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No surprise bullpen arms in high demand

MLB.com @TracyRingolsby

There is not much relief in sight on what remains of the free-agent market. There was a holiday signing rush for relievers who were available, while teams showed limited interest in kicking tires on the other positions.

Most prominent relievers who filed for free agency have signed, with Greg Holland representing the lone top-tier arm still remaining on the market. None of the 11 free agents who hit at least 25 home runs last season have found a home for 2018.

There is not much relief in sight on what remains of the free-agent market. There was a holiday signing rush for relievers who were available, while teams showed limited interest in kicking tires on the other positions.

Most prominent relievers who filed for free agency have signed, with Greg Holland representing the lone top-tier arm still remaining on the market. None of the 11 free agents who hit at least 25 home runs last season have found a home for 2018.

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The game has undergone a major change on the field. The bullpen has emerged as a critical component of a team's success.

"The starters don't need to go to seven or eight innings anymore," said right-hander Bryan Shaw, who signed with the Rockies, along with fellow relievers Jake McGee and Wade Davis. "They can go five or six innings, and the rest of us can come in and throw an inning-and-a-third here or an inning-and-a-third there. It's definitely a trend."

Video: Rockies poised for dynamic bullpen in 2018

Consider that in 2007, the Marlins, Rangers and Nationals became the first teams in MLB history to go through a season without a complete game. It didn't happen again until the Padres in '11, but in the last six seasons, a team has gone without a complete game 12 times -- the Braves, White Sox and Rays in '17; the Marlins, Brewers, Yankees and Blue Jays in '16; the Orioles, Marlins and Pirates in '15; and the Rockies and Brewers in '12.

It is as much a matter of common sense as anything else.

The 1969 New York Mets, featuring young but unestablished strong arms, not only had their first winning season since being created as an expansion team in '62, but also won a World Series. It was only then that teams began to seriously consider five-man rotations.

So when you take the acceptance of five-man rotations along with the expansion from the original 16 teams to what is now 30 teams thanks to a series of expansions -- beginning with the American League going from the original eight teams to 10 teams in 1961 -- it is evident that the demand for pitching has increased.

And just because the increase in the size of the workforce needed for a starting rotation has grown, MLB didn't suddenly find a hidden cache of the durable arms that could handle the expanding workloads.

Without injuries or adjustments, baseball has gone from a setup that required no more than 64 starting pitchers -- four apiece on the 16 teams through 1960 -- to the current minimum of 150 starting pitchers on Opening Day rosters needed to fill out the 30 five-man rotations.

"Everybody talks about the eighth and ninth innings," Rays manager Kevin Cash said during a media session at the Winter Meetings last month, "But we have said for a long time there are a lot of games won in the fifth through the seventh. The last three outs have always been shown to be tough to come by -- but three outs are three outs, and we have to find guys capable of consistently having success in those middle innings."

There are a number of ways to measure the transformation of the starting pitcher and the need to expand the role of the bullpen, but look at the trendy "quality start" -- which requires a pitcher to allow three or fewer earned runs and work at least six innings.

Consider that since the start of expansion in 1961, there have been 67 teams that have had 103 quality starts or more in a season, according to STATS Inc. Twenty-one of those were in the eight years of the initial expansion (1961-68). After the expansion that brought in the Expos, the Padres, the current Brewers and the Royals, there were 15 teams with at least 103 quality starts from 1969-76.

With the addition of the Mariners and Blue Jays in 1977, expanding MLB to 26 teams, there were 14 teams with 103 or more quality starts in the 16 seasons from 1977-92. From 1993-97, after the Rockies and Marlins were added, there were only four teams with 103 or more quality starts, and in the 20 seasons since the addition of the Rays and D-backs in '98, there have been only 13 teams with at least 103 quality starts in a season.

It all adds up to a heavier workload for bullpens, which has created a high demand for all those strong-armed relievers on the open market.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.