With free agency getting under way, many teams will be going through significant personnel changes. One of the biggest changes is going to be related to the market of closers.
Unlike starting pitchers, closers usually do not get the big and expensive long-term deals during the offseason. Three- or four-year contracts with under $50 million are typical for closers. Because of this, many teams change closers every few years, especially if a certain closer happens to pitch poorly in a given season.
With this being said, here are 10 bullpens that are bound to look significantly different in 2012.
Due to their historic collapse in 2011, plus the fact that former closer Jonathan Papelbon has signed with the Phillies, the Red Sox will obviously have a new closer in 2012. Three legitimate candidates could fill the role.
One candidate is fireballing set-up man Daniel Bard. Although Bard has been able to handle the pressure in Boston so far, he may not be ready for a closing role until he further develops his secondary pitches to give him more weapons than just his fastball.
Another candidate is Bobby Jenks, who was once the White Sox' longtime closer. However, Jenks is on the latter end of his career, and at this point, he would be better suited for a set-up role.
The third candidate would come from the free agent market. The most logical choice would be former Padres closer Heath Bell. Bell is a free agent this offseason and has expressed interest in playing for the Red Sox. Look for the Red Sox to make a three- or four-year offer to Bell, who has been one of the best closers in the league despite playing for a team like the Padres that finished last in the NL West in 2011.
The Tampa Bay Rays are another AL East team that may try to upgrade their bullpen for the 2012 season.
Kyle Farnsworth is currently the Rays' closer, but they could still try to upgrade their bullpen through free agent signings. Someone like Francisco Rodriguez could instantly give the Rays a fearful bullpen that the franchise really has not ever had.
The Rays have a solid overall lineup and one of the best young pitching rotations, so it would make perfect sense for their offseason focus to lean towards the bullpen.
One team that could lose not just one, but potentially two premier closers is the Twins. The Twins traded before for Matt Capps to be the team's closer while longtime closer Joe Nathan was recovering from injuries. Nathan returned for the latter portion of the 2011 season, but now, both Nathan and Capps are free agents.
Nathan has been linked to the Mets recently, which would be a good fit for him, and he is unlikely to return to the Twins. Capps is more likely to re-sign with the Twins, but with the free agent market as unpredictable as it can be, Capps could just as well sign with another team. As a result, the Twins bullpen configuration is completely unknown for the time being.
The Seattle Mariners could lose a critical member of their bullpen to free agency if they do not re-sign David Aardsma, who missed the 2011 season due to injuries.
Brandon League became the full-time closer for the team in 2011 and saved 37 of the 67 games that the Mariners won. While the team now has an established closer, they could re-sign Aardsma to be a solid set-up man. If he does not get re-signed, the Mariners may have to look towards free agency to upgrade their middle relief.
Moving to the National League, the New York Mets are definitely going to have yet another makeover within the bullpen. After trading away Francisco Rodriguez to the Brewers after the All-Star break, manager Terry Collins used a mix of Jason Isringhausen, Bobby Parnell and Manny Acosta to close. This combination though is not a good long-term idea though.
General Manager Sandy Alderson has already hinted that the Mets' 2012 closer will likely be obtained through the free agent market. Closers such as Jonathan Broxton, Brad Lidge and Joe Nathan would all be good fits for a team like the Mets, who are looking to sign an affordable and not too pricey closer. Broxton, Lidge and Nathan have all had injuries within the past two seasons and are not likely to sign big contracts this offseason.
The Mets, of course, still have Parnell, who has been viewed as the closer of the future. However, he still needs to develop his secondary pitches in order to be a more effective pitcher. He cannot just rely on his blistering fastball. Acosta, on the other hand, is more suited for a middle relief or set-up role.
One team that has already solved their bullpen issues is the Philadelphia Phillies, who have already signed Jonathan Papelbon to a four-year $50 million contract.
With Papelbon now the new closer, the Phillies will have to decide whether to re-sign Brad Lidge and Ryan Madson, both of whom are currently free agents. Either could fit into a set-up role for the Phillies, but if an opening at closer arises, it is likely that both would look more favorably towards that.
In the wake of the Juan Carlos Oviedo/Leo Nunez name controversy, the incumbent Marlins closer returned to his native Dominican Republic at the very end of the 2011 season to deal with the issue. Oviedo is now a free agent and the name issue could very well determine his future and where he ends up in 2012.
The Marlins could re-sign him, or let him go and hope to sign another free agent reliever. Now that the Marlins have enough money to try and lure Jose Reyes and Albert Pujols, it sounds as if the team may have enough money to go after a premier closer as well.
While the Milwaukee Brewers already have a young and established closer in John Axford, the rest of their bullpen may look different.
Set-up man Francisco Rodriguez is unlikely to re-sign with the team for 2012 and beyond, mostly because he would most likely prefer being a closer, compared to a set-up man. If the Brewers do not sign a legitimate set-up man through free agency, they could hope that one of either Kameron Loe or LaTroy Hawkins steps up and becomes a solid eighth inning pitcher.
Due to the injuries that Jonathan Broxton suffered, plus the emergence of Javy Guerra as their new closer, the Los Angeles Dodgers' bullpen could go through a big makeover in 2012.
With Guerra expected to be the long-term closer, the team can afford to lose Broxton via free agency. However, Broxton was literally a large presence in the Dodgers' bullpen, and it may take some time for Guerra to really establish himself. Nonetheless, Hong Chih Kuo is still one of the better set-up men in baseball, and despite the likely loss of Broxton, the Dodgers' bullpen should be good to go for 2012.
Last but not least, the San Diego Padres will most likely have a much different bullpen in 2012.
This is mostly because incumbent closer Heath Bell is very likely to leave the team through free agency this offseason. Bell has recently been linked to the Red Sox, among other teams, and it looks as if his time in San Diego is up.
Going forward, the Padres could sign another free agent closer to fill the role for Bell. However, the Padres also have an experienced reliever in Luke Gregerson who could very likely step up and become the new closer. Gregerson, who got elevated to the set-up role following the Mike Adams trade, could become the Padres' closer of the future. Nonetheless, it would be a smart move for the Padres to sign a veteran reliever to help mentor Gregerson even further so that when Gregerson is ready to close, his maturity will be up to par as well.