It's a good time to be a bullpen ace.
First, there was the 2016 postseason, when the Cleveland Indians' Andrew Miller won the American League Championship Series MVP award with a historic performance and other late-inning arms—including the Los Angeles Dodgers' Kenley Jansen and Chicago Cubs' Aroldis Chapman—starred.
Miller, along with closer Cody Allen, carried the Indians and their injury-depleted starting rotation to Game 7 of the World Series. The Dodgers rode Jansen hard through their National League Championship Series defeat against Chicago, stretching him two or more innings in three of his seven appearances.
Chapman was also used heavily and ran out of gas at the end of the Fall Classic, but the Cubs probably wouldn't have busted their 108-year championship drought without him.
Overall, we watched the return of the old-school fireman—a cheddar-slinging stud ready to enter at any time and record as many outs as needed.
Now comes the offseason and the possibility that we will witness MLB's first $100 million reliever.
That's what Chapman is seeking, according to CSN Chicago's Patrick Mooney. If he gets it, it would double the four-year, $50 million deal the Philadelphia Phillies gave Jonathan Papelbon in 2011—the previous high in total dollar value for a relief pitcher. It would also set the bar for other elite free-agent closers, including Jansen and Mark Melancon.
There's inherent risk in handing big money to relief pitchers. They are notoriously mercurial creatures—untouchable one year, hittable the next. Perennial stars like Mariano Rivera are the exception, not the rule.
This October, however, the exploits of Miller, Chapman and Jansen proved that top-shelf relievers can tip the scales toward victory as much or more than a starting pitcher, as CBSSports.com's Dayn Perry outlined:
Over the course of the regular season, a great starting pitcher is still more valuable than a great reliever. Once the calendar flips, though, the relief ace's ability to concentrate those high-leverage innings and to get five, six, seven or more outs in multiple games narrows the gap. This winter, the market just might reflect that notion.
Consider this: Last winter, the San Francisco Giants signed Jeff Samardzija for five years and $90 million and will pay the right-hander $19.8 million in each of the next four seasons.
Samardzija was a serviceable mid-rotation starter in 2016, posting a 3.81 ERA in 203.1 innings. His WAR, though, was lower than Jansen's and Chapman's, according to FanGraphs' measure.
|Ace Relievers vs. Mid-Tier Starter|
|Player||2016 ERA||2016 SO/9||2016 WAR||2017 Salary|
|Jeff Samardzija (SFG)||3.81||7.4||2.6||$19.8 million|
|Kenley Jansen (FA)||1.83||13.6||3.2||?|
|Aroldis Chapman (FA)||1.55||14.0||2.7||?|
|Mark Melancon (FA)||1.64||8.2||1.8||?|
|Stats courtesy of FanGraphs|
That's not to pick on Samardzija or even to suggest he's grossly overpaid. Rather, the point is that a great relief pitcher can provide as much upside as a No. 3 starter over the 162-game grind, never mind in the playoffs.
As has been widely noted, this winter's pool of free-agent starting pitchers is vanishingly shallow. Teams with cash to burn may consider bulking up their pens.
Three of MLB's top five teams by payroll—the Dodgers, Giants and New York Yankees—should be aggressive in the bullpen market.
The Giants pen crumbled last season and was San Francisco's undoing in the division series against the Cubs. The Dodgers will either bring back Jansen or try to fill the void left by his departure.
The Yankees, meanwhile, have already reached out to Chapman's representatives, per MLB.com's Barry M. Bloom. New York acquired Chapman last winter from the Cincinnati Reds before shipping him to Chicago at the trade deadline.
"It's not in my best interest to say where we are," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said, per Bloom. "But have I talked them? Yes. This morning I was lying in bed and I reached out to an agent on the East Coast. So I'm doing it. I'm doing the best I can."
Will Cashman and the Yankees' best include a nine-figure offer?
Melancon will turn 32 in March. He's going to get paid handsomely, but we can remove him from the $100 million discussion.
Chapman is just 28, and Jansen is 29, so a five-year deal for either one isn't out of the question. Chapman has MLB's fastest fastball, and Jansen's cutter might be the game's nastiest pitch.
Jansen received a qualifying offer from the Dodgers, meaning he'll cost any other club a draft pick. Chapman still carries the stain of his 30-game domestic violence suspension, which could turn some suitors away.
The safe bet is probably somewhere in the $80-$90 million range. Don't be shocked, however, if Chapman or Jansen cracks the $100 million threshold.
It's a good time to be a bullpen ace. That much is certain. When the gaudy checks get written, we'll find out exactly how good.