The amateur draft might be the last safe haven of the starting pitcher, the last area of the game where they possess pre-eminence over relief pitchers. When given a choice, teams will almost always prefer the starting pitcher, a small reminder of those times -- not long ago -- when bullpen guys were mostly viewed as pitchers who couldn’t cut it in a rotation.
But now relievers get more respect, more innings and, most importantly, more money. In the offseason of 2011-2012, starters got about 60 percent of the money doled out to free-agent pitchers -- $299.4 million of the $465 million spent. This has changed dramatically in recent seasons. Last winter, free-agent relievers got $421.2 million and starters $194.6 million, or 68 percent to relievers. So far this winter, relievers have been paid two-thirds of the dollars devoted to pitching: $274.8 million, compared to $142 million spent on starting pitching.
When Andrew Miller signed his four-year, $36 million contract with the Yankees prior to the 2015 season, that contract was considered a shocking luxury to rival executives, the kind of deal that only a big-market team could consider. Just a few years later, a $9 million annual salary is the going rate for a good reliever, paid this winter by the Phillies to Tommy Hunter (two years, $18 million), by the Rockies to Jake McGee and Bryan Shaw (both signing for three years, $27 million) and by the Rangers to Mike Minor (three years, $28 million, with an opportunity to start).
There has been a lot of focus on the high-end position players and starting pitchers who figure to be free agents next fall: Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson and perhaps Clayton Kershaw, who can opt out of his contract. But the market of free-agent relievers might be where the big-market teams such as the Yankees and Dodgers invest their money, with Craig Kimbrel, Andrew Miller, Zach Britton, Cody Allen and David Robertson, among others, available.