Middle Relievers Are Moving Front and Center
By MURRAY CHASS
Published: January 28, 2007
In an effort to raise the performance standards of their bullpens, teams have raised the standard of living for the pitchers who populate those bullpens. The more important they are perceived to be, the more money middle relievers are earning.
In an era when starting pitchers last fewer innings, middle relievers have become more important. A manager needs one or more pitchers to get him from the starter to the closer. With an increase in competition for good relief pitching, teams are offering relievers more money. That is a welcome development for a group that has always been the lowest paid on the field.
According to the players union’s annual study of major league salaries, relievers had an average salary of $1,433,992 last season, up from $1,316,384 in 2005. The averages include the salaries of high-priced closers like Mariano Rivera and Billy Wagner.
Average salaries for other players ranged from $2,793,608 for second basemen to $5,872,629 for third basemen. First basemen and designated hitters were also over $5.5 million, and starting pitchers and outfielders were just under $5 million.
The Baltimore Orioles did more than their share this winter to raise the average salary of relievers. They signed Danys Báez to a three-year, $19 million contract; Jamie Walker for three years and $12 million; and Chad Bradford for three years and $10.5 million. The Mets signed Scott Schoeneweis for three years and $10.8 million. The Angels signed Justin Speier for four years and $18 million.
“Omar always has been a believer in a good bullpen; I brought that belief here,” Jim Duquette, the Orioles’ general manager, said, referring to Omar Minaya, the Mets’ general manager, with whom he worked in New York.
Minaya, in his second year as the Mets’ chief tactician, built a strong bullpen for the 2006 season and needed it when injuries crippled the rotation late in the year. This year again, Minaya has sought to bolster the bullpen.
Besides Schoeneweis, the Mets have added Ambiorix Burgos in a trade with Kansas City and Jorge Sosa as a free agent to go with Wagner, Aaron Heilman, Guillermo Mota (after his season-opening 50-game steroids suspension), Pedro Feliciano and Duaner Sánchez, who is coming back from a shoulder separation.
“A good bullpen makes your starters better,” Minaya said. “Your starters have a different feeling knowing the bullpen is there.”
A strong bullpen, Minaya believes, is a pennant-winning ingredient, and the Mets fell one victory short of demonstrating that last season. The Mets had the best bullpen in the National League, finishing the season with a .681 winning percentage (32-15) and a 3.28 earned run average.
Besides the Mets, the teams that have done the most to strengthen their bullpens this winter are the Orioles, whose bullpen was 13th in the American League last season; Cleveland (11th); Boston (9th); and Atlanta (10th in the N.L.).
“We tried to invest dollars in a frontline starter,” Minaya said. “We weren’t able to get one. Instead of investing dollars in a mediocre market, I said, ‘Who is the best reliever in the market?’ and it was Schoeneweis.”
The Orioles needed a wholesale upgrade to their bullpen because it had a .432 winning percentage (19-25) and a 5.27 E.R.A.
“We blew 18 games where we had a lead or were tied after six innings last year,” Duquette said. “It seemed a lot worse having lived it. We felt we wanted to shorten the games.”
The Indians have pursued the same goal with the signing of Keith Foulke, Joe Borowski, Roberto Hernández and Aaron Fultz.
“We scored the second-most runs in the league and our starters’ E.R.A. was third in the league,” General Manager Mark Shapiro said. “I knew what I had to do.”
Shapiro said the offense that has developed in the American League has placed a greater strain on starting pitchers, making deeper bullpens necessary.
“With strict pitch counts and starters not going far into games, you don’t see guys throwing 280 innings,” Shapiro said. “The need for a deeper bullpen is there.”
The Indians traded their closer, Bob Wickman, to Atlanta last season. Shapiro said he expected Foulke or Borowski to replace him this year. The Red Sox are also looking for a closer because they want to make Jonathan Papelbon a starter.
Joel Piñeiro, whom they signed as a free agent after Seattle did not tender him a contract, could become the closer, or the Red Sox could start him and leave Papelbon as the closer. “We don’t have one person designated as the closer yet, but we certainly will by the time the season breaks,” Theo Epstein, the Boston general manager, said.