The contract extension for Matt Thornton came in the middle of spring training, but it was everything that happened in the dead of winter that created this deal. The salary benchmarks haven't moved much for players at other positions in this offseason, most notably for the designated hitters and for the closers -- and even Albert Pujols was offered less per year than three other first basemen.
But for setup men, the prices exploded, as Joaquin Benoit (three years, $16.5 million), Scott Downs (three years), Matt Guerrier (three years, $12 million) and Rafael Soriano (three years, $35 million to be Mariano Rivera's pricey bullpen caddy) will testify. The history of these types of contracts for relievers is absolutely disastrous, but teams now are paying what they have to pay because they know they cannot win without bullpen help. "We really needed the guy," said one GM who dished out big dollars for a reliever in the past year.
Thornton is one of baseball's best-kept secrets: a durable lefty who has demonstrated total dominance over lefties at a time when right-handed power hitting is increasingly scarce. As noted in the ESPN.com story on the signing, the 34-year-old Thornton led all AL relievers in strikeouts per nine innings last season (12.02) and inherited runners scored percentage (12.9). He limited left-handed hitters to a .175 batting average with 44 strikeouts.
So the White Sox jumped the market, in a sense. Rather than allowing Thornton to hit the market and draw one of those inflation-driven three-year offers, they gave him a two-year deal extension along the lines of what Boston gave to Bobby Jenks (two years, $12 million), with a team option for $6 million in 2014 (and a $1 million buyout). There is the inherent risk in investing in an older reliever who has piled up a lot of appearances and has burned a lot of pitches in the bullpen, but the White Sox knew, from all the trade interest in Thornton through the years, that he would have no shortage of suitors if he ever became a free agent.
It wouldn't be a shocker if other relievers got similar deals in the next few months. Look, it might seem a little crazy to be paying $4.74 for a gallon for gas, but as anyone who drives through the Tampa area knows, the prices have climbed and you have to fill the tank. Similarly, no team succeeds these days -- in an era when innings thrown by starting pitchers continue to dissipate -- without having a strong core of relievers.
What will be interesting, going forward, is whether teams start to invest long-term multiyear deals in their young relievers the way that they have at other positions -- for someone like a Chris Sale or a Drew Storen or a Sergio Santos.
• The concern about Chase Utley within the Phillies' organization is much higher than the public posture has been, writes Paul Hagen, and he runs through the team's options in the event that Utley can't contribute much.
• The Padres should get an upgrade in the leadoff spot, with Cameron Maybin. By the way: Colleague Bobby Valentine saw Maybin work out this winter and swing in a cage and came away very, very impressed and thinking that Maybin is going to be better than he's shown.
• By the way: The Red Sox and Adrian Gonzalez have not resumed contract talks since the weekend they traded for him, but since negotiating that weekend, Boston's front office has had an understanding of what it will take to sign him -- seven years, about $22 million a year -- and presumably, a deal will be completed. And no, Albert Pujols' looming free agency will not have a bearing on that, because in the end, Gonzalez is younger and he will probably be cheaper.
Dings and dents
The Battle for Jobs
1. The Marlins are increasingly pleased with what they are seeing in Matt Dominguez.
8. Defense will be important as the Diamondbacks consider the starter at first base, writes Nick Piecoro.
Moves, deals and decisions
3. Every day, it seems, Brett Lawrie is doing something great.
6. Bryce Harper hit the cutoff man.
9. The Rays continue to lose, as Marc Topkin writes.
• A-Rod looks great this spring, writes John Harper.
• The Indians' Drew Pomeranz has looked good this spring, writes Bud Shaw.
• Dustin Ackley is making adjustments.
• Mike Maddux wants his pitchers to keep it down in the strike zone.
• Fans got a look at a top Atlanta prospect.
• It will be difficult for the Marlins to make up for the power they lost with Dan Uggla's departure.
• Jemile Weeks got a chance to play against his brother, as John Shea writes.
• Pat Hughes is collaborating on a book about Ron Santo. It should be a great read.
• A Padres coach who is fighting cancer is keeping his routine as normal as possible, writes Tyler Kepner.
• The Blue Jays are thrilled to have Brian Butterfield back.
FYI, no column Tuesday.
And today will be better than yesterday.