Orioles baseball writers Eduardo A. Encina and Jon Meoli talk about the Orioles bullpen during the first day of baseball's winter meetings.
NATIONAL HARBOR — If one noticeable trend emerged from the first day of this year's Winter Meetings at the Gaylord National Resort, it is that there's a premium being placed on high-end relief pitching. And that fact gives the Orioles their most valuable trade chips in several years if they choose to take advantage an emerging, robust market on free-agent relievers.
The Orioles' bullpen has long been one of the club's greatest strengths, and executive vice president Dan Duquette said Monday he has received significant trade interest in the team's relievers, but at this point, he doesn't want to deal away from the team's backbone.
"There's a lot of interest in our bullpen because it's a good bullpen and that's been one of the staples of the team, so we want to keep that strength intact," Duquette said.
For now, Duquette will stand by and watch as teams empty their pockets for the top available relievers. On Monday, the Giants signed free agent right-hander Mark Melancon to a four-year, $62-million deal, giving him an annual average salary of $15.5 million, smashing the closer spending standard set by Jonathan Papelbon's four-year, $50-million deal with the Phillies before the 2012 season.
More spending is likely on the way this week. The Marlins were reportedly willing to offer former Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen five years, $80 million to shore up their bullpen. Jansen declined a qualifying offer from Los Angeles, so the team that signs him will also ante up its highest unprotected draft pick. And flame-throwing big fish Aroldis Chapman, fresh off a World Series title with the Chicago Cubs, is still waiting for his payday.
"Melancon got a nice contract," Duquette said. "He's been a dependable closer and he was traded last year. You saw the value of the relievers in the playoffs with Andrew Miller pitching effectively and Chapman pitched a lot of innings. So we're really glad that's a strength to our team, but certainly clubs are investing in the best relief pitchers in record-setting fashion. So we'll see where that market goes.
The Orioles, stacked with back-end bullpen arms, are determined to keep keep a strong bullpen despite the fact that this might be the best time to move a relief pitcher, considering the perceived value of the position.
Closer Zach Britton is coming off a perfect season in which he converted all 47 save opportunities and placed fourth in American League Cy Young voting. Right-hander Brad Brach is coming off an All-Star season. Despite being limited to 30 games because of injury, right-hander Darren O'Day is still regarded as one of the league's top set-up men, and home-grown youngsters such as right-hander Mychal Givens and situational lefty Donnie Hart have given the Orioles reinforcements for the future.
Most bullpens would love to add any of those arms, but Britton and Brach represent the Orioles' most valuable trade chips. The New York Mets reportedly had interest in Brach, according to an ESPN report, but were denied. Brach is scheduled to make $2.9 million in his second season of arbitration eligibility. Teams also have expressed interest in Givens this offseason.
But Britton is the chip that could net the trade bounty the Orioles could need to survive beyond 2018, when he, Manny Machado and Adam Jones could all be free agents. Britton, in the third of four arbitration-eligible years, is set to make $11.4 million in 2017, according to MLBTradeRumors.com projections.
Even though the team has been reluctant to pay that type of money for a relief pitcher – the Orioles dealt Jim Johnson coming off back-to-back 50-save campaigns after the 2013 season when he was set to make $10 million in arbitration – it's still a value for a top-end closer given the current free-agent market.
Now that Melancon has set a new standard for relievers, once Jansen and Chapman find their landing spots, teams left without a closer will likely circle around again with their eyes on Britton. Duquette has said before he's not interested in moving Britton, and emphasized that again on Monday.
"Zach had a great year," Duquette said. "He perfected that sinkerball and he put together a fantastic year. He's not on the cusp of free agency. He has two years to go, so the free agent contracts will have some impact, but there's there a defined market for the four-plus year major league relief pitcher and Zach Britton deserves a good raise. He had a great year."