Cubs, Tigers, Phillies, etc. All of this is one reason why Aardsma will almost certainly not be with the Mariners come Spring Training, as Baker puts it.