Joaquin Benoit didn't have a job last year until Feb. 15, and when he found one, it was through a minor league contract with the Rays. He was pitching filler—just another arm that was aging (he turned 33 last year), damaged (he missed 2009 because of rotator-cuff surgery), mediocre (4.79 career ERA) and not good enough to start or close games.
"His first outing in spring training," says Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon, "was 20-some pitches, and he was all over the place. He needed to get his arm strength back. We sent him to the minor leagues and monitored his throwing."
Benoit spent most of April in Triple A before he was called up to the Rays. It took just 60 1/3 innings for him to transform from journeyman into one of the most coveted commodities in baseball: a dominant eighth-inning setup man. Benoit, who combines a fastball in the high 90s with a changeup and a slider, was close to unhittable in 2010, striking out 75, walking just 11 and putting up the lowest WHIP (0.68) among all major league pitchers who threw at least 30 innings. Though Benoit had no starts, one save, one win and worked fewer innings than 259 other pitchers last season, the righthander (who made $750,000 in 2010) parlayed his niche role into an industry-stunning three-year, $16.5 million contract with the Tigers this winter. "I'm sure other people would say there is no way they would do it," says Detroit general manager Dave Dombrowski, who had never before given a multiyear deal to a free-agent setup reliever. "But the one part I am close to sure about is that if we didn't do it, someone else would have."
The enrichment of Benoit is just one of many recent examples of how baseball continues to pump more emphasis and money into an upwardly mobile class of pitching that essentially didn't exist 25 years ago: setup relievers, the specialists who generally don't start, finish or win games. Benoit was one of 14 free-agent setup relievers this off-season who signed multiyear contracts. Topping the list was the man Benoit was setting up with the Rays: Rafael Soriano, who signed for three years and $35 million with the Yankees, for whom he will be, by far, the highest-paid setup reliever in history—working in front of the highest-paid closer in history, Mariano Rivera ($30 million, two years).
As spring training camps open this week for the Year After the Year of the Pitcher—runs per game in 2010 (4.38) were at their lowest point since 1992, and the strong-armed Giants consolidated the theme with a world title—run prevention is what's hip. With the importance of a deep rotation and a reliable closer long established, teams are now willing to turn setup relievers into well-paid stars in search of that next level of certainty. They want as much reliability in the eighth inning as in the ninth.
Benoit, for instance, created his worth by posting an 0.84 ERA in the eighth inning last year, half a run lower than his overall mark. Indeed, teams are built and games are managed with such an emphasis on the last six outs of the game that the most difficult innings in which to hit last year were the eighth (.701 OPS) and ninth (.679). "The one thing I spend most of my day dwelling on is how I am going to use my bullpen against the team that night," says Maddon, whose bullpen ranked first in the American League last year in ERA (3.33).
Says Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers, "The bullpen is key. Tampa got better because its bullpen was better. Texas's bullpen got better, San Francisco's bullpen got better, Cincinnati's bullpen got better. . . . I don't care how good your starters are: You need a good bullpen. There's nothing worse, nothing that can deflate a team more, than losing the games you're supposed to win."
There is one huge problem with this burgeoning bullpen emphasis: Relief pitching has a weaker correlation between cost and success than any other facet of the game. Bullpens are notoriously unpredictable. Multiyear contracts for setup relievers have an especially poor history, in part because of the wear and tear of the job but also because pitchers default into such roles in the first place since they lack the skill sets to start or close. Benoit, for instance, was 14--19 with a 6.06 ERA in 55 starts for the Rangers before they moved him to the bullpen in late 2005.
Clubs this winter guaranteed $12 million or more to six free-agent pitchers to be setup relievers (chart). That's as many $12 million setup deals as were signed in the past four free-agent markets combined—and all six of those previous deals turned out to be busts. At no other position would teams come close to going 0 for 6 with the six highest expenditures. "It's such a volatile area," says Towers, who was the Padres' G.M. from 1996 to 2009 before taking the Arizona job last September. "I did that in '98 when I got tied in to guys like [Dan] Miceli and [Donne] Wall, and it backfired on me. [Setup] guys change from year to year. Sometimes with long-term contracts guys get a little too comfortable. Get them on a one-year deal and they're more likely to pitch their rear end off."
Towers inherited a bullpen that was the National League's worst in 2010 (5.74 ERA), but says he had no interest in multiyear contracts for setup guys. He revamped his pen over the winter by spending significant money only on a closer: J.J. Putz, a setup man for the White Sox last year who signed a discounted deal ($10 million, two years) to pitch close to his Arizona home. The rest of Towers's bullpen is cobbled together with low-level trade acquisitions and cheap youngsters. "You need one guy to be the closer," Towers says. "You need four or five guys who can pitch the seventh and eighth innings with a lead, hopefully all of them with a different look."