With 18 games remaining in the season, Brian Fuentes' 2011 vesting option is officially out of reach. The 35-year-old's contract included a $9MM option for next season that would vest if he finished 55 games, but an April back strain knocked him off pace early. Having finished only 35 games this year, the left-hander is heading toward free agency.
When Fuentes signed his last contract, he was coming off a career year. In 2008, he saved 30 games and recorded a 2.73 ERA to go along with 11.8 K/9, turning that performance into a two-year, $17.5MM deal with the Angels. Despite saving 72 games over the course of the contract, Fuentes likely won't be fielding the same sort of offers this winter. His ERA (3.67), BB/9 (4.0), and K/9 (8.3) over the last two years have all fallen off slightly since his final seasons in Colorado, and at 35, he's not getting any younger. Teams didn't hand out many multi-year guarantees to last year's crop of free agent relievers, and Fuentes is part of a free agent class that includes other left-handed options like Scott Downs, Pedro Feliciano, Hisanori Takahashi, and Will Ohman.
Fuentes has been used as a closer for the majority of the last few years, and he'll aim to be paid like one. However, with only a handful of teams expected to be in the market for a closer, and many feasible options available, clubs might view Fuentes as a setup man instead. Being able to call on the southpaw in any middle or late inning rather than waiting for the ninth would allow a team to better take advantage of his primary strength: retiring lefties. While Fuentes has always handled left-handed hitters better than righties, his splits are particularly disparate this year – right-handers have a .757 OPS against him, compared to just .350 for left-handers.
A multi-year contract and a chance to close figure to be at or near the top of Fuentes' wish list this winter, and it's possible that a team willing to overpay for saves will provide him both. If not, the lefty could end up inking a short-term deal, perhaps with an option year, to be the primary left-handed setup man for a contender.