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Relievers will have their limits

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / November 18, 2010

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ORLANDO, Fla. — The Tigers fired quite an opening salvo into the market for free agent relievers when they signed Tampa Bay setup man Joaquin Benoit to a three-year deal worth $18.5 million yesterday.

The Tigers are thrilled, but general managers around baseball were surprised that a set-up man with one good season after a host of physical issues would receive a three-year deal.

Benoit had been setting up for Rafael Soriano, who is also a free agent. What will Soriano’s agent, Scott Boras, ask for based on this? He’ll likely seek and get nothing short of three years at higher dollars than Benoit. He may even get three years at $30 million, which one GM called “ludicrous.’’

It may be just as ludicrous as what the Red Sox will face down the road in arbitration with Jonathan Papelbon. According to a major league source, Papelbon is poised to ask for $11.5 million, which would be a hike of $2.15 million over his 2010 salary. Not only did Papelbon not have a great year, he didn’t even have a good year. He went 5-7 with a 3.90 ERA and a career-high WHIP of 1.269.

His save numbers — 37, with nine blown saves — may have to make his case for him. The Sox always settle before going to arbitration, but you wonder if they might fight this one out.

At this stage, it is clear Daniel Bard is the closer-in-waiting in Boston, and that Papelbon likely will be tendered and be the closer for one more season, barring a trade or a change of direction by the Sox. With an abundance of relievers on the market, the Sox could put Papelbon on the auction block, get what they can for him, and then sign relievers to set up for Bard.

A few teams already have asked the Sox about Bard. If the Sox are even thinking about acquiring a Justin Upton, for instance, Bard would have to be included in a deal. That’s why the Sox are more apt to keep Papelbon around, even if it means losing him as a free agent next year and receiving just draft-pick compensation.

When you ask GMs which of the two they’d prefer, they usually say Bard, even though he’s never been a full-time closer. There are teams who would take Papelbon, but determining what to give up for him and how much to sign him for long-term gets into a tricky area.

If Papelbon were to get $11 million-$11.5 million for 2011, the chances of him getting that much in a multiyear contract appear slim — “unless he has a great year and he’s lights-out, and there’s no adventure stuff around him,’’ said a National League GM.

“The perception is he’s declining a bit, but there are teams who would need someone with that résumé and cachet, a guy who’s pitched in big postseason games. Someone will give him an AAV [average annual value] in the $10 million-$12 million per year range. No question.’’

It will be interesting to see which relievers get signed next.

Soriano could be out there a while because of Boras (and his style of dragging things out), and some teams believe there are set-up guys who could be considered quasi-closers. That list includes Brian Fuentes, Scott Downs, Frank Francisco, Grant Balfour, Jason Frasor, Kevin Gregg, Pedro Feliciano, Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, J.J. Putz, Trevor Hoffman, Octavio Dotel, Chad Qualls, Dan Wheeler, Jon Rauch, and Kerry Wood. Could the Sox pick off a couple — one lefty, one righty — to rebuild their bullpen?

Epstein said Tuesday he wouldn’t be against a multiyear contract for the right reliever. But he’d rather not do it. While Benoit was the cream of the crop of set-up men, the rest will fall into place; the deals will be two years or one year with an option the farther down you go.

Someone like Wood, with closer experience, could merit a three-year deal, though more than likely teams will limit him to two because of his injury history. The Sox came very close to acquiring Wood from the Indians at the trading deadline but were scooped by the Yankees. Wood had a 21-inning scoreless streak as the perfect set-up man to Mariano Rivera.

Wood may want to be a closer again in another setting, but a team like the Sox could compensate him enough to remain a set-up man.

Last year, the Sox passed on Benoit because of medical concerns, but the Rays took the leap, and Benoit had a great year. But will that continue for the next three years in Detroit?

The Sox have coveted Downs, a lefty, whose performance waned in August but picked up in September. They also like Frasor, whose WHIP rose to 1.39 but who appeared in 69 games for the Blue Jays. He could handle a seventh-inning role, as could Balfour, Gregg, Crane, or Guerrier.

“There’s quantity out there and some quality,’’ was the way one American League GM described the reliever market. “Any GM in the game will tell you, the toughest thing in the business is building a bullpen because of the up-and-down nature of the performance.

“You’re better off making your relievers, as the Red Sox did with Papelbon and as they did with Bard. If you’ve got guys who can string together more than a couple of years of consistency, that’s as good as you can expect.

“That’s why the GMs really admire a Kevin Towers, who has a knack of putting together good bullpens that sustain themselves for two or three years.’’

Benoit is a feel-good story, a guy who was pretty much thrown to the curb because of physical issues. Now he is reaping the benefits to the tune of more than $6 million a year.

While this may be a sign that this is a player’s market — and a great reliever’s market — expect the brakes to be applied after the first three or four relievers go.

At some point, teams will come to their senses and go back to their true feeling that giving multiyear deals to relievers — especially middle relievers — is bad business.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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