Relief pitching, over the years often relegated to the shadows and considered the place where failed starters go to resurrect their hopes of pitching professionally, has experienced a resurgence as of late.
Recently, these under-appreciated hurlers, who so often find themselves pitching in some of the game's most critical moments, have experienced a heretofore unknown moment in the spotlight.
Early in this offseason, several seemingly massive free-agent deals were signed by relief pitchers. Multi-year contracts for large dollar amounts have been doled out in several cases, apparently flying in the face of conventional wisdom which has often decried the unpredictable nature of relief arms, and the potential folly of committing long-term to any reliever not named Mariano.
Across the league, teams have suddenly been willing to hand out free-agent deals of the multi-year variety to several relievers, thrusting bullpen arms into territory that has so long been reserved for starting pitchers. Early in the offseason, former Ranger Joaquin Benoit signed a three-year, $16.5 million deal with the Tigers, setting a staggering precedent in the relief pitching market.
Following on the heels of that significant deal, fellow relievers Mariano Rivera, Matt Guerrier, Scott Downs, Bobby Jenks, Jesse Crain, J.J. Putz, Pedro Feliciano, Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour, among others, have all signed multi-year contracts for large sums of money.
Capping this flurry of relief pitching activity, the Yankees signed the premier relief arm available, Rafael Soriano, possibly the AL's best closer last season, to a three year, $35 million contract to set up for the legendary Mariano Rivera at the back of their bullpen. In just those two relief arms, the Yankees committed five years and $65 million dollars this offseason.
Suddenly, it's highly lucrative to be a reliever.
In addition, just last week, the role and value of relievers was again thrust into the spotlight with the retirement of veteran reliever Trevor Hoffman, a man that many consider one of the greatest closers in the history of the game, as evidenced by his stature as Major League Baseball's all-time saves leader with 601.
Hoffman's record-setting career will undoubtedly spark years of conversation as his candidacy for the Hall of Fame now sits only five years away. Thus far, enshrinement in Cooperstown has shown to be difficult for players known solely as relief pitchers, but that debate shall continually evolve over the next several years as the nature of the game, and the deployment of bullpen pitchers, has changed drastically in recent decades.
With all these high-profile relief signings and new discussion over the role, and value, of bullpen arms, let's take a look at some of the best relievers to grace the American League West in the upcoming 2011 season.
There are plenty of old names here, and a handful of brand new additions, signed to teams within the division in recent days. We have flame-throwing closers, crafty veterans and everyone in between, but undoubtedly, the AL West suddenly finds itself flush with quality relief arms.
Okay, so maybe cracking the top 15 in the division is a little premature for a 23-year-old with only 15.1 innings on his major league resume.
However, in the small sampling of set-up work that Walden produced at the end of 2010, he offered a tantalizing glimpse of the blazing fastball and talent that he possesses.
The right-handed Walden was clocked at 100 MPH on big-league radar guns late last year, providing hope that he can harness that significant heat to become a force at the back end of the Angels' bullpen in the near future.
Prior to 2010, he had only pitched professionally as a starter, but his stuff appears to translate well to a late inning relief role.
In his short stint as a big-league reliever, Walden threw 15.1 innings, striking out 23 for a 13.5 K's per nine innings ratio, a rather impressive rate. His 2.35 ERA and .224 opponents' batting average offered the Angels reason to believe Walden could be prepared to add his name to the late inning mix with Fernando Rodney and Kevin Jepsen, forming a hard-throwing trio at the back of the Los Angeles relief corps.
Brandon League has long appeared to be a potent arm ready to vault into the elite relief pitchers in the game. His extremely live arm is capable of reaching the upper-90's with wicked sinking action on his fastball. Combined with a good slider, League appears to have what it takes to excel out of the Seattle bullpen.
Unfortunately, after some early success in the Toronto pen, League experienced a shoulder injury that derailed his development and caused him to miss most of the 2007 season.
Now, a few years down the road from his injury and fully recovered, League has once again regained his intimidating velocity and appears ready to resume his quest to become a top-flight relief arm.
In 2010, his first season as a Mariner, League made 70 relief appearances, tossing 79 innings, striking out 56 with a 3.42 ERA. His 1.19 WHIP and .229 opponents' batting average against made him a tough pitcher to face out of the Seattle bullpen.
Though he throws hard, League doesn't achieve the elite strikeout totals that many desire out of a set-up man or closer, but his devastating sinker produces tons of weak contact, making him a highly effective reliever regardless of his strikeout numbers.
2011 could very well see Brandon League vault himself into the upper regions of the AL West relief rankings.
Though he was a 35-year-old rookie in 2010, Hisanori Takahashi provided the Mets with a valuable and versatile arm in whatever role they needed him.
