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Relief pitching can be a particularly volatile sector in baseball’s open market. More than position players or starting pitchers, relievers can see their year-to-year production swing from good to bad and back again. For clubs, that makes constructing a bullpen a tricky business. For relievers themselves, it places a premium on timing the market.

Right-hander Frank Francisco, for example, established himself as a legitimate candidate to close games in Texas, recording 25 saves with a SIERA of 2.84 in 2009. When C.J. Wilson shifted to the starting rotation before the 2010 season, the closer’s role seemingly belonged to Francisco, who was slated to earn $3.265 million in 2010, his final year of arbitration. But after a rocky start, Francisco assumed an eighth-inning setup role, with rookie Neftali Feliz taking over as closer.

Francisco rebounded nicely in his new role, striking out 60 in 52 2/3 innings with a 3.03 SIERA, but after straining a rib-cage muscle landed him on the disabled list in late August, he did not pitch again during the regular season or the Rangers’ run to the World Series. As a potential free agent at the end of the season, it was not the sort of platform season Francisco might have wanted.

Francisco’s prospects on the open market took an additional hit after the World Series, with the release of the Elias Sports Bureau’s 2009-10 player rankings, the statistical system used to compare players and determine compensation for free-agent signings. Though the exact formula is not public, the rankings for pitchers combine statistics such as innings, ERA, saves, and strikeouts. Under the system, Type-A players are defined as those in the top 20 percent at their position. Compensation for a Type-A player is the signing club’s first-round draft pick and a supplemental or sandwich pick between the first and second rounds. Type-B players are those who rank between 21 and 40 percent; compensation for those players is a sandwich pick.

Francisco’s two-year totals were enough to vault him to Type A status, reducing his leverage on the open market. Any club interested in making him an offer would have to surrender a draft pick to Texas in addition to working out a deal with the reliever. As Francisco surveyed the free-agent landscape, Texas offered him salary arbitration, a pre-requisite for the club to receive the compensatory draft picks if he chose to sign elsewhere. Rather than taking his chances on the open market, Francisco chose to accept the Rangers’ offer. The two sides now have several weeks to work out a deal before arbitration hearings begin in February.

Among the Type-A free agents this offseason are eight relievers who are not full-time closers: Francisco, Grant Balfour, Scott Downs, Jason Frasor, Matt Guerrier, Arthur Rhodes, Takashi Saito, and Dan Wheeler.

While several from that group have signed new contracts, Frasor chose to go the arbitration route. He hit the open market in November after compiling 15 saves and 121 strikeouts in 121 1/3 innings over the last two seasons. Frasor had been seeking the security of a multi-year contract, but did not find a deal to his liking, and ultimately elected to accept Toronto’s offer of arbitration. Though he should receive a raise from his 2010 salary of $2.65 million, he will not have the luxury of multiple bidders for his services.

Choosing arbitration over free agency, however, does not necessarily preclude the possibility of a long-term deal. A year ago, Colorado declined its club option on reliever Rafael Betancourt, who ranked as a Type-A free agent. The Rockies subsequently offered him arbitration, he accepted, and the two sides agreed on a two-year, $7.55 million contract.

Betancourt was not the only potential free-agent reliever for 2010 weighed down by a Type-A ranking. Octavio Dotel, John Grabow, Kevin Gregg, LaTroy Hawkins, and Darren Oliver also ranked as Type-A free agents in the 2009-10 offseason. A year earlier, in the winter of 2008-09, middle relievers Doug Brocail, Juan Cruz, Damaso Marte, Oliver, and Russ Springer had a Type-A ranking.

 Most middle relievers are, almost by definition, replaceable. They generally cannot command the same high salaries and multi-year contracts as closers, starters, or players at other positions. At the same time, clubs are valuing draft picks more than ever, a point illustrated by recent comments from Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, who said he would not surrender his first round draft pick to sign any free agent other than starter Cliff Lee. When a Type-A ranking acts as a drag on the market for even an All-Star free agent closer like Rafael Soriano, it’s clear that the compensation system’s disproportionate burden on relievers is an issue that should be addressed in negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement between the owners and players.  

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rawagman
1/10
Wouldn't it make more sense (if they are to keep Type A and Type B designations) to simply lump all pitchers together? If a reliever is in the top 20% of ALL pitchers, then he is a Type A. That should prevent some of the silliness which makes a guy like Dan Wheeler, or Arthur Rhodes from being a Type A Free Agent and effectively wiping out their markets.
EJSeidman
1/10
This is what I have advocated for a few years. I mentioned before in an article of mine recently that if we wiped away the compensation system, relievers would benefit the most and teams wouldn't have to worry about giving a 1-yr deal to a fickle reliever. They wouldn't have to offer extra years as a means of potentially extracting more value to add to the return so the loss of their picks isn't material.
hortonjr
1/10
I'm not so sure about lumping all pitchers together, as I bet that wouldn't get a lot of support on either side of the bargaining table, except maybe from middle relievers. Instead, why not just lump all relievers together? I think that would effectively address the issue. On the other hand, given the volatility of performance by middle relievers, the current system is probably serving a role of keeping teams from over-paying for these guys anyway :). Bob
rawagman
1/10
I believe that all relievers are currently lumped together. Why wouldn't all sides agree to lump all pitchers together? The current set up makes things difficult for both sides of the table. Teams are afraid to sign good FA relief pitchers and those good FA relievers are not getting the leverage they have earned in their free agency.
Richie
1/10
Lumping all pitchers together hurts/would hurt all relievers, no? It being easier to pitch in short outings/relief, they statistically look better than they are, hence become type A when everybody knows they're really not that valuable.
rawagman
1/10
They would have to switch the statistical criteria used to judge type A/B/etc. of course, but if done right, would really help. I think, if the system works, only the elite closers would get that Type A designation. The rest of the good relievers would get Type B, or not rated.
Agent007
1/10
It's funny. If you pitch poorly, your career is in trouble If you pitch really well, you receive a high designation but nobody wants to sign you. Maybe the pitchers could decline the designation. Didn't Soriano accept arbitration last year, surprising the Braves? I bet more will accept arbitration in future. Soriano and Balfour will probably both end up in Tampa Bay.
hortonjr
1/10
I thought that closers were separate for some reason. Thanks for the correction! If you agree that we are talking about a zero-sum game, if having all pitchers together helps middle relievers, then who does it hurt? I'd argue it would, at the very least, do nothing positive for starters. When you think "Who has the most impact, or bigger voice, in the union, starters or middle relievers?", then you might see one reason why I don't think this would be salable. Bob
rawagman
1/10
I agree, but believe Type A status would be easier to bear for a decent starter than for a decent reliever.
chabels
1/11
On the other hand, there are more relievers in baseball than starters. So there are more relievers in the union than starters. So if the union is run democratically (I have no idea) assuming position players remain agnostic, relievers should be able to push something like this through. More likely, this is how relief pitchers are brought on board with a CBA that does away with draft pick compensation for free agents (which would require a concession from the players).