In the span of a single week last offseason, Albertin Chapman ($86 million), Kenley Jansen ($80 million) and Mark Melancon ($62 million) signed the three largest deals for relief pitchers in baseball history.
Since then, baseball executives observed a 2017 season in which "layered" bullpens remained increasingly popular. Three Major League teams won 100 games, and all had standout setup relievers: Brandon Morrow in Los Angeles; Andrew Miller and Bryan Shaw in Cleveland; Chris Devenski in Houston.
• Hot Stove Tracker
Morrow and Shaw are free agents now, and they could be bellwethers for other relief pitchers in this Hot Stove season.
One prominent agent told MLB.com recently that he expects teams to invest heavily in relievers, but that the money will be spread more evenly than one year ago, among a larger number of free agents.
"Just about every team is looking for relievers," the agent said, "but that doesn't necessarily mean they want closers."
The Cardinals are positioned to heavily influence the market for closers. Left-hander Tyler Lyons, who saved three games this year, would be the team's closer if the season began today, but the Cards are seeking outside upgrades after missing the postseason in consecutive years for the first time since 2008.
St. Louis also has been linked to the pursuit of a slugging outfielder, such as Giancarlo Stanton via trade or J.D. Martinez in free agency. Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak and general manager Mike Girsch may wait to see how much they spend on a bat before offering a Melancon-type contract to Wade Davis, the top free-agent closer available.
Davis is the only free-agent reliever who saved at least 30 games in 2017 with an ERA below 3.00. On the preference lists of many front offices, he's likely followed by former Royals teammate Greg Holland and Brandon Kintzler, an All-Star this year who saved 28 games for the Twins before a July trade to the Nationals.
Juan Nicasio, 31, is a wild card. A mediocre starter for much of his Major League career, he's a free agent after breaking through as a reliever with the Pirates, Phillies and Cardinals in 2017. He led the National League with 76 appearances and also saved six games -- a large enough quantity that opportunistic general managers could view him as a full-time closer for the coming season.
Davis, Holland, Kintzler and Nicasio have reason to feel optimistic about their free-agent outlooks, since more than four teams need a closer this offseason. In addition to the Cardinals, the Cubs -- Davis' most recent team -- displayed a noticeable lack of bullpen depth in the National League playoffs; the Twins (Trevor Hildenberger), D-backs (Archie Bradley) and Angels (Blake Parker) may not be ready to entrust the closer's role to in-house candidates; and the Rockies saw the value in having a veteran in the role during Holland's 41-save season in 2017.
But some in the industry wonder whether there will be a discernible line between Kintzler's contract and those of the top setup relievers, such as Morrow. Until recently, closers typically earned more per year than eighth-inning relievers. That has changed because of the importance front offices place on setup relievers -- and the relatively small number of teams looking for closers in a given offseason.
Kintzler has favorable analytics -- even without a high strikeout rate -- because his effective sinker allows him to generate weak contact in the strike zone. He ranked 25th among qualifying Major League relievers in lowest rates of hard contact -- just ahead of Jansen -- according to FanGraphs.com.
While some teams view Kintzler as a closer, based on his performance with the Twins, others will have interest in him as a setup man, the role he served with the Nationals. But that marketplace is flooded by quality names: Nicasio, Morrow, Shaw, Anthony Swarzak, Addison Reed, Pat Neshek, Luke Gregerson, Joe Smith, Steve Cishek, Tony Watson, Mike Minor and Jake McGee, among others.
And there's another dimension that must be taken into account: the trade market. The Reds held onto Raisel Iglesias at the 2017 non-waiver Trade Deadline, despite strong interest from other clubs. The Rays did the same with Alex Colome, who went on to lead the Majors with 47 saves. Both are viewed as alternatives to Davis, for teams wary of paying the $16 million per season he could command on the open market. Colome, who turns 29 next month, has three years of salary arbitration remaining before free agency.
The Twins already have been active in trade discussions, having inquired about Iglesias' availability, sources say. Iglesias is on track to be a free agent after the 2021 season, meaning he'll be in high demand this offseason after saving 28 games this season with a 2.49 ERA.