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.