The Angels, seemingly always lacking a left-handed presence in their bullpen, saw an opportunity to add a veteran southpaw to their relief mix, and signed him to a two-year deal for the 2011-12 seasons.
Takahashi made 12 spot starts for the beleaguered Mets rotation last season, but he really shone as a reliever, making 41 strong appearances out of the bullpen.
Out of the bullpen, he threw 57.1 innings, striking out 60, holding opponents to a .206 batting average, with a 2.04 ERA. His 1.13 WHIP and .582 OPS allowed were both highly valuable out of the Mets bullpen.
Against lefties, he was at his best, overall allowing them to hit only .217 against him, with a .544 OPS. Mike Scioscia will likely appreciate his left-handed arm in a bullpen that often lacks a southpaw presence.
For the moment, Fernando Rodney is viewed as the Angels' closer. He certainly has the stuff to succeed in the role, but Rodney is perpetually underachieving and causing his manager uncertainty of the highest degree.
Possessing a blazing fastball and a devastating changeup, Rodney would seem to be well-equipped to excel in the closer's role, but his erratic temperment and control issues make the end of ballgames far too exciting to be considered an ideal solution.
In 2010 for the Angels, he pitched mostly in a set-up role until a late-season trade of closer Brian Fuentes thrust Rodney into the role.
He only saved 14 of his 21 chances, for a less-than-desirable 67 percent success rate. His 4.24 ERA and 1.544 WHIP forced the Angels to consider other options down the stretch, most notably Kevin Jepsen and rookie Jordan Walden.
Somehow in 2009, he converted his save opportunities at an incredible rate of 97 percent, but with the peripheral numbers he posted, it wasn't due to sheer dominance as the success rate could possibly suggest.
Over his last three seasons in Detroit and Anaheim, Rodney has compiled a 4.45 ERA and a 1.52 WHIP, losing much of the luster he gained over the early portion of his career. He had once seemed a potentially dominant reliever, with his blazing fastball and tremendous disparity between that and his changeup.
The .735 opponents' OPS that he has allowed in that same three-year span is certainly higher than one would expect out of a pitcher with his type of stuff.
If he doesn't figure out his control issues, Rodney may be destined to move on after this season, the final year of his contract in Anaheim. The look on Mike Scioscia's face during his appearances is not one of complete trust in his pitcher, that is for certain.
The A's knew they had a special arm in their bullpen when Ziegler, at the time a 28-year-old rookie, didn't allow a single run in his first 39 innings as a major leaguer, a new league record.
Since finally giving up a run, he's still been a very solid reliever, utilizing his deceptive submarine delivery to induce numerous harmless groundballs over the course of the last three seasons in Oakland.
Over his last three seasons in Oakland, Ziegler has hurled 193.2 innings, compiling a 2.51 ERA and baffling hitters consistently along the way. Never a high strikeout pitcher, Ziegler nevertheless remains a difficult hurler to make solid contact against.
After signing a one-year deal to remain in Oakland, Ziegler will help form a solid bridge to closer Andrew Bailey along with Brian Fuentes, Craig Breslow and Grant Balfour.
After a tumultuous, yet brief, run as the Angels' closer, Brian Fuentes found himself resurrected after a late-season trade to Minnesota in 2010.
Never able to satisfy Angel fans as their closer with his high walk rates, Fuentes was jettisoned in what was essentially a money-saving move for the Halos. With the promising Walden and Jepsen waiting in the wings, Fuentes' big contract in a lost year in Anaheim seemed excessive and unnecessary.
In a minuscule sample in Minnesota, Fuentes looked every bit the dominant lefty that the Angels had needed him to be while in Anaheim.
Now a brand new member of the Oakland A's, Fuentes will slide into a set-up role in Northern California, hoping to provide a solid left-handed presence in front of closer Andrew Bailey.
Despite his less-than-dominant fastball, Fuentes has a highly deceptive delivery that can make his changeup and breaking pitches death of left-handed hitters. He hides the ball extremely well with his short-armed delivery, and that can serve to make his fastball appear several MPH faster than it actually is.
In 2010, lefties hit a measly .128 against him, managing only a .149 slugging percentage with a .371 OPS, so if he is able to harness his sometimes erratic command, Fuentes should be a highly valuable addition to the Oakland bullpen.
Of course, he also possesses years of closing experience, so if Andrew Bailey runs into injury problems as he so far has, then Fuentes provides solid veteran cover in the case of emergency. He hasn't been quite the strikeout pitcher he was as a Rockie, but he still K's nearly a hitter per inning, so it hasn't been nearly the drop-off that some have perceived since his switch in leagues.
Less pressure in a different role and a pitcher-friendly ballpark should make Brian Fuentes a very solid member of the Oakland relief corps.
Darren Oliver is a classic case of a pitcher failing to impress as a starter and finding himself a valuable member of his team's bullpen. After toiling for many years as a starter, to varying degrees of success, the 2006 Mets finally made the move and converted Oliver to a full-time reliever.
