If you need another case study proving the unpredictable nature of relief pitching, flip back the calendar about 12 months, when a spending spree broke out in search of the elusive proven closer.
Jonathan Papelbon signed a record-setting contract with the Phillies and turned out to be the lone bright spot in an otherwise disappointing bullpen. Heath Bell landed a three-year, $27 million deal from the spendthrift Marlins, struggled badly and got shipped out in a postseason trade to Arizona.
Meanwhile, in Tampa Bay, the Rays quietly picked up Angels castoff Fernando Rodney for $1.75 million with an option for 2013. Rodney was initially expected to set up for Kyle Farnsworth, but ended up putting together one of the greatest seasons of all-time by a reliever, saving 48 games with a 0.60 ERA, 76 strikeouts and 15 walks in 74 2/3 innings.
While the Rays often show that good bullpens can be built on a budget, the Giants just demonstrated how a deep bullpen can compensate for the lack of one of those proven closers. Manager Bruce Bochy mixed and matched his late-inning relievers all season until Sergio Romo was ready to assume the role vacated by the injured Brian Wilson.
This offseason's group of free-agent relievers offers fewer candidates for a Papelbon-esque mega-deal, but boasts greater depth, particularly among the setup men.
Teams looking to bolster their seventh- and eighth-inning options will find plenty of candidates on the market. But that's not to say there's a complete dearth of closers available; they just appear slightly less ready for the ninth-inning spotlight than Papelbon or Bell did a year ago, whether it's due to inconsistency, injuries or various other factors.
Rafael Soriano, who opted out of his Yankees contract on Wednesday, should be looking for a long-term deal after a spectacular season filling in for Mariano Rivera, and he figures to draw plenty of attention based on his ability and experience. There's also Jonathan Broxton, who finished this season with the Reds, and Tigers closer Jose Valverde, who would have been a much hotter commodity after the 2011 season but struggled badly down the stretch in '12, prompting serious questions about his future.
Ryan Madson (Reds) and Joakim Soria (Royals) have excellent track records, but they're also coming off Tommy John elbow surgeries that kept them from throwing a single pitch in the Majors this year. Soria became a free agent Wednesday when Kansas City didn't pick up its contract option for 2013.
Then again, it's not as if volatility among relievers is limited to pitchers returning from injuries. And if you need proof, you know exactly where to look.
Looking to buy: At this time of year, no team is going to turn down an opportunity to fortify its bullpen, especially if it's affordable. But some clubs certainly need it more than others. The Phillies could use an eighth-inning bridge to Papelbon. The Mets and Brewers suffered bullpen meltdowns last season. The Red Sox have work to do. Even teams with a deep relief corps, like the Cardinals and D-backs, have stated a desire for late-inning lefties.
Top dog: Valverde has the best track record, with 277 career saves to his name, but it's difficult to overlook the decline in his strikeouts (a career-low 6.3 per nine innings) and the disastrous end to his season, when he couldn't be trusted in high-leverage situations. So the nod goes to Soriano.
If Rivera comes back from his torn ACL, the 32-year-old, right-handed Soriano would be relegated to setup duty if he re-signs with New York. Instead, it appears that he will seek a multiyear deal to be another team's closer. He picked up 42 saves with a 2.26 ERA last season, and he was even better with the Rays in 2010, saving 45 games with a 1.73 ERA.
Best of the rest: Valverde is in the conversation if he can return to form, but he's got company. Broxton, 28, signed a one-year deal with Kansas City to improve his value, thrived as the Royals' closer and didn't falter as a setup man with the Reds, either.
It's difficult to predict how Madson and Soria will bounce back, but they have experience closing games. Madson was dominant for the Phillies as a setup man and in 2011, his first full season as a closer. Soria, 28, owns a career 2.40 ERA with 160 saves in five years.
Worth a shot: This group is full of shutdown setup guys who can strengthen any club's bullpen, including right-handers Mike Adams, Joel Peralta and Jason Grilli, as well as lefties Jeremy Affeldt, Sean Burnett and J.P. Howell. There's much more depth beyond them, but they stand out as the cream of the crop.
Francisco Rodriguez could get another chance to close after serving as Milwaukee's setup man. Brett Myers enjoyed a strong season with the Astros and White Sox, and Brandon Lyon did the same for Houston and Toronto. Journeyman Darren Oliver once again proved his value in 2012. There are plenty of other veterans available, notably Farnsworth, Shawn Camp, Jon Rauch, Matt Capps and Matt Lindstrom.
Potential class of 2014: San Francisco's Wilson could be an interesting target if he recovers fully from his second Tommy John surgery. Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan can also join the free-agent ranks. Right-handers Joaquin Benoit, Santiago Casilla, Joba Chamberlain, Edward Mujica and Casey Janssen may headline the setup options, as would southpaws Eric O'Flaherty, Craig Breslow, Boone Logan and Javier Lopez.