While Cubs closer Carlos Marmol grabbed attention the past couple years for his staggering strikeout rate and spectacularly excruciating blown saves, North Siders fans and fantasy owners in holds leagues alike will tell you that left-hander Sean Marshall was something of an underappreciated gem in Chicago's bullpen.
Indeed, after struggling as a starter early in his career, Marshall, 29, has settled in nicely as a reliever, serving as a dominant setup man in his two seasons spent exclusively in the bullpen. Last year was his finest, as the southpaw posted a 2.26 ERA, 9.40 K/9, 2.02 BB/9, 57.5% groundball rate and compiled 2.8 WAR. Apparently, the Cubs' division rivals took note, as Marshall changed uniforms within the NL Central in December, joining the Reds in a seemingly out-of-nowhere trade that sent Travis Wood back to the Cubs.
Marshall is set to earn $3.1MM in 2012 and is scheduled to hit free agency after the season, although Reds GM Walt Jocketty indicated that Marshall's foray into the open market may never come to fruition: "No guarantees, but we're going to try to sign him." Interestingly, Jocketty also said the Reds have not yet deterimed Marshall's role and left open the possibility of the left-hander closing, contingent upon whether they sign someone else to handle the ninth.
While we could debate the merits of strict bullpen distinctions such as "setup men" and "closers," the fact is that pitchers in those respective groups are usually compensated differently. So the uncertainty regarding Marshall's role and the Reds' interest in, or ability to, procure a so-called closer may be more than a minor footnote to the trade, at least with respect to Marshall's next contract.
If Marshall and his representatives at Meister Sports Management are amenable to signing an extension now – and reading the tea leaves from Jocketty's comments, they might be – they'll likely use the three-year, $15MM deal lefty Scott Downs signed with the Angels last offseason as a starting point in negotiations. And in light of the big contracts relievers have been securing this offseason, an annual average salary of $5MM is probably modest, so it could be bumped up from there.
The bird-in-hand philosophy could probably make Marshall a wealthy man before he even throws a pitch in 2012, but if he wants to leave open the possibility of getting paid like a closer, he could opt to play out his contract year. This would be an especially risky tack for a reliever, who are notoriously volatile from year to year, but could prove lucrative if Marshall is thrust into closing, approximates his 2011 numbers and hits free agency as a 30-year-old coming off a season in which he sewed up 35 or 40 saves.
While there are a few conditions that have to fall into place in that scenario for Marshall before we get ahead of ourselves, it's worth noting that Ryan Madson basically followed a similar arc and positioned himself for a windfall heading into this offseason.