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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Relief pitching finds a bull market

Chicago Cubs pitcher Aroldis Chapman throws in the

Chicago Cubs pitcher Aroldis Chapman throws in the bottom of the seventh inning in Game 6 of the World Series against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field in Cleveland on Nov. 1, 2016. Credit: EPA / David Maxwell


Is baseball ready for its first $100-million closer?

We should find out pretty soon, as a variety of factors are converging to create a perfect storm in the relief-pitcher market, a turbulence that undoubtedly will push the bidding to unprecedented levels.

The events of this past October are partly to blame, reminding us how much a dominant reliever can impact a short series, in almost any role, as Andrew Miller did repeatedly for the AL champion Indians. Now consider that Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon all became free agents last week, with some of the sport’s biggest spenders — Yankees, Dodgers, Giants, Nationals, Cubs — all looking to fill significant bullpen holes.

It was a similar combination of factors that allowed Yankees’ GM Brian Cashman to yield a historic haul for Miller and Chapman before the Aug. 1 trade deadline. The timing was perfect. Cashman was sitting on the market’s most valuable commodity when the Indians and Cubs — two teams hungry to end long championship droughts — were desperate for elite relievers.

After Miller and Chapman proved instrumental in delivering their clubs to the World Series, with the latter helping the Cubs to their first title since 1908, the value of these bullpen gods has increased exponentially. Cleveland is lucky. Miller still has two seasons left on the four-year, $36-million contract he originally signed with the Yankees.

But for a team like the Giants, whose inability to acquire bullpen help ultimately proved fatal in October, they’re likely going to be writing a huge check to one of those three this winter. Jonathan Papelbon’s four-year, $50-million deal, signed back in 2012, is the current ceiling for a relief pitcher. But that could be doubled up by Chapman, who should easily eclipse Mariano Rivera’s record $15-million annual salary. With Jansen and Melancon not too far behind.

On Day 2 of the GM meetings, we asked Giants’ GM Bobby Evans about the prohibitive cost of bolstering his bullpen this offseason, and where the prices for these closers could go. He wasn’t looking forward to the sticker shock.

“When I talk about the market, I always want to talk about it dropping,” Evans said, smiling. “I don’t want to talk about it rising.”

Too late. Everyone now wants their own Miller, the ALCS MVP, and the trio at the top of the free-agent reliever class is as close as it gets for this winter. Moments after the Yankees traded Chapman to the Cubs, Cashman talked about trying to sign him back at season’s end, when he would cost only money — rather than the top prospect (Gleyber Torres) they pried from Chicago for a three-month rental. True to his word, Cashman already has contacted Chapman’s reps to convey his interest, without yet knowing where the money will go.

Last year, Cashman rolled the dice on Chapman, who was facing domestic violence allegations, to create the short-lived No Runs DMC. He’d like to recreate that as best he can, believing that Dellin Betances could use some big-time help for the late innings.

“I just want to bring in more talent,” Cashman said.

He’s not alone. And what that will cost is something that’s been a hot conversation topic at this week’s GM meetings. Matt Klentak, the Phillies’ second-year GM, probably won’t be fishing in the deep end of the closer pool as he looks to upgrade the back end of their bullpen. But he’s intrigued by the developing market.

“I’ll be curious to see how this year’s postseason affects that,” Klentak said. “In the last few years, we’ve seen how important those last innings have become. We’ll see how that plays out in free agency.”

Cardinals GM John Mozeliak already had one of the game’s best closers in Trevor Rosenthal, but signed Korean reliever Seung-hwan Oh last winter for $2.5 million. When Rosenthal labored through an injury-marred ’16 season, Oh — nicknamed “Final Boss” — shined with a 1.92 ERA and 11.6 K/9 ratio in 76 appearances. The Cards have Oh back on a $2.75-million vesting option this year, so looking overseas was a way around rising prices here for Mozeliak, who also believes bullpens will become more flexible after this October, with more six-out saves. As for the $100-million closer?

“We won’t know that until six weeks from now,” Mozeliak said.


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