But attesting to the concentration of talent in the relief mart is the fact that it has the greatest number of ranked free agents of any position: The 10 Type As and 13 Type Bs represent 21 percent of all the ranked Major League players in the Elias Sports Bureau's annual survey.
The majority of free-agent relievers this time are middle-of-the-game and setup pitchers, those role hurlers who are the "underwear" in the baseball chest. They're always being changed; a typical team will go through as many as 10 of them in a season.
Yet they, too, can be invaluable. The Giants proved just how much a year ago, when their key free-agent pickups were Bob Howry and Jeremy Affeldt, long relievers who contributed mightily to the team's 16-game improvement over 2008.
The top rubber-armed workhorses pitch often enough to qualify as at least every-other-day players. The free-agency scroll is perhaps topped by the lefty-righty combination that comprised the unsung heroes of the Braves' surprising season-long contention: Mike Gonzalez (80 games) and Rafael Soriano (77), who between them pitched 157 times.
The ageless Russ Springer and Rafael Betancourt are other attractive options among right-handers, and the appealing lefties include Joe Beimel, Brian Shouse, Darren Oliver and, if he slips through the Cubs' hands, John Grabow.
The market is short on, but hardly devoid of, closers who have notable track records. They are led by an underrated gem, the Tigers' Fernando Rodney, who finished 65 of his 73 appearances and saved 37 of them.
Others are two-time National League saves leader Jose Valverde, former Cubs closer Kevin Gregg and a pair of main-liners who lost their gloss with the Mets: J.J. Putz and Billy Wagner (who finished the season with the Red Sox).
The very lack of marquee names that dominated a year ago is exactly what will prompt teams to make this an active, competitive market. No one projects to be out of any team's price range, so there will be lots of rummaging.
Head of the class
Gonzalez, (5-4, 90 SO, 2.42 ERA), Type A:
Elbow ligament surgery didn't take any heat off Gonzalez's stuff, as he remains one of the hardest-throwing lefty relievers around. He fanned 90 in 74 1/3 innings while splitting Atlanta closing duties with ...
Soriano, (1-6, 102, 2.97), Type A:
The erstwhile setup man made a convincing debut as a regular closer, picking up 20 of his 27 saves after emerging as the Braves' No. 1 option in July. He ranked second among all Major League relievers with 102 strikeouts (the Dodgers' Jonathan Broxton led with 114), in 75 2/3 innings.
Rodney, (2-5, 61, 4.40), Type B:
A high ERA (4.40) left the impression that he's erratic, but no one was more nails with a lead, as he converted 37 of 38 save opportunities. He did, however, turn a lot of two-run leads into one-run saves. He seems to have lost a lot off his fastball.
Betancourt, (4-3, 61, 2.73), Type A:
The always-dependable long man turned untouchable in his three-month NL introduction with the Rockies following a late-July trade from the Indians. He allowed only 17 hits in 25 1/3 innings, with a 29-to-4 strikeouts-to-unintentional-walks ratio.
Octavio Dotel, (3-3, 75, 3.32), Type A:
The White Sox raised eyebrows by giving Dotel a two-year, $11 million contract prior to the 2008 season, but he proved the investment wise by working 134 games in the two seasons, with 167 strikeouts in 139 1/3 innings. He appears to have moved past all the injuries that marred the middle years of his career.
Valverde, (4-2, 56, 2.33), Type A:
Despite losing May to a right calf injury, Valverde worked 52 games and posted 25 saves with the second-lowest ERA (2.33) of his career. His strikeouts have exceeded his innings every season, making him the prototypical fireman.
Wagner, (1-1, 26, 1.72), Type A:
Perhaps Wagner was only seeking an exit on his own terms following Tommy John ligament-replacement surgery when he agreed to the late-August deal to the Red Sox, but the 38-year-old left-hander's one month in Boston turned into an eye-opener. Twenty-two strikeouts in 13 2/3 innings made him eager to add to his 385 saves, and not even his Type A status should scare off suitors.
Gregg, (5-6, 71, 4.72), Type A:
Yes, he had a difficult time with the Cubs and lost the closer's job to Carlos Marmol when he went on a run of blown saves. But Gregg still has saved 84 games and appeared in 218 games over the past three seasons. Walks have always been an issue for Gregg, who allowed 30 free passes in 68 2/3 innings last season. Again, though, he saved 23 games.
Howry, (2-6, 46, 3.39), Type B: Howry is back on the market after working 60-plus games for the fifth consecutive season with impeccable control, making him the type of reliever managers love to bring into tight games. Since 2004 he has struck out 335 and walked 100.
Beimel, (1-6, 35, 3.58), Type B:
Beimel is no longer as fearless or as overpowering against left-handed hitters as he was a couple of years ago with the Dodgers, but he remains a good matchup choice. He struck out 22 lefties in 93 at-bats. He's also a giant in an area often overlooked by relievers, reining in runners. He has had one
base stolen on him the past seven seasons, in 366 games.
Scott Eyre, (2-1, 22, 1.50), Type B:
A manager's prototypical lefty silver bullet, Eyre is seldom allowed to pitch to a right-handed batter, explaining why he averages only about two outs per outing, but he can make even the best same-side hitters look inept. He also keeps the ball in the park, having allowed only eight homers in 125 appearances the past three seasons.
Also on the market
Danys Baez (Orioles), Joaquin Benoit (Rangers), Chad Bradford (Rays), Doug Brocail (Type B, Astros), Kiko Calero (Type B-Marlins), Chad Fox (Cubs), Bruce Chen (Royals), Elmer Dessens (Mets), Brandon Donnelly (Marlins), Alan Embree (Rockies), Grabow (Type A, Cubs), Eddie Guardado (Rangers), LaTroy Hawkins (Type A, Astros), Mark Hendrickson (Orioles), Matt Herges (Rockies), Jason Isringhausen (Rays), Brandon Lyon (Type B, Tigers), Guillermo Mota (Type B, Dodgers), Tomo Ohka (Indians), Will Ohman (Type B, Dodgers), Oliver (Type A, Angels), Troy Percival (Rays), Putz (Mets), Juan Rincon (Rockies), Ron Mahay (Twins), Scott Schoeneweis (D-backs), Shouse (Type B, Rays), Springer (Type B, Rays), Ron Villone (Nationals), David Weathers (Type B, Brewers), Jamey Wright (Royals)
Ready to buy
The Braves have to replace not one but two closers, but they may consider Peter Moylan or dealing surplus starting pitching ahead of signing a free agent, even one of their own. A front-line closer may be the surest way for the Rangers to close the gap between them and the Angels. The Tigers and White Sox seek more dependable options to the injury-prone Joel Zumaya and sometimes shaky Bobby Jenks, respectively.
The aforementioned applies to those shopping for closers, but even more teams need to bolster their middle relief corps. Those with the biggest need are the Angels, Rays and D-backs.
The Giants will stay on the lookout for someone more reliable than Brian Wilson (seven blown saves) to protect leads for their vaunted rotation. The Cardinals are leery about Ryan Franklin's second-half slippage (0.79 ERA before the All-Star break and 3.33 after). Joe Maddon is a genius at slotting relievers into their best roles, but this varied market may enable the conservative Rays to do some shopping. If the Orioles believe they'll be pretty good, they'll need a closer as a finishing piece.
Potential 2011 class
Affeldt, Grant Balfour, Randy Choate, Jesse Crain, Juan Cruz ($4 million club option with $500,000 buyout), Scott Downs, Chad Durbin, Kyle Farnsworth ($5.25 million club option with $500,000 buyout), Pedro Feliciano, Frank Francisco, Jason Frasor, Fuentes (vesting $9 million option), Matt Guerrier, Aaron Heilman, Hoffman ($7 million mutual option with $500,000 buyout), Mike Lincoln, Mike MacDougal, Seth McClung, Justin Miller, Trever Miller (vesting $2 million option), Chad Qualls, Jon Rauch, Dennys Reyes, Arthur Rhodes, David Riske ($4.75 million club option with $250,000 buyout), Mariano Rivera, J.C. Romero, Bobby Seay, Scot Shields, Huston Street, Matt Thornton ($3 million club option with $250,000 buyout), Dan Wheeler ($4 million club option with $1 million buyout), Wood (vesting $11 million club option)