2014 MLB Free Agents: Impact Relief Pitchers Available This Winter

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2014 MLB Free Agents: Impact Relief Pitchers Available This Winter
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There are plenty of big bats set to hit the Major League Baseball open market once the World Series ends, including guys like Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo. While those sluggers will get the biggest paydays, other relievers on the market might not garner as much attention when they ink their free-agent deals this winter.

But games are often won and lost in the late innings with bullpen arms, so let's take a look at the top crop of relievers who are expected to be free agents this offseason.

 

Joe Nathan

On Friday, MLB.com's T.R. Sullivan reported that the Rangers expect closer Nathan to opt out of the final year of his contract. According to Aaron Gleeman of NBC's Hardball Talk, the contract was going to pay him $9.5 million.

By throwing in at least 55 games (he pitched in 67), Nathan reportedly triggered a clause that gave him the chance to decline his player option for 2014. Sullivan reports that the Rangers are expected to look at internal candidates to fill Nathan's role with pitchers like Joakim Soria, Neftali Feliz and Tanner Scheppers.

That means Nathan is likely headed to the free-agent market after posting one of the best years of his career, converting 43 saves with a 1.39 ERA while striking out 73 in 64 and two-third innings of work. By opting out of his considerable one-year deal, the 38-year-old Nathan clearly thinks he can get a better multi-year offer from someone else.

Nathan is making a smart business move, but any club signing him to a multi-year contract is taking a big risk, given his age.

Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

 

Javier Lopez

Lopez isn't the closer for the San Francisco Giants, so you might not have heard his name thrown around as much heading to into free agency. But make no mistake, the 36-year-old southpaw is one of baseball's best at his position.

Reliable lefties that can be trusted in late-game situations are rare in Major League Baseball, and over the past two seasons Lopez has excelled in such a role with the Giants. According Comcast Sports Net Bay Area's Andrew Baggarly, Lopez's preference is to stay in San Francisco:

Lopez reportedly just wrapped up a two-year, $8.5 million contract and figures to be in line for a pay raise after he posted a combined 2.15 ERA in 139 appearances the past two seasons. MLB.com provided video of Lopez discussing his 2013 season:

According to Baggarly's report, Giants general manager Brian Sabean has made re-signing Lopez a priority, with the biggest one being re-signing starter Tim Lincecum.

 

Grant Balfour

The foul-mouthed Australian drove up his asking price heading into free agency with a stellar season in 2013, posting a career-best 38 saves with a 2.59 ERA. In the process, he might have put himself out of Oakland's price range.

Following their final game of the season in Game 5 against the Detroit Tigers, Balfour said it could have been his final game with the A's, per Jane Lee of MLB.com:

Balfour is one of baseball's most entertaining personalities who's known for cursing at himself to get pumped up on the mound. Most recently, he drew attention for this heated exchange with Victor Martinez in the ALDS:

Though he's going to turn 36 on Dec. 30, Balfour's best stretch of his career has come in recent years, including a streak of 44 straight save conversions during a stretch from 2012-13. Over the past four seasons combined, he's posted a 2.47 ERA and 1.05 WHIP.

No matter where Balfour ends up, let's hope that the fans still welcome him with some Balfour Rage.

 

Joaquin Benoit

Benoit is also near the end of his career at the age of 36, but established himself as a legit closer in 2013 following years of service as a set-up man. So far, the postseason hasn't been too kind to Benoit, as ESPN's Jerry Crasnick recently tweeted:

But in the regular season, Benoit totaled 24 saves in 26 chances, posting a 2.01 ERA and 1.03 WHIP in 67 innings of work. With numbers like that, he's sure to latch on with a deal that pays better than the $5.5 million annual contract he had with Detroit, according to Spotrac.com.

Benoit has struggled in the playoffs with a 6.35 ERA in six games, but he still remains one of the elite back-end bullpen options available this winter.

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