Orioles' pitcher Darren "O'Day discusses the increased value of relief pitchers. (Eduardo A. Encina, Baltimore Sun video)
When the Orioles retained right-hander Darren O'Day on a four-year, $31 million deal this time last year, it marked the most the club has spent on a free-agent reliever. A year later, that payout pales in comparison to the money being spent this offseason on late-inning bullpen arms.
At last week's winter meetings, right-hander Mark Melancon signed a four-year, $62 million deal with the San Francisco Giants, a record deal for a closer. That record stood just two days before the New York Yankees inked left-hander Aroldis Chapman for five years and $86 million. On Monday, the Los Angeles Dodgers retained their closer, right-hander Kenley Jansen, with a five-year deal worth $80 million.
The Orioles bullpen -- which has been a cornerstone of the team's recent success -- was built more on creativity than cash. Before O'Day re-signed with the Orioles, he was a savvy waiver claim from the Texas Rangers. Closer Zach Britton revived his career in the bullpen after struggling as a starter. The Orioles' unherald trade with the San Diego Padres to acquire right-hander Brad Brach for a minor league pitcher often goes overlooked as one of executive vice president Dan Duquette's best. And right-hander Mychal Givens was a floundering minor league middle infielder four years ago before transitioning to pitching.
Now more than ever, there's more emphasis on building bullpens, and relievers are getting their money. And O'Day is happy to see fellow relievers getting their due.
"The market is changing," O'Day said Tuesday while attending the Orioles' annual holiday party. "It seems like good teams are starting to emphasize bullpens more. Personally, I think it's awesome. I think it started about three years ago. It's good for the players, it's good for the guys, the high-end closers. It trickles down to the middle [relief] guys and the setup guys. It's great and it's good to see. Guys who have traditionally been valued as just another arm are getting their due."
The Orioles bullpen has consistently been one of the team's strengths in recent years. Given what other teams are willing to give to build their bullpens – the Kansas City Royals were able to get outfielder Jorge Soler from the Chicago Cubs for their closer, Wade Davis, for one season before he becomes a free agent – O'Day has heard all the talk about whether the Orioles should trade Britton or Brach to get better elsewhere, but he'd like to see the relief corps remain intact.
"These are good friends of mine, so I don't want to see any of them go, but I understand they're trying to run a business," O'Day said. "You're seeing what teams are willing to pay and give up for these high-end relievers, and it's crazy. It's awesome. I understand that.
"The bullpen is our strength and you can look at it through both lenses. It's an advantage because we already have it. We don't have to go out and spend for it or trade for it, so if we keep it together we already have what all these teams are trying to put together. We can shorten games and we're ahead of other teams in that facet."
Now that the top three free-agent closers have found their landing spots, other teams looking for closers are left looking for other options. That means that teams will certainly inquire about Britton, who, despite being on track to make $11.4 million in arbitration, is still considered a value in comparison to what Melancon, Chapman and Jansen are netting. Britton has two years remaining before becoming a free agent, and Duquette has made it clear he's not entertaining offers for the left-handed closer.
Brach, who emerged as an All-Star last season in both setup and multiple-inning relief roles, has also been a trade target of teams. O'Day said he expects more teams will be seeking multiple-inning relievers, especially after seeing how pitchers such as former Orioles left-hander Andrew Miller bridged the gap between innings in the postseason.
"I think it started with the bullpen emphasis and now what you're going to see is you're going to see teams looking for two-inning guys, dominant two-inning guys," O'Day said. "They want kind of what Buck [Showalter] has been doing. He's not afraid to send us out there for five, six outs. Other teams started doing it in the playoffs.
"We did it most of the year, so a reliever like Brad, that's why he's so coveted. He's a guy who can go out and throw three innings and he's got dominant stuff. I think you're going to see teams start searching out for those extended relievers and valuing them even more than just a guy who can only throw two outs or match up guys."
As for O'Day, who was limited to just 31 innings this past season because of injuries, he said he feels "awesome" physically.
This past year mirrored his 2011 season, when, as a Texas Ranger, he missed two months after labrum surgery on his hip, and then landed on the disabled list again with shoulder inflammation. He joined the Orioles the following year and started a string of four straight seasons with at least 68 appearances while posting a 1.92 ERA.
This season, O'Day (who turned 34 in October) missed more than seven weeks with a hamstring injury, and returned for eight appearances before going on the DL again with shoulder soreness.
"It's the same pattern that happened to me in the 2011," O'Day said. "I hurt my lower body, came back and hurt my shoulder. And then if you look at 2012 through 2015, I was healthy for four years, so let's hope that's the same thing [in 2017]. … Everything feels good. I feel awesome, so I'm excited to get back. I don't see anything dragging into next season."