Market spells a high price for relief

Updated: November 26, 2010, 10:04 AM ET
By Buster Olney

When word broke last week that Joaquin Benoit had a new three-year agreement with the Detroit Tigers, without the salary numbers initially attached, a rival executive tried to guess what the contract figures would be.

$10 million for three years would be at the high end, the executive presumed, for a 33-year-old reliever who generated spectacular work in 2010 but whose extensive injury history prevented him from pitching at all in 2009 and probably contributed to his posting a 5.00 ERA in 2008. $10 million max, the executive thought.

But Benoit's deal was actually for a whopping $16.5 million, and with just that one contract, the entire relief market was reset, like a beach house knocked off its pins by the tide.

It may be that most other relievers won't find deals like Benoit's, but that won't prevent their agents from seeking them, which likely will slow down the process. That's not good news for the Tampa Bay Rays.

I wrote here recently that the greatest offseason challenge facing any team is the total reconstruction that Rays must attempt with their bullpen. Benoit is now officially gone and Rafael Soriano will soon follow -- as the most coveted free-agent reliever -- and Grant Balfour and Dan Wheeler are also looking for jobs. So right now, the depth chart for the Rays' bullpen is stunningly thin at a time when the Rays are slashing payroll.

Tampa Bay might not be able to offer big contracts to free agents, but the Rays can dangle the kind of opportunity they've given to Balfour, Benoit and Soriano. They should be very competitive in 2011, with a strong rotation, and some relievers could step into that situation on short-term deals and build their market value.

Some relievers who could emerge as the target of tug-of-wars in the bargain corner of the market: