Being a relief pitcher in Major League Baseball is one of the most volatile jobs in all of professional sports. There is no other position where the average player can go from greatest ever (Eric Gagne from 2002 through 2004) to really expensive minor leaguer (Gagne from 2005 through 2009) in such a quick time. While not everyone experiences the highs of Gagne, there are many more pitchers that go on the relief roller coaster than those who don't (essentially just Mariano Rivera).
Major League owners and general managers know all about the risks inherent in every relief pitcher, ranging from injury, like Rafael Perez in 2012, attitude, like Chris Perez and John Rocker, or just losing it like Tony Sipp did in his final season in Cleveland. Jose Mesa may have been the best Indians closer ever in 1995, but that didn't earn him respect or an extended stay when he was dumped off on the Giants just three years later.
With all that being said, it is always astounding when some team decides to give a reliever a mega deal that lasts three years or longer. In the 2012 offseason, things got especially crazy. Of the twenty most expensive relief deals all time, five were signed during that year. Of course, everyone knows that these must have been the greatest relievers ever to garner so much interest and the list of names is sure to impress. Rafael Soriano lead the group with a $28M, two year deal with the Nationals, while Jonathan Broxton, Jeremy Affeldt, Mike Adams and Sean Marshall rounded out the group.
Luckily for the sanity of the rest of the league, this time of crazy spending on extremely high risk assets seems to be near an end. After eight relievers signed deals worth $10M or more in total that year, just seven have so far in 2013. Most importantly, none of the deals are for more than three years and the largest of the group are for players who have at least some chance of earning them, starting with Joe Nathan's $20M, two year deal with the Tigers. While these are still probably too high for the risk involved, there are very few teams competing for those deals. Five of the seven largest deals signed so far this off-season have been signed in the NL West as that division works hard to compete in their bullpen arms race. In fact, the only team not to have signed a $10M or more reliever from that division are the Diamondbacks, who just grabbed Addison Reed from the White Sox in a trade.
While those five teams continue to over spend, the rest of the league has calmed. The usually extremely open handed AL East has especially been tempered down with only the Red Sox signing a big name reliever to this point (Ed Mujica). The Yankees, who have been a large part in over-inflating the relief market with big deals to Rivera and Rafael Soriano in recent years, have completely sat out this year's competition, spending instead to improve their outfield.
Another good sign in the market is the increase in value of all good relievers in comparison to just closers. The save may be a fun number for fantasy baseball, but it a very bad marker of actual talent. Joe Borowski saved 45 games for the Indians in 2007 and lead the league, despite an ERA above 5.00. He wasn't even in the top five Indians relievers used that year, but accumulating all those saves made him overvalued compared to the rest of the bullpen.
There is nothing extra special about the ninth inning. Runs scored then are worth the same as every other inning, there is just more emphasis placed on it because it is the last time anyone can score. The media doesn't make a big deal about a blown hold in the seventh inning that leads to a one run loss, but they certainly do about a blown save in the ninth. These two things are essentially identical and the reliever market is starting to reflect that.
The Indians' Joe Smith was one of the first relievers to sign this year and is a perfect example. He has been among the best set-up men in the league for years and is now being recognized as such by the Angels with a $15.75M, three year deal. This switch actually goes back to that crazy 2012 off-season when Affeldt signed the biggest deal ever by a non-closing reliever, just before Adams and Marshall joined him with the next two largest.
The Rockies have shown this strategy this season as well. First, they signed LaTroy Hawkins to be their new closer with a one year deal worth $2.5M. Afterward, they brought in his set-up man, Boone Logan with a $5.5M, three year deal. While the yearly value is slightly higher for Hawkins, he would certainly have preferred the three year deal at his age. The Rockies, however, are aware of where the true value lies between the two.
The Indians lost three important relievers this off-season and have only replaced one to this point in the free agent market. The $4.5M given to John Axford for a single year seems to be well within market expectations, without going crazy and risking $20M on a 39 year old closer (Nathan). There is a as of a good chance as not that Cody Allen and C.C. Lee will outperform Joe Smith in 2014 and cost a tenth of the price. There is an equal chance that any one of the three will be injured or just fall apart, but the Indians won't be responsible for the extra $15 million if it happens to one of the players still with the team. The best part of this whole situation is that if the trend continues, the Indians may actually be able to afford to retain these relievers by the time they hit free agency in a few years. With a continued emphasis on making money spent equal actual value, there is no reason this return to sanity should not continue.