Last offseason was a good time to be a free agent relief pitcher — 17 relievers from D.J. Carrasco to Rafael Soriano signed multiyear deals. As MLBTR’s Transaction Tracker shows, teams spent a total of $202.6MM on multiyear deals for relievers a year ago.
Jonathan Papelbon, Ryan Madson, Joe Nathan, Francisco Cordero and Heath Bell led an unusually strong class of free agent closers this offseason, so many, myself included, assumed the lavish spending would continue. Yet MLB teams have locked just five relievers up on multiyear deals to this point in the winter. The total cost of $112.25MM falls short of last offseason’s total by $90MM.
Madson, Cordero and Kerry Wood are among the remaining free agent relievers who have cases for multiyear deals, so the complete totals aren’t in just yet. But it appears that last offseason was a more lucrative environment for relief pitchers.
To determine why teams are making fewer long-term commitments to relievers, I asked a number of agents for their thoughts. First of all, it makes sense to look beyond the relievers themselves to the front office executives making the contract offers. There's been substantial general manager turnover around the league this offseason, and I wonder if some GMs have been reluctant to introduce themselves to their respective fan bases by committing substantial dollars to one of baseball's least predictable, most replaceable assets and making an early faux pas in the eyes of many fans and pundits.
It’s worth noting that the five executives who signed relievers to multiyear deals this offseason are established in their roles. Sandy Alderson, Brian Sabean, Larry Beinfest, Jon Daniels and Ruben Amaro Jr. have each led at least one team to the World Series, so they've earned leeway that others might not yet have.
The Rays, Braves and Cardinals have constructed successful, relatively cheap bullpens in recent years, so other clubs may be taking note. Why pay a premium for saves when a groundballer like Luis Ayala, a durable arm like Todd Coffey or a flame-thrower like Joel Zumaya is available more affordably?
Let's not forget about the impact the Yankees and Red Sox have on free agent spending. When every team knows they're shopping, the market does things it wouldn’t ordinarily do and there are consequences throughout the game. But the AL East rivals have been quiet this offseason, and not just in terms of relievers. 2013 free agents such as Brandon League and Francisco Rodriguez are presumably hoping the Yankees and Red Sox spend more freely next offseason, even if they have no intention of signing with either team.