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The rise of the bullpen: Paying for more than saves

Free agent relievers are getting paid like never before, even if they haven't yet closed games. It won't be long before non-closers are getting extended before they reach free agency. What will these contracts for the best bullpen arms look like?

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Relief pitchers are really cool. There, I said it. Gone are the days of relievers being "just" failed starters and old guys with tricky junkballs. It used to be that your starter finished the game or something had gone terribly wrong and the fireman had to be brought in to clean up the mess. Then Tony LaRussa had to come along and muck everything up. LaRussa invented the mix-and-match bullpen management strategy, and in the process kick-started the development of the mega-pens we see today. No longer do we simply have Dennis Eckersley closing out games. Now we’ve got the Royals, Yankees, Mariners, A's, Padres and more hurling out one disgustingly good reliever after the other. Closers themselves are as dangerous as ever, though. We live in the era of Craig Kimbrel, of Aroldis Chapman, of Kenley Jansen and Greg Holland. No longer does the occasional Trevor Hoffman or Mariano Rivera pop up and exceed the rest of the world. Now almost every team has a formidable closer.

Holland in particular was thrust into the national limelight last year, as his Royals made a mad dash to the World Series. Yet his bullpen compatriots Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis may have been objects of even greater interest as the world was formally introduced to Ned Yost’s terrifying "three-headed monster." While Holland is an unquestionably elite talent, was he even the most formidable arm of the group?

Greg Holland 12.99 0.91 2.10 1.77
Wade Davis 13.63 0.85 1.93 1.61

Holland may have been the closer, but Wade Davis was the better pitcher. Let’s try this with another fearsome twosome.

David Robertson 13.43 1.06 2.13 1.88
Dellin Betances 13.50 0.78 1.86 1.45

Dellin Betances is a monster -- an absolute monster with occasional 100 mph heat, a filthy curve, and a ridiculous arm angle due to his NBA power-forward body. David Robertson is also really good, which is why the White Sox gave him a lot of money to be the crown jewel of their bullpen. Yet Betances was better pretty much across the board. Joe Girardi also employed Betances as a multi-inning scorched earth weapon, which made him even more valuable -- here’s a great article on that from Grantland’s Ben Lindbergh. The Yankees replaced Robertson with Andrew Miller. Let’s look at Miller compared to Robertson and Zach Britton, who closed ahead of Miller for the Orioles.

David Robertson 13.43 1.06 2.13 1.88
Zach Britton 7.31 0.90 2.82 2.14
Andrew Miller 14.87 0.80 1.58 1.21

Miller was superior. While this was something of a breakout year from Miller and it remains to be seen if he’ll keep it up, the ERA estimators were quite fond of him. The point is that the Yankees have replaced Robertson with Miller, and also added arms such as David Carpenter, Justin Wilson and Chasen Shreve to a relief corps that already features 2014 breakout Adam Warren and uber-prospect Jacob Lindgren. It’s a business model that Kansas City thrived on. Even the Astros, a team that doesn’t figure to win more than 80 games, splurged on Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek. Neither of those two has ever handled extended closing duties. The White Sox also gave $15 million to Zach Duke, a formerly unremarkable failed starter who caught fire with the Brewers last year. More and more money is seemingly being doled out to so-called "middle relievers." To see if that’s just the bias of our minds dwelling on recent events, let’s plunge into the free agency trackers to see what non-closers have been paid in the last few offseasons.

Player R/L Offseason Signing Team Years Salary
Andrew Miller L '14-'15 NYY 4 $36M
Luke Gregerson R '14-'15 HOU 3 $18.5M
Jeremy Affeldt R '12-'13 SFG 3 $18M
Boone Logan L '13-'14 COL 3 $16.5M
Joaquin Benoit R '10-'11 DET 3 $16.5M
Joe Smith R '13-'14 LAA 3 $15.75M
Zach Duke L '14-'15 CWS 3 $15M
Javier Lopez L '13-'14 SFG 3 $13M
Pat Neshek R '14-15 HOU 2 $12.5M
Mike Adams R '12-'13 PHI 2 $12M
Scott Linebrink R '07-'08 CWS 4 $19M

Linebrink, the man at the bottom of the table, held the record for the biggest contract given to a non-closer before Miller bulldozed it. Seven of the 10 leading contracts were signed within the last two years, and two others were given out just a year before that. We can perhaps attribute that to three things: inflation, the rising talent level of relievers, and the aforementioned growing emphasis of front offices on the bullpen.

That last factor is the truly important one for what I intend to explore here. As free agent relievers are being paid more and more, and a gaggle of fresh young arms dazzle out of the bullpen, it seems inevitable that the extension fad is going to spread to include relievers as well. Whether it’s to buy out arbitration years or keep valuable weapons in town, teams are going to want to make sure they have their top guns under control. Let’s look at two top-tier arms that haven’t had a closer gig just yet, and see if we can work out theoretical deals for them.

