Jumping the relief market 

March, 7, 2011
3/07/11
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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.



[+] EnlargeMatt Thornton
AP Photo/Morry GashKen Williams' strategy on Thornton could be copied.
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.

Thornton says he doesn't care whether he's the closer or not, as Daryl van Schouwen writes. The White Sox have committed about $30 million to six relievers this spring, as Dave van Dyck writes.

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.

Notables


• 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.

Justin Morneau says he can get ready in a hurry, once he's been cleared, as Sid Hartman writes. It's been 213 days since his most recent game.

• 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.

• The Yankees will be looking at Brett Myers, writes George King.

• 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

1. Corey Hart injured an oblique. Not good. The Brewers are serious contenders in the NL Central, but they don't have a lot of lineup depth.

2. Jason Heyward created a scare in his first game back from a groin injury.

3. Carlos Beltran gave his manager a scare, writes Karen Crouse.

4. Justin Duchscherer will start Tuesday, as mentioned within this Jeff Zrebiec notebook.

5. The Rangers got a big scare with Neftali Feliz, but he's OK.

6. Chris Carpenter threw from a mound, a sign of progress for the veteran.

7. Miguel Olivo thinks he'll be ready for Opening Day.

8. James Loney is expected back by Wednesday.

9. Aaron Cook is feeling no pain, writes Troy Renck.

The Battle for Jobs

1. The Marlins are increasingly pleased with what they are seeing in Matt Dominguez.

2. Charlie Manuel is getting a look at some of his right-field candidates. Ben Francisco has looked good so far.

3. James McDonald of the Pirates is thankful for the role he has, as Ron Musselman writes.

4. Jeremy Accardo couldn't be happier as he works for a job with the Orioles.

5. Alexi Casilla seems wiser this spring, as he takes over.

6. Edgar Renteria is not in the mix at third base for the Reds.

7. Mike Aviles is answering any doubts about his defense.

8. Defense will be important as the Diamondbacks consider the starter at first base, writes Nick Piecoro.

Moves, deals and decisions

1. Brett Gardner could supplant Derek Jeter as the leadoff hitter, writes Mark Feinsand.

2. The Astros are looking at their options for catcher in the aftermath of the Jason Castro injury.

Sunday's games

1. Brian Wilson threw the heck out of the ball in his first outing.

2. Carlos Gonzalez hit a monster homer.

3. Every day, it seems, Brett Lawrie is doing something great.

4. Johnny Cueto was The Man for the Reds.

5. Buster Posey is hitting .643 this spring, as mentioned within this Andrew Baggarly notebook.

6. Bryce Harper hit the cutoff man.

7. Zack Greinke is not worried about his tough outing.

8. Russell Martin got a chance to catch Phil Hughes.

9. The Rays continue to lose, as Marc Topkin writes.

10. Justin Masterson had an interesting inning.

11. Heath Bell had a really good outing, writes Dan Hayes.

Other stuff


• A-Rod looks great this spring, writes John Harper.

• Adrian Gonzalez looks like a great fit for Fenway Park. He is making progress as he comes back from shoulder surgery.

• The Indians' Drew Pomeranz has looked good this spring, writes Bud Shaw.

Dan Haren continues to evolve.

• The Dodgers will let Matt Kemp run again this year.

• Dustin Ackley is making adjustments.

Adam Dunn is feeling better than his batting average indicates.

• Mike Maddux wants his pitchers to keep it down in the strike zone.

Willie Bloomquist is a role model.


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