The move worked wonders, and the now 40-year-old Oliver has been one of the steadiest, most reliable left-handed relievers in the entire league for the last five years.
In that span, Oliver has pitched 352 innings, only allowing 309 hits, while striking out 289. He has compiled a 3.07 ERA and a 1.15 WHIP.
Though he was fantastic for the Angels from 2007-2009, they somehow let him slip away to division rivals Texas, where he was once again stellar in 2010. In 61.2 innings, he struck out 65, only allowing a 2.48 ERA with a 1.10 WHIP.
As a 40-year-old, he's nearer the end of his career than the beginning, but as a valuable left-handed specialist who keeps himself in great shape, Oliver could stay in Arlington for the next few years. In 2010, lefties hit only .200 against him, with a .529 OPS, so clearly he still has the ability to retire left-handed batters.
In addition to Brian Fuentes, the Oakland A's now have two potentially formidable lefties to go with the bevy of talented right-handed relievers that they possess in their bullpen.
Breslow, often called the "smartest man in baseball" due to his collegiate career at Yale, is an underrated left-handed specialist, who has thrived over the last few seasons.
From 2008-2010, he has hurled 191.1 innings, striking out 165, while only allowing 135 hits. His 2.87 ERA and 1.10 WHIP are highly impressive as are his .197 opponents' batting average and .592 OPS allowed.
Over his career, lefties have only hit .191 against him, but righties have only managed a .213 average, so the disparity is not significant.
In 2010, his 74.2 innings and 71 strikeouts led all Oakland relievers. The 30-year-old Breslow is under contract with Oakland for the next three seasons, and will likely cement his reputation as one of the more difficult lefties in the league to hit. Over his career, he has allowed only 22 percent of his inherited runners to score, making him a perfect situational reliever.
Signed to a three-year contract with the Angels this offseason, Scott Downs should provide Mike Scioscia with the left-handed presence they've missed since letting Darren Oliver slip away to rejoin Texas.
Downs, over the last six seasons in Toronto, has made himself one of the tougher left-handed relievers in the AL during that span.
Since 2006, Downs has made 321 appearances, hurling 313.2 innings, striking out 266 while allowing 267 hits. Over that span, he has tallied a 2.78 ERA, while compiling a 1.196 WHIP and an adjusted ERA+ of 158 while pitching in the power-packed AL East.
Last year, Downs pitched in 67 games, posting a 2.64 ERA with a 0.995 WHIP. Lefties hit only .152 against him, with a meager .488 OPS.
With a multi-year contract in Anaheim, Downs should have every opportunity to continue his dominance of lefties and provide the Angels with a durable southpaw option that they'll need in 2011 and beyond.
Another castoff from the Angels that could come back to haunt them within their division. With bullpen struggles of their own, it may seem that Los Angeles could have use for Oliver, Fuentes or O'Day, but alas, they opted to cut all three pitchers loose over the last few years.
O'Day, another submarine-style reliever, has proved nearly impossible for opponents to hit over the last few seasons.
In two seasons in Texas, O'Day has thrown 120.2 innings, allowing only 84 hits with only 30 walks. He has struck out 101 over those two seasons, with an ERA of 1.94 with a WHIP of only 0.95. Opponents have only managed a .197 batting average against him.
Utilizing his bizarre delivery, O'Day is especially difficult on right-handed hitters, as they only hit .181 against him in 2010. 2009 had been more of the same, as they only managed to hit .180 versus the submarining right-hander.
With another season of similar results from O'Day, Texas fans have every reason to feel comfortable with a lead considering the formidable arms they possess in their bullpen.
I'm going out on a limb and predicting that Grant Balfour will be one of the better unheralded signings of the 2010-11 offseason.
Armed with a wicked arsenal, Balfour has the potential to be a dominant late-inning option in front of Oakland closer Andrew Bailey.
Though he had an erratic 2009, he rebounded well in 2010 to finish off a very successful three-year run. In 2010, he made 57 appearances, hurled 55.1 innings and struck out 56. He compiled an ERA of 2.28 with a 1.08 WHIP.
From 2008-2010, he pitched 181 innings, striking out 207 over that span, while allowing only 130 hits. His 1.13 WHIP and 2.98 ERA, along with an adjusted ERA+ of 143, proved his value out of the Tampa Bay bullpen.
Moving from the offensive-laden AL East to the West, and into Oakland's cavernous Coliseum should prove highly beneficial to the talented Balfour.
If his health permits, I would expect him to join the elite class of set-up men during his run in Oakland.
It may seem strange that a 26-year-old reliever with only 41.2 innings under his belt might make his way to No. 2 on this list.
