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Rising value of relief market 'here to stay'

MLB.com

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- The value of relief pitching is on the rise, not only on the mound, but also at the bank.

And this is not likely to be a temporary bout of inflation. It is early in the postseason, but all signs are pointing toward a sustained increase in bullpen worth.

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- The value of relief pitching is on the rise, not only on the mound, but also at the bank.

And this is not likely to be a temporary bout of inflation. It is early in the postseason, but all signs are pointing toward a sustained increase in bullpen worth.

One early example was the contract awarded to free agent closer Mark Melancon by the San Francisco Giants -- four years for $62 million -- which had an average annual value of $15.5 million. The largest contract for a reliever before that signing was the four-year, $50 million deal the Philadelphia Phillies gave Jonathan Papelbon before the 2012 season.

On the trade front, the Brewers dealt reliever Tyler Thornburg to the Red Sox and received a healthy return. Thornburg inherited the closer's role in Milwaukee during the second half of the 2016 season, and had pitched very well.

Video: Thornburg looking forward to joining Red Sox

The Red Sox see Thornburg as an eighth-inning setup man. In return for his services, the Brewers received Travis Shaw, who projects to be their primary third baseman, and two prospects. One of them, Mauricio Dubon, 22, is a speedy, athletic shortstop who makes persistent contact. MLBPipeline.com installed Dubon as the Brewers' No. 9 prospect. The other prospect is right-hander Josh Pennington, 21, who has an upper-90s fastball.

The Royals traded closer Wade Davis to the Cubs for Jorge Soler, an outfielder with substantial potential, who did not appear to have a regular role in the Cubs outfield for 2017. Davis was one of the premier closers in the game when the Royals won the World Series in 2015, but he was on the disabled list twice last season, with a right forearm strain and a right flexor strain.

Video: Cubs acquire Davis from Royals for Soler

Aroldis Chapman was the closer when the Cubs won the World Series. But he agreed to a 5-year, $86 million contract with the Yankees on Wednesday that made Melancon's deal look like a bargain basement arrangement. Kenley Jansen, younger and a harder thrower than Melancon, will also probably bring home a deal for more than Melancon.

The worth of these relievers is established in part by the need of individual clubs. The Giants were World Series winners in 2010, '12 and '14, but in the next available even-numbered year, 2016, they could not reach those heights again, in large part because of bullpen shortcomings. So Melancon was close to a necessity for them. They saw the increased cost of relief pitching as part of the contemporary baseball landscape.

"I think it's here to stay," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said at the Winter Meetings. "I think more and more we're realizing how important a closer is. They stabilize your season. Because when you lose games late, it's a blow. It's a shot to the chin. And you take enough of 'em, it can wear your team out. And that's why that closer is so important to your club. And I think they're getting more and more attention on how important they are.

"But I think it's here to stay. You look at the role that these bullpens are playing, it's not just closers getting these deals, it's other guys, too. They're the guys that play a critical role to you winning a ballgame. There are so many close games. We saw what happened in the playoffs, how those roles were used and how they change. And we've done it, too, so it's here to stay."

Video: Bochy discusses the Giants signing Melancon

Another factor in the increasing prominence of relievers was the postseason usage of premier bullpen pitchers. In particular, Cleveland manager Terry Francona got multiple innings at crucial junctures from lefty Andrew Miller. In this way, the Indians compensated for a battered rotation, and went all the way to Game 7 of the World Series.

So while Brewers general manager David Stearns says it is too early for a "retrospective analysis" of the way baseball values relief pitching, he acknowledges that the autumn developments may have influenced the overall regard for relief pitching.

"Clearly what we saw throughout the latter half of September and into the postseason was a number of clubs utilized the back ends of their bullpen in a way that we haven't seen in a while," Stearns said. "Those clubs with really talented players at the back ends of their bullpen had a lot of success. So it doesn't surprise me that teams are attempting to emulate that and when there's a trend in the industry, often prices escalate and that may be what's happening here."

The Melancon contract was good news for Melancon and the Giants. It will also be good news for Chapman and Jansen. After that, it could be glad tidings for a generation of relief pitchers.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com.

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