A week ago, Mark Melancon signed a four-year, $62 million deal with the San Francisco Giants. It seemed like a lot to pay a relief pitcher – until the New York Yankees signed Aroldis Chapman to a five-year, $86 million deal, the highest deal ever for a reliever. It’s also rumored that the Los Angeles Dodgers are going to give their closer, Kenley Jansen, a five-year, $80 million deal. Relief pitchers are getting money like we’ve never seen before.
$ Committed to Free-Agent Relievers/
# of Players Signed to MLB Deals
’16 $290.1M 13
’10 $251.7M 44
’15 $244.75M 33
’05 $238.4M 31
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) December 13, 2016
But are relievers worth the price? We saw Andrew Miller and Cody Allen lock up wins for the Cleveland Indians in the postseason, and it was a large reason why they were able to advance to the World Series. The Chicago Cubs paid a hefty price for Chapman at the trade deadline, and he also helped mightily in the postseason (even if he did give up the lead in WS Game 7).
There’s no question that a good bullpen with a dominant reliever helps secure victories – especially in postseason play. The Indians and Cubs picked up Miller and Chapman at the trade deadline for that reason, and it paid off for them. It might seem ridiculous to pay $86 million for a guy that’s going to pitch one inning, but often, it can win championships.
However, the price for relievers is still a potentially dangerous trend. The Cubs and Indians bought high because they were in a great position to go on a deep playoff run, and they needed the final piece to get them to the World Series. But are the Giants, Dodgers and Yankees guaranteed to reach the playoffs? They’ve invested an incredible amount in late-inning pitchers, but they need to be winning games first to even use them.
Relief pitchers are an investment you make after you have a playoff team, not before. They are the final piece, the player that secures the victory, not necessarily the one that changes the game. It’s simply not a smart investment to make if you don’t have a surefire playoff team. The Yankees, especially, seem to be at least a year or two away for truly contending. Not only are they betting on Chapman for five years at a high price, but they’re betting that their entire team will progress to a higher level. With so many variables involved, it’s not smart to give a ninth-inning guy that much money.
Yes, Chapman is one of the best relievers in the game and if the Yankees do continue to improve, the investment could absolutely pay off. But this is a team that’s basically rebuilding, and it sets a dangerous precedent. Every lights-out reliever, especially closers, are going to ask for huge deals, and teams that want to contend will give it to them. But in reality, the investment will only pay off for those deep playoff teams and true World Series contenders. For most of the teams in the MLB, it’s not worth it to pay a relief pitcher this much money – and many teams will ultimately regret their decisions.