From 1997 through 2013, Mariano Rivera served as the New Yankees’ closer. He retired after last season with an MLB-record 652 career saves. That number – like Joe DiMaggio’s record 56-game hitting streak and Cy Young’s all-time-best 511 wins – will almost certainly stand for all-time. There are a couple factors working against anyone looking to challenge the sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Famer’s mark. First, Rivera was simply the best ever at his position, a relief pitcher who dominated with one devastating pitch – a cutter – and who had an amazing run of health. Second, and perhaps more significant, teams are beginning to realize, much as they are with designated hitters, that they do not need to find a long-term answer at closer; therefore, they needn’t dole out big-money deals to relievers.
Over the last four years (2010-13) of Rivera’s career, the Yankees’ closer earned nearly $55 million dollars. Over that same period, the Tampa Bay Rays, had three different relievers – Fernando Rodney, Kyle Farnsworth and Rafael Soriano -- pace the team in saves, while winning 90-plus games each season. They paid those pitchers a little over $14 million; and let Rodney, who saved 85 games over the past seasons leave this winter via free agency.
Too anecdotal for you? Consider the following: Of the top ten leaders in saves last season, only two rank among the ten highest paid relievers in baseball in terms of contract value; of the top twenty, only three do; and of the top forty, only four. See where this is going? And what kind of compensation did Rodney get for his two-year run of excellence? Seattle recently signed him to a two-year deal worth $14 million.
Without further ado, here are the top ten reliever contracts heading into the 2014 season. Hope you’re not expecting to see Rodney on the list.
10 T 9. Sean Marshall, Cincinnati Reds: 3 years, $16.5 Million
In 89 appearances, since the Reds signed the southpaw to a three-year deal, Marshall is 5-6 with a 2.40 ERA and a 1.079 WHIP. Despite those solid numbers, his tenure in Cincinnati has not been without its bumps. Marshall failed in his attempt to take over the closer role from Ryan Madsen after the latter was injured prior to the start of the 2012 season, which forced Aroldis Chapman back into a ninth inning role. Last season, due to a sprained left shoulder and a bout of tendinitis, he spent a stint on the 60-day DL and appeared in only 16 games while throwing a total of 10.1 innings. However, if he can avoid further injury issues, he can be an effective, and cheap, option for the Reds.
9 T. 9. Boone Logan, Colorado Rockies: 3 years, $16.5 Million
Logan parlayed a mostly successful four-year stint with the New York Yankees into a multi-year deal with Colorado. The contract, however, is a bit of a head-scratcher considering Logan’s a lefty specialist, albeit an effective one. The southpaw is coming off a season in which held left-handed hitters to a .221 average, allowing 17 hits in 77 at bats while striking out 34. Logan was also effective with runners in scoring position, limiting hitters to a .227 clip, and .208 with two outs.
8 Jeremy Affeldt, San Francisco: 3 years, $18 Million
Another lefty (see a pattern developing?), Affeldt’s 2013 campaign was marred by a regression in effectiveness followed by a season-ending groin injury. Appearing in 39 games, his 5.6 strikeouts-per-nine ratio was his lowest since 2006, while the 4.5 walks per nine he allowed were the most since 2009.
7 Brian Wilson, L.A. Dodgers: 2 years, $19 Million
Coming off of two Tommy John surgeries, Brian Wilson signed a closer’s deal (the second year is a player option for $9 million) to pitch in the seventh and eighth. Then again, these are the free-spending Dodgers, they smell a World Series, and, well, these are the free-spending Dodgers. Although it was a small sample size, the former All-Star pitched well for the Dodgers last season, throwing 13.2 innings and going 2-1 with a microscopic 0.66 ERA in 18 games as a setup man. In his previous life as a closer, Wilson accumulated 171 saves in 196 opportunities over seven seasons with San Francisco.
6 Joe Nathan, Detroit Tigers: 2 years, $20 Million
Like Brian Wilson, Joe Nathan was among the best closers in baseball for a while; then he got injured, underwent Tommy John surgery and missed the entire 2010 campaign. Last season, his second in Texas and three years removed from going under the knife, Nathan arguably was as dominant as ever, despite pitching his home games in a bandbox otherwise known as Rangers Ballpark. Nathan saved 43 games – tied for fifth in the majors and his highest total since 2009 – while compiling a 1.39 ERA and 0.897 WHIP. Even more impressive, his ERA at home was 1.31 compared with 1.48 on the road. Now signed with the Detroit Tigers, they will be hoping that he can keep up these impressive numbers as they take their shot at winning a title.
5 Jonathan Broxton, Cincinnati Reds: 3 years, $21 Million
Another former All-Star closer whose dominance was interrupted by injuries (see a pattern developing?), and whether Jonathan Broxton is healthy for the start of the season is in doubt after undergoing season-ending surgery on his right forearm last August. Although signed to close, Broxton was setting-up for Aroldis Chapman before his season ended prematurely, appearing in 34 games, and posting 4.11 ERA and 1.27 WHIP in 30.2 innings.
4 Brandon League, L.A. Dodgers: 3 years, $22.5 Million
Brandon League is the relief pitching version of A.J. Burnett: a guy with not much to show despite lots of potential and a cannon for an arm. Signed by the Dodgers to close, Brandon League threw 54.1 innings last season and blew 5 of 19 save opportunities before Kenley Jansen took over the ninth inning role. He gave up 69 hits and walked 15 while posting a 5.30 ERA and 1.55 WHIP. Since breaking in with Toronto in 2004, League has blown 29 of his 103 save opportunities.
3 Heath Bell, Tampa Bay Rays: 3 years, $27 Million
For a while, it appeared that the latest installment in MLB’s Once Dominant All-Star Closer Trying to Regain His Form show, would feature Heath Bell in the starring role, as he was slotted to close games for the Rays after Tampa Bay acquired him from Arizona this offseason. The likelihood of his being effective in that role, however, was questionable considering he had blown 15 of 49 save opportunities over the past two seasons. Then the Rays signed Grant Balfour, who will probably be used to close, which means they’ll probably use Bell in a set-up role. Last season with the Diamondbacks, Bell had 72 strikeouts in 65 2/3 innings, but posted a 4.11 ERA and 1.37 WHIP.
2 Rafael Soriano, Washington Nationals: 2 years, $28 Million
The guess here is that Rafael Soriano, and the guy who is first on this list, will be the last two relief pitchers to enjoy salaries of this size for a long time. That said, Soriano has enjoyed an extended run of decent success. In his last three years as a closer, he spent 2011 with the Yankees in a seventh and eighth-inning role, Soriano has converted 130 of 143 save opportunities. Last season, his first with the Nationals, Soriano notched 43 saves while blowing six.
1 Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies: 4 years, $50 Million
Look at that figure. It is the biggest contract ever for a reliever. And, the way things look, it is going to go the way of the dodo when it expires. Jonathan Papelbon’s good, very good in fact. In nine seasons, He’s posted a .241 ERA and 1.04 WHIP and hitters are batting .210 against the five-time All-Star. The righty has struck out 10.6 batters per 9 while only walking 1.6. Last season, however, he recorded only 29 saves, failing to reach 30 for the first time in his career as a closer, and struck out a career-low 8.3 batters per nine. There have been reports the Phillies have looked into trading Papelbon, but have yet to find a taker. The big issue? His big contract.