The 2016 season is still rather young, but decisions made late in Spring Training or early in the year can have lasting impact not only on a team’s results but also on the long-term earning power of players who find themselves in new roles due to injury or poor performance. This is perhaps most true when looking in the bullpen, where middle relievers are modestly compensated in arbitration (and, to a lesser extent, free agency) while their ninth-inning brethren receive significantly higher salaries due to the accumulation of saves. This past winter, we saw significant paydays for Trevor Rosenthal ($5.6MM), Hector Rondon ($4.2MM), Cody Allen ($4.15MM), Jeurys Familia ($4.1MM) and Shawn Tolleson ($3.275MM) 1in each reliever’s first trip through arbitration. Liken those figures to the arbitration salaries awarded to quality middle-relief/setup options like Justin Wilson ($1.525MM) and Bryan Morris ($1.35MM), and it’s clear that the ninth inning comes with clear financial benefit for relief arms. Even Allen’s setup man, Bryan Shaw, took home $2.75MM in his second trip through arbitration. Granted, many of the closers listed also possess gaudy strikeout rates, which do help to improve their earning capacity, but the saves are the most notable factor working in the favor of closers over setup men.
With all of that said, let’s take a look at a few early bullpen shifts that have bolstered (or, in some cases, hindered) the earning power for relievers around the game…
- Arodys Vizcaino, Braves: Jason Grilli opened the 2015 season as Atlanta’s closer and pitched well in that role until an Achilles injury ended his season. Vizcaino stepped into the ninth inning and performed quite well in his stead, and while Grilli received the Braves’ first save opp of 2016, it took one blown save for Vizcaino to move up the ladder. Vizcaino is earning just under $900K as a Super Two player this season, but if he can add a full season’s worth of saves to the nine that he tallied last year, he’ll have a case for a markedly improved salary in his second trip through arb this winter.
- Ken Giles, Astros: Conversely, the Astros’ decision to put Giles in the eighth inning after parting with a steep package to acquire him this offseason was a surprise to many. Houston’s decision has looked wise early on as Giles has struggled with home runs, but his troubles don’t figure to last long based on his track record and a strong 9-to-1 K/BB ratio through his first six appearances. Had Giles been placed into the ninth inning right away, he’d have hit arbitration following the 2017 season with nearly three full seasons as a closer under his belt and potentially had a case to top Rosenthal’s first-time record. Keeping him in the eighth inning could keep his future arbitration earnings more manageable and also allows manager A.J. Hinch to use him in higher-leverage situations as opposed to holding out for the ninth inning, as many managers tend to do with their best relievers.
- Jeremy Jeffress, Brewers: The 28-year-old Jeffress was originally slated to share the ninth inning with Will Smith, but when Smith suffered a torn LCL in Spring Training, Jeffress received sole ownership of the ninth inning and has run with it through the first two weeks of the season. A full year of saves won’t get him into Rosenthal territory, but Jeffress could compare nicely with Tolleson if he holds onto the ninth inning all season. Smith, of course, is still attempting to return, but it’s easy enough to imagine Jeffress simply holding onto the ninth, if he’s pitching well, even if Smith proved able to pitch in 2016. Jeffress arbitration eligible for the first time in the 2016-17 offseason.
- Jeanmar Gomez, Phillies: The 28-year-old received a save opp only after David Hernandez and Dalier Hinojosa blew their first opportunities, but he’s converted on four straight since getting his first chance. Gomez doesn’t have the traditional high strikeout rates or hard velocity that come with most closers, but he’s been an effective reliever and could cash in significantly this winter if the Phillies entrust him with ninth-inning duties all year. Gomez personifies the lack of earning power for low-leverage middle relievers; he’s earning $1.4MM this season after his second trip through arbitration despite a combined 3.19 ERA in 217 1/3 relief innings across the past three seasons. The Phillies ’pen could be the biggest carousel of any listed here (or of any in MLB), so perhaps Gomez’s mention here merits the “barring a change” caveat more than any of the others. For now, the ninth inning appears to be his, though.
- Roberto Osuna/Drew Storen, Blue Jays: Toronto went the opposite route of the Astros, allowing their excellent young reliever to continue to pitch in the ninth inning despite having an experienced veteran alternative in Storen. Assuming he holds the job and isn’t sent down to the minors at any point, Osuna will hit arbitration following the 2017 season with three seasons’ worth of saves under his belt. That’s a recipe for a significant payday, but the Jays opted not to tinker with a role that worked quite well for Osuna in 2015. I listed Storen also due to the fact that while the impact on free agency is lesser, there’s no doubt that he’d have had a more compelling free agent case this coming winter were he coming off a full season as a closer. Instead, he’s slated to hit the open market one and a half seasons removed from his most recent ninth-inning work.
- Kevin Jepsen, Twins: Jepsen is in the ninth inning out of necessity for the Twins following another injury to Glen Perkins. There’s no timetable on Perkins’ return, and while Jepsen isn’t likely to stick in this role all season, another successful run as an interim closer — he filled this role quite well for the Twins last year when Perkins was also hurt — would be a nice added bonus to his free-agent stock this coming offseason.