The word "volatile" is often tossed around in regard to relief pitching, and the same word applies to a discussion of this winter's relief market. What better way to describe a market in which Jonathan Papelbon received a four-year, $50 million commitment from the Phillies, while the man he replaced, Ryan Madson, settled for one year and $8.5 million with the Reds? That's plenty volatile, especially when you remember that the Phillies, whether or not they made an actual offer or came to an actual agreement, had considered a $44 million, four-year pact with Madson before turning to "Cinco Ocho."
With the benefit of hindsight, we can see now that the Phillies, in signing Papelbon, set a market that never truly materialized the way some thought it might. They drastically overpaid, as the only contract for a closer that came close to rivaling Papelbon's, in terms of length and dollars, was the three-year, $27 million deal Heath Bell signed with the Marlins. When the Phillies signed Papelbon, they were likely counting on the momentum of last year's big spending on late-inning options to carry over into the winter of 2011-12. A year ago, 17 relievers were signed to multiyear contracts totaling more than $200 million, according to mlbtraderumors.com. This year? Beyond Papelbon and Bell, the only other free-agent-eligible relievers to get multiyear pacts have been Joe Nathan (two years, $14.75 million from the Rangers), Frank Francisco (two years, $12 million from the Mets) and Javier Lopez (two years, $8.5 million with the Giants). For the most part, it would appear, teams have wised up. It's simply dangerous to sign relievers not named Mariano Rivera to contracts totaling three years or more. And it's not always necessary, either. The best bullpen in baseball last year, in terms of ERA (3.03) and batting average against (.221), belonged to the Atlanta Braves -- the same Braves team that hasn't signed a free-agent reliever to a multiyear contract in four years. The Braves' bullpen was carried by closer Craig Kimbrel and lefty setup man Jonny Venters, both of whom were low-profile Draft picks developed in-house. Its other primary contributors were Eric O'Flaherty (waiver pickup), Scott Linebrink (trade acquisition), Cristhian Martinez (waiver pickup) and George Sherrill (one-year contract). Within that group, the only significant salary investment the Braves made in 2011 was to Linebrink. They were on the hook for $4 million of his $5.5 million salary. The rest of that group cost the Braves a little more than $3 million while earning them 11.8 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), according to baseball-reference.com. That's called bang for your buck. Really, that Braves 'pen serves as a model of sorts. Even the best relievers only work upwards of 70 innings in a season, so, in a perfect world, it's not an area where you want to devote significant salary. Building an effective bullpen on the cheap requires a foundation from the farm, rounded out by some cost-effective options from the outside, all of whom combine to give the opposition a variety of different looks. Now, when it comes to finding those outside options, the most successful clubs in this winter's market have been the ones that have displayed prudence and patience. Look at the Reds. They needed a proven closer when Francisco Cordero hit the open market. After sitting on their heels for a while, they were plenty pleased to swoop in and nab Madson, who had 32 saves and a 2.2 WAR in his first season as a closer last year, on a one-year deal after the market shrank. Yes, the $8.5 million doled out to Madson is still a decent chunk of money, but there's really no such thing as a bad one-year deal. Another big winner this offseason, in terms of improving the bullpen without breaking the budget, is the Red Sox. They watched one of the game's more proven ninth-inning arms get plucked from their grasp, but at four years and $50 million, good riddance. In response, the Red Sox waited for the trade market to develop, then hauled in Andrew Bailey and outfielder Ryan Sweeney from the A's for Josh Reddick, Miles Head and Raul Alcantara. Bailey might not be the household name Papelbon is, but his WAR, as calculated by baseball-reference.com, over the past three years is 7.2, compared with 6.3 for Papelbon. And while that might not be the best way to compare the two, here's one comparison that undoubtedly is attractive to Boston: Even if Bailey gets his full arbitration request of $4.7 million for 2012, that will still be a far, far cry from the $11 million Papelbon will receive from the Phils. Oh, and don't forget the two Draft picks the Red Sox will get as compensation for losing Papelbon. Add it all up, and I'd say they did all right for themselves. So, how well did the Phillies do in signing Papelbon? Well, we've got four years to determine the answer to that question. But we do know that history is not on their side. And given how the rest of the relief market has played out this winter, you can easily make the argument that the Phillies would have been wise to wait a while longer to patch their hole in the ninth.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.