Kelly, Familia deals set tone for bloated bullpen market

Different agents execute deals at difference paces. Scott Boras has often waited until late January or even February or March to conclude a negotiation on an elite player, as he works for what he believes to be appropriate value. The Levinson brothers, on the other hand, often finish deals at the other end of the offseason -- early -- by running the gamut of teams quickly, determining what they believe to be the negotiating tipping points for their clients, pushing to resolution, and getting them off the board.

It's not a surprise then, that two of the very first high-end relievers to agree to terms in a glutted bullpen market are both Levinson clients -- Jeurys Familia, who got a three-year, $30 million deal with the Mets, and Joe Kelly, who agreed to $25 million over three years with the Dodgers. Those contracts now will probably begin to cement the scale for what relievers might expect to get this winter -- and could temper hopes significantly.

And that will be a little bit lower than last winter, because of the simple supply-and-demand reality for relievers this winter. The most relievers signed to major league deals in any offseason is 43, in 2010 and 2003; last winter, 39 relievers signed major league contracts.

At the conclusion of the decisions by teams on whether to tender contracts, there were a whopping 72 relievers in the free-agent market.

Familia has been one of the best relievers available this offseason, coming off a year in which he struck out 83 hitters in 72 innings, allowing just three homers and posting a 2.73 ERA. He has experience in a range of roles, from setup man to closer, with 124 career saves over 343 games in the big leagues, and he's just 29 years old.

That Familia got a three-year deal tells you it could be extremely difficult for other relievers, in a market flush with options, to get more than three years.

Craig Kimbrel's camp has been asking for six years, as reported here Nov. 30. And all of these relievers with experience as closers are looking for landing spots:

Zach Britton
Andrew Miller
Kelvin Herrera
David Robertson
Joakim Soria
Justin Wilson
Bud Norris
Cody Allen
Tyler Clippard

Among others.

Last winter, the prices paid on relievers ticked upward, with the Rockies paying well for Bryan Shaw ($27 million over three years), Jake McGee ($27 million over three years) and Wade Davis ($52 million over three years). Tommy Hunter got $18 million for two years, Addison Reed got $16.75 million over two years, Joe Smith $15 million over two years, Brandon Morrow $21 million over two years to be the closer for the Cubs. There other relief signings in the same range, and as this offseason began, some executives noted a lot of them hadn't worked out well for the signing team -- the Rockies' signings as the most obvious examples.

But the Kelly and Familia deals show some teams are still prepared to pay in about the same range as they did last year, for the right guy. Kelly struggled so badly for the Red Sox he very nearly was left off their postseason roster, but after embracing the suggestion of the Boston staff to throw his curveball more often and bury his slider, Kelly had a spectacular run through October. Based on the Dodgers' level of investment, they are betting the 31-year-old Kelly can continue to dominate hitters with his 100 mph-plus fastball, his changeup and his extraordinary athleticism. Kelly might have the highest ceiling of any reliever in this market, based on his stuff, and the Dodgers have invested in that.

But there might not be nearly as many of those Kelly-level contracts doled over in the weeks ahead because inevitably, teams will use the volume of unsigned relievers against the pitchers looking for jobs. If there's a general manager with a bullpen hole today, he can feel reasonably confident he's going to get somebody decent, and he may just wait -- which is exactly what happened with the corner infield/corner outfield/slugger market.

The relievers' game of musical chairs is playing, Familia and Kelly are safely seated, and their market-setting deals might prompt others to move quickly before the annual holiday market freeze begins to manifest.