However, considering Ogando's immense talent, and bizarre backstory, I would wager that this hard-throwing reliever could very well become a well renowned bullpen arm by the end of 2011.
Acquired through the MLB Rule 5 Draft, Ogando appeared to be on the fast track to Arlington. His blazing heat, ease of delivery, and solid control made him an attractive prospect to watch as he developed. Although he had recently been converted to a pitcher, he immediately took to his new trade.
Ogando then ran into trouble, as he became involved in fraudulent activities related to human smuggling into the U.S. He acknowledged his involvement, and was subsequently denied entrance to the United States for a number of years. This unfortunately prevented his further ascension through the Texas minor league program, and he was only able to participate in the Dominican Summer League.
He remained affiliated with the Rangers, though, and once he had paid his price, was once again invited to Spring Training in 2010.
During his limited minor league career, all within the Texas organization including his time in the Dominican Summer League, Ogando hurled 111.2 innings, striking out an astounding 156 batters, with a 1.37 ERA and a 0.91 WHIP.
Promoted to the major leagues for the first time on June 15, Ogando adapted immediately, proving that he belonged in the highest levels that baseball has to offer.
Over the course of 2010, Ogando made 44 appearances, hurling 41.2 innings and striking out 39 batters. His 1.30 ERA and 1.13 WHIP were impressive, as were his .208 opponents' batting average, and .554 OPS allowed.
Despite hurling only 111 innings over four years due to his legal problems, Ogando stepped directly in the major leagues and immediately looked like he belonged.
With Ogando and Feliz at the back end of their bullpen, Texas could be poised to offer a nearly unhittable duo at the end of ballgames in the blazing Arlington summer.
After bouncing around between four teams during his first five years in Major League Baseball, the promising, but slightly erratic, David Aardsma finally found himself a home at the back end of the Seattle bullpen.
Prior to 2009, Aardsma's primary claim to fame was supplanting Hank Aaron as the first player listed alphabetically in baseball's history books.
Winning the Mariners' closing job early in 2009, he suddenly found himself a niche in Seattle and thrived immediately.
In two seasons as Seattle's closer, Aardsma has made 126 appearances, saving 69 games in 78 opportunities, for a stellar 88 percent success rate.
Over that period, he has hurled 121 innings, striking out 129, while compiling a WHIP of 1.165.
Opposing hitters have only hit .193 against him since 2009, earning only a paltry .585 OPS against him as well.
Aardsma has a lingering hip injury that will prevent him from starting the 2011 season on Opening Day, but once his rehab is completed, Seattle fans should expect him to once again be a shut-down force at the rear of their bullpen.
The rumors that Texas may chase Rafael Soriano to close games for them in order to convert the highly-talented Neftali Feliz back into a starter never materialized. Now that Soriano will be setting up for Mariano Rivera in New York, the conversation is moot as there are no longer any top-flight closers available that could replace the dynamic Feliz in Arlington.
Neftali really stepped into the limelight in 2010, vaulting from much-hyped youngster into a dominant, shut-down threat at the back of Ron Washington's AL-winning bullpen.
Not only did he adapt nicely to the closer's role, he became a record-setting rookie in the process, establishing a new rookie record of 40 saves en route to the 2010 AL Rookie of the Year award.
In 70 appearances at the back of Texas' bullpen, Feliz saved 40 of his 43 opportunities, for an amazing 93 percent success rate, establishing himself as one of the best closers in baseball.
Over the course of 69.1 innings, Feliz struck out 71 while compiling a 2.73 ERA and a 0.88 WHIP. Opponents only hit .176 against him, with a .516 OPS.
He continued his dominance into the postseason, allowing only one run in 7.1 innings, while striking out 11. With those high-profile appearances, he announced his presence to those across the country that had yet to witness the sheer dominance of this flame-throwing 22-year-old.
With another similar performance, this young phenom could explode right past Andrew Bailey into the No. 1 spot on our list. Truthfully, he could already be in the top spot, but Bailey's slight advantage in experience has prevented that for now—but maybe not for long.
Since assuming the Oakland closer's role in early 2009, Andrew Bailey has been nothing short of a revelation.
Though he has been named to the All-Star team twice in two seasons, and was awarded the 2009 Rookie of the Year, he still toils in relative obscurity as the dominant force at the end of A's games.
In two seasons, he has pitched 115 games, hurling 132.1 innings and striking out 133, while compiling a 1.70 ERA and a 0.907 WHIP.
Bailey has saved 51 of his 58 opportunities for an 88 percent success rate, and allowed opponents to hit only .178 against him, with only a .501 OPS.
Injuries have limited him over the course of his first two seasons as a big leaguer, likely preventing him from already joining the conversation regarding elite closers in the game.
If Andrew Bailey can remain healthy and produce another season like his first two, it won't be long before his is a household name amongst baseball fans across the country.