Of Bullpens and Contracts

What the devil is going on in MLB bullpens this month?
Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen three different GM’s spend a total of $111 million dollars on four individual free agents, all four RP’s. The average annual salary of those four pitchers combined is $7.1 million. By all means, sit back for a moment and ponder those numbers.
Four relief pitchers will be making, over the lives of their respective contracts, more total money than 28 teams did last season. Billy Wagner, an admittedly dominant reliever out of the classic flamethrowing mold, has been guaranteed 4 years, at $11 million per year; there are only two players on the Boston Red Sox that will make more than him in 2006, and one of them might not even be on the team come opening day. Wagner, at least, had one of the five best RP seasons in MLB this year, at least by VORP; BJ Ryan – while a very good reliever – had a lower VORP than 13 other relievers in 2005; nevertheless, he landed a 5 year contract worth $47 million dollars, which represents the highest total contract ever given to a reliever. One of those 13 RP’s with a lower VORP? Boston’s own Mike Timlin, who quietly resigned with the club this offseason for a fraction of Ryan’s new paycheck). And then… then we have the Cubs. The Cubs this season (and next season) will be spending $8 million on two middle relievers, one of whom had his first good season in years last year, while the other had his first good season… ever. Bobby Howry and Scott Eyre have signed contracts offered of Jim Hendry’s own free will and volition that total 5 years and 20 million dollars.
I guess on some level, this is an object lesson in market pressure; despite the fact that – only a couple years ago – we were amazed at the depression of the market, here it comes again, looking as bullish as the one that set records between 1999 and 2001. If BJ Ryan can get five years, what can AJ Burnett – younger, better, and a starter – get? If Billy Wagner, who at his best will contribute to 70 innings this year, can make $11 million a year, what does that make Paul Konerko worth? If reports are true, and the Toronto Blue Jays have offered Brian Giles 5 years at $55 million – yes, the Toronto Blue Jays, who have been wallowing in payroll obliviion for years – are we suddenly back to the days where great players become kings for life (or at least until they’re 40)?
If the Jays sign Giles to that contract – and I have difficulty believing that Giles would turn it down – We could look back on the 2005-2006 offseason as we did those turn of the century years; except now, playing the role of the Red Sox, Yankees, Rockies and Rangers, we have the Blue Jays and the Mets, and instead of impact offensive stars, we get relievers. Supply and demand meets a third axis of capital in means; a low supply and high flexibility produces the kind of contracts we thought we’d seen the end of, as GM’s scan the barren FA landscape and come to the conclusion that overspending – recently out of style – has come roaring back.

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