There are three top-notch free agent closers who will look to set a new high standard in contracts handed out this offseason. Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen both figure to break the record $15 million dollar average annual value twice set by Mariano Rivera, while Mark Melancon figures to come close.
The Chicago Cubs, for what it’s worth, could be in the market for a big-time reliever this offseason.
While there is no questioning a new high bar will be set by these closers, the most important question should be whether they will live up to their contracts. Perhaps history can be a guide.
There have been 20 relief pitchers who received contracts with an AAV of $10 million dollars or more. This list (which you can see in its entirety here) includes arms such as Jim Johnson, Brian Wilson, Billy Wagner and Kerry Wood, but none of those four cashed in a top-10 reliever contract. Neither did Chapman, Jansen or Craig Kimbrel, who also make the top 20 list, but not the top 10, all of whom exceeded $10 million. As of right now, it’s a rather limited club.
Listed below are the 10 highest paid relievers by average annual value, and a brief look at how they performed during their contracts.
Mariano Rivera, Yankees: $15M AAV 2008-10, 11-12
Not only did Rivera get two contracts worth $15 million annually, he received them for his age 38-42 seasons. And even though he pitched in only nine games in 2012 because of a knee injury, Rivera racked up 165 saves, pitched to a 1.72 ERA and 2.45 FIP to go with a ridiculous 257 ERA+. He also netted $63.5 million in value and 9.7 WAR, per FanGraphs, making him the second most valuable reliever during that stretch behind Jonathan Papelbon.
Rafael Soriano, Nationals: $14M 2013-14
Soriano turned a 42-save 2012 season with the Yankees into a two-year, $28 million dollar deal with the Nationals, which featured significant deferred money. He worked 128.2 innings, saved 75 games (fifth most in that two-year stretch), and pitched to a 3.15 ERA (3.38 FIP, 120 ERA+), but his 1.3 fWAR ($9.6 million value) put him at 51st among 109 qualifying relievers. His 3.98 xFIP was the 17th highest among those pitchers.
[Brett: Remember when he was briefly a Cub in 2015?]
Brad Lidge, Phillies $12.5M 2009-11
Lidge cashed in on a big contract after securing the final out of the Phillies’ 2008 World Series title run, but struggled in the years that followed. He pitched to a disappointing 4.73 ERA, 4.45 FIP and 87 ERA+ as his peripherals took a nosedive. Lidge’s walk rate ballooned to 12.6 percent and his K/BB fell to 1.92 in his age 32, 33, and 34 seasons. FanGraphs pegged his value at -0.1 WAR, meaning he provided negative dollar value (-$500,000) over the course of his deal. This all came after Lidge was a 2.3 WAR pitcher whose value was $14.2 million in 2008.
Jonathan Papelbon, Phillies: $12.5M 2012-15
Papelbon’s numbers suggest he didn’t pitch poorly during his contract, posting a 2.32 ERA (3.03 FIP, 163 ERA+) while saving 130 games and being named to two All-Star teams. His 4.8 fWAR during the duration of his contract was tied for 15th best among relievers and his $34.6 million dollar value ranks 16th. But his years were marred by ugly incidents directed toward fans in Philadelphia and the altercation with Bryce Harper in Washington.
Francisco Rodriguez, Mets: $12.33M, 2009-11
Rodriguez had a solid run with the Angels before signing a three-year deal worth $37 million with the Mets in free agency. He pitched to a 2.88 ERA (3.14 FIP and 137 ERA+) and the strikeout weapon was still there for Rodriguez (26.1 K%, 10.0 K/9), but walks (10.1 BB%, 3.9 BB/9) were a hindrance. Rodriguez, who saved 83 games with the Mets and Brewers, was worth 3.4 WAR, or $22.8 million from 2009-11, according to FanGraphs.
Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox: $12M, 2011
It wasn’t a free agency deal, but Papelbon and the Red Sox avoided arbitration with this contract in 2011. In his final year with the Red Sox, Papelbon posted a 3-WAR season that ranked him as baseball’s second most valuable reliever behind Craig Kimbrel, with his value pegged at $22.9 million. At age 30, Papelbon’s stat line featured strong strikeout (34.1 K%, 12.2 K/9) and low walk (3.9 BB%, 1.4 BB/9) rates in his walk year, to go along with a 2.94 ERA, 1.53 FIP, 147 ERA+ and an 8.7 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Joe Nathan, Twins: $11.75M, 2008-11
Nathan missed the entire 2010 season due to injury, but pitched well enough during the healthy seasons of his four-year, $47 million extension to convert 100 saves and pitch to a 2.49 ERA (3.19 FIP, 171 ERA+). He posted consecutive 1.8 fWAR years in 2008 and 2009 during his age 33 and 34 seasons, putting him in the top-5 in fWAR among relievers in those years. But after missing 2010 with an injury, he came back and posted a -0.1 fWAR at age 36 with 14 saves in 44.2 innings and was never the same.
[Brett: Remember when he was briefly a Cub in 2016?]
Rafael Soriano, Yankees: $11.67M, 2011-12
Soriano’s second appearance on this list were his first years in which he banked $10 million AAV. He served as Mariano Rivera’s set-up man in 2011 before notching 42 saves filling in for an injured Rivera in 2012. He was worth 1.6 fWAR, ranking him 43rd among 98 qualifying relievers in those two seasons.
[Brett: Remember when I said that thing before about Soriano?]
Francisco Cordero, Reds: $11.5, 2008-11
Cordero is arguably the most surprising player to make this list. The Reds signed him to a contract for his age 33-36 seasons that was the largest contract for a reliever at the time. Cordero owned a 2.96 ERA and 3.71 FIP as he converted the third most saves (150) during this four-year stretch. His 3.1 fWAR ranked 36th of 207 qualifying relievers who pitched in these years despite an inflated 10.7 percent walk rate. According to Fangraphs, Cordero’s production during his contract was worth $19.4 million.
David Robertson, White Sox: $11.5, 2015-18
He won’t have this distinction for much longer, but Robertson’s four-year deal worth $46 million with the White Sox signed in 2014 makes him baseball’s highest paid reliever. The first two years were valued at $23 million according to Fangraphs. However, his fWAR dropped from 1.9 in 2015 to 0.9 in 2016. Steamer projects Robertson to have a 0.8 WAR season, while Fangraphs’ Depth Charts puts him at 1.2. He could come close to pitching up to the value of his contract, but his ERA and xFIP have both gone up in each of the last two seasons despite converting 71 saves with the White Sox.