Tony Watson, Pittsburgh Pirates

Watson has been a mainstay of Pittsburgh’s bullpen for three years now, and his ugly rookie campaign of 2011 is far away in the rear view mirror. Watson was so good this year that he earned the rare honor of being a non-closer named to the All-Star team. A minuscule 1.63 ERA was backed up by the estimator stats all the way through -- in fact all of those numbers have been falling year-over-year (see below). Because he’s a member of the Pirates, he sported a grounder rate of 47.7%, but he also turned into a strikeout machine (9.43 K/9). Like Miller, Watson isn’t limited to LOOGY duties. While he’s death to left-handed hitters (career .202/.266/.290 line against), righties don’t fare much better (.213/.290/.356). Watson’s primary offering is his fastball. PITCHf/x says that Watson throws both a standard four-seamer and a sinker, and it rated the sinker at nine runs above average in 2014. He’ll also mix in changeups and the occasional slider to keep hitters honest.

2011 3.95 4.66 4.20 3.88
2012 3.38 3.68 4.00 3.58
2013 2.39 3.20 3.72 3.26
2014 1.69 2.69 2.84 2.39

Andrew Miller is the most immediate comparison that comes to mind, despite Watson inducing fewer Ks than Miller. They’re both strikeout-oriented lefties that can impose their will on batters regardless of handedness. They’re even only separated in age by nine days. However, Miller’s a different kind of pitcher than Watson. While Watson relies on his fastballs and a sprinkling of secondary offerings to make his living, Miller’s breakout was made possible by his ungodly slider. The new Yankee is also just simply better than Watson. So how much does a team pay Watson if we’re going to extend him?

He’s about to enter his age-30 season, so his decline years would theoretically be coming soon. Because he relies on his fastball, I personally wouldn’t want to keep him on too far beyond his walk year, as his velocity is well into its decline. An extension of Watson would then theoretically be a buyout of his arbitration years, with either an extra guaranteed year tacked on at the end or a hefty team option. The Zach Duke deal could be a good place to start, then. Duke will be 32 this year, and just finished only his first year of relief excellence. So therefore, Watson’s agents could parlay their client’s good track record and youth into a slightly larger deal to buy out Watson’s arbitration years.

Theoretical extension: 3 years, $18 million. $6 million team option (matches AAV), $1.75 million buyout.

Dellin Betances, New York Yankees

Technically we spoke about Betances earlier, and he's likely about to become one those "closer" things. But Betances is way too much fun to not poke at in this exercise. You’ve got the numbers to reference above. Here’s some video of Betances toying with Miguel Cabrera, because why not?

It’s so easy to forget that just a year ago, Betances was a failed prospect. Once a heralded member of the Killer B’s triumvirate along with Andrew Brackman and Manny Banuelos, Betances couldn’t cut it as a starter. All he’s done instead is put himself in the conversation for the title of best reliever in baseball. Betances isn’t eligible for arbitration until 2017 (with free agency in 2020), but if we’re going to work out the best deal possible, the Yankees may want to get a deal done before all those saves start making Betances even more expensive. For example, Craig Kimbrel inked a four-year, $42 million deal in February of 2014. A back-loaded deal is almost a given, as it would simulate the rising arbitration salaries that he would earn as he accumulates saves. Betances is entering his age-27 season, and therefore could see some decline in the last few years of his deal, and some gas could come off his elite fastball. A player option could be tacked on to incentivize Betances to forfeit his arbitration.

Theoretical extension: 5 years, $50 million ($10 million AAV), back-loaded structure. $12 million player option for sixth year.

Summing Up

The Watson deal seems slightly reasonable, but isn’t likely to happen as Mark Melancon might oppose the idea of a setup man getting paid before the closer. With Betances becoming the top dog on his team, however, there’s a will and a way forward for him. $50 million is quite a bit of cash to throw at a converted starter with only one season of success at the highest level, but if the Yankees truly feel Betances can sustain his excellence it’s something that could possibly occur. Saves are the best way to drive up one’s salary. The Yankees aren’t hurting for resources, of course, but Brian Cashman’s braintrust seems to have settled on a new strategy of cost-controlled talent.

You shouldn’t wait with baited breath for a deal to be reached this spring, however. The purpose of this exercise was to demonstrate that talent is being rewarded regardless of the arbitrary role a player has been assigned, and the bullpen has become quite the place to build. I’d like to follow this post up with one that explores some of the players you may seem thrust into the limelight this coming season, because goodness gracious relief pitchers are really cool.

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Stats courtesy of Contract information and arbitration eligibility information courtesy of,, and Cot's Baseball Contracts at Baseball Prospectus.

Nicolas Stellini is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score and a member of the IBWAA. You can find him on Twitter @StelliniTweets.