Relievers gain respect as teams spend big to upgrade 'pens
Giants, Royals inspired moves with standout relief in World Series
The Royals and Giants rode bullpen depth into the World Series.
And the rest of baseball appears to have noticed.
• The White Sox signed David Robertson to a four-year, $46 million deal this offseason and Andrew Miller received a four-year, $36 million contract from the Yankees. It's the first time that two relievers signed deals worth more than $35 million since Mariano Rivera signed a three-year, $45 million deal with the Yankees and Francisco Cordero received a $46 million, four-year package from the Reds prior to the 2008 season.
• In addition to the four-year deals signed by Robertson and Miller, Zach Duke received a three-year, $15 million deal from the White Sox, and the Astros gave Luke Gregerson a three-year, $18.5 million deal. A year ago only three relievers signed deals of three or more years in length -- Boone Logan with the Rockies, Joe Smith with the Angels and Javier Lopez with the Giants. They each received three-year deals and the combined total of $45.25 million was less than Robertson's deal alone.
• Robertson's contract carries an annual average value of $11.5 million, equaling the AAV of the deal signed by Cordero with the Reds, which ties for the ninth highest AAV ever for a reliever. And while Robertson did earn 39 saves for the Yankees last year, he has only 47 saves in his career and has 15 blown saves. Robertson finished last year tied for eighth in saves, 14th in save percentage (88.6 percent) and 71st among relievers with at least 50 innings of work with an ERA of 3.08.
The Royals and Giants, however, made a statement, using their strong bullpens to claim Wild Card berths in the postseason and advance to the World Series, only the second Fall Classic in history to feature two Wild Cards. The Angels beat the Giants in the first Wild Card World Series in 2002.
The Giants won their third World Series championship in five years thanks in no small part to bullpen depth that allowed manager Bruce Bochy to pick and choose from left-handers Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt, and right-handers Sergio Romo, Yusmeiro Petit and Santiago Casilla with the game on the line in late innings.
The Royals, meanwhile, ended a 29-year postseason drought in no small part because of the 7-8-9 relief tag-team of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland.
The Giants relievers worked 28 2/3 innings in the World Series and Royals relievers 27 1/3 innings, the third and fourth highest totals for a World Series bullpen in the last 30 years. The top two? The Angels and Giants, in that first-ever all-Wild Card World Series in 2002, each had relievers work 30 innings.
The White Sox and Astros, in particular, liked what they saw, and have focused this offseason to shore up problems in their bullpens.
The Astros, whose save ratio of 55.4 percent (31-for-56) was lower than every Major League team except the Rockies (24-for-50, 48 percent), signed Gregerson and Pat Neshek to a two-year, $12.5 million deal. That makes them the third and fourth highest paid players on the team, behind only Scott Feldman, who will earn $10 million in 2015, and Dexter Fowler, who is arbitration-eligible after earning $7.85 million in 2014.
The White Sox converted 36-of-57 saves last year, a 63.2 percent success ratio, 27th in baseball, better than only the Rockies, Astros and A's (31-for-52, 59.6 percent). That's why they signed not only Robertson off the free-agent market but also Duke.
Relievers have long been at the bottom of baseball's pay structure.
Rivera set the record for a reliever at $15 million 2008, which ranks as the 94th highest AAV in Major League history. Rivera, the game's all-time saves leader, was 38 in 2008, and went into the season already fourth on the all-time save list with 443 on his way to a record 652 saves, before retiring at the end of the 2013 season. He made $10.5 million in 2007.
Given the lack of consistency from year to year among relievers it isn't likely they will ever be able to demand the type of salaries of a starting pitcher or middle-of-the-lineup bat.
They do, however, seem to be reaching a point earning respect.