Every successful team seems to have a reliever who comes out of nowhere to pay big dividends. In part, that's just how relief pitchers work. They suddenly start throwing harder or get healthy or move to the bullpen from the rotation or find a second or third pitch or just start throwing more strikes.
Last season, the Kansas City Royals signed Ryan Madson after he'd missed three full seasons with injuries, and he had a 2.13 ERA and was pitching key innings in the postseason, winning two games, including Game 4 of the World Series. The season before, the Royals sort of stumbled on converted starter Wade Davis, who has put together consecutive seasons with an ERA of 1.00 or under. Roberto Osuna ended up closing for the Toronto Blue Jays last season, even though he'd pitched just 23 innings in Class A the year before. The Houston Astros went from having one of the worst bullpens to one of the best, in part due to 30-year-old waiver claim Will Harris, who posted a 1.90 ERA in 71 innings. And so on.
Here are 10 relievers who could surprise in 2016:
Tony Zych, RHP, Seattle Mariners: He's last alphabetically in the major leagues but first on this list. The Mariners purchased Zych last April from the Chicago Cubs for $1 -- yes, $1. Zych was a fourth-round pick in 2011 but posted a 5.09 ERA in 2014 in a return engagement in Double-A. Even though he had a fastball that hit the upper 90s, the Cubs were willing to move on. The initial deal -- the last good one of former Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik's tenure? -- was for $1 or a player to be named. The Mariners never did send a player to the Cubs, and everything came together for Zych as he climbed from Double-A to the majors and ended up with 79 strikeouts and just 12 walks in 66⅔ innings at three levels. He has remained a strike-throwing machine in spring training, with 14 K's and one walk in 7⅔ innings.
Nate Jones, RHP, Chicago White Sox: Jones had solid numbers for the White Sox in 2012 and 2013, then missed almost all of 2014 after undergoing Tommy John surgery. He returned late in the 2015 season and struck out 27 in 19 innings while averaging 97.5 mph with his fastball. He's throwing smoke again this spring and has allowed just two hits in 7⅔ innings with 12 punchouts.
Mychal Givens, RHP, Baltimore Orioles: Maybe he's not such a sleeper considering the numbers he put up last season: 30 IP, 20 H, 6 BB, 38 SO, 1 HR. The former minor league shortstop converted to pitching in 2013 and made a rapid rise to the bigs. It's obviously hard to elevate the ball against him; he has allowed just five home runs in 200 professional innings. Along with closer Zach Britton and Darren O'Day, the O's should once again have one of the best late-game bullpens in the game.
Josh Osich, LHP, San Francisco Giants: He has struggled with his command all spring (six walks, eight strikeouts), but the 27-year-old is a hard-throwing lefty who seems like a logical replacement for the retired Jeremy Affeldt. Osich was solid in 28⅔ innings with the Giants last season, when he averaged 95.6 mph with his heater. He also throws a slider and changeup, and if he can throw strikes, he'll be a nice weapon.
Matt Bush, RHP, Texas Rangers: He was a deep sleeper, considering he was in prison this time last year, but that changed last week. I was at the game when he made his first appearance in a major league game this spring; he threw two scoreless innings that were absolutely electric as he touched 97 mph and showed a tight slider at the knees. Rangers manager Jeff Banister said it was the best stuff he'd seen all spring from any pitcher in camp and then cautioned that was just one outing. Bush pitched again a couple of days ago and hit 100 mph. The Rangers have a deep pen and Bush is likely to start in the minors, but he won't stay there long based on the stuff he showed.
Juan Nicasio, RHP, Pittsburgh Pirates: Nicasio has been so good in spring training, with 15 scoreless innings and 24 strikeouts against five walks, that he might end up in the rotation instead of the bullpen. Could it be another Ray Searage miracle case? Nicasio has always had a good arm -- he was hitting 95-96 for the Dodgers last season when he had a 3.83 ERA in relief -- and the Pirates find a way to get the most out of these types of projects.
Jake Barrett, RHP, Arizona Diamondbacks: Barrett has no major league experience but -- shocker! -- has a big fastball, averaging 96 or so this March. He also had mediocre results in the high minors last season, with a 4.58 ERA and 61 hits allowed in 53 innings. But he has received a lot of attention in D-backs camp with a lights-out spring: one run in 10⅓ innings with a 15-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Joakim Soria, RHP, Kansas City Royals: Soria did have a nice 2015 for the Tigers and Pirates, but it was the first time he was healthy for a full season since he was with the Royals back in 2011 and one of the game's elite closers. With the Royals down Greg Holland and Madson, they signed Soria to be the new third member of the late-game trio with Davis and Kelvin Herrera. Royals manager Ned Yost told me last week that Soria is throwing better than the first time he had him in Kansas City, "and he saved 39 games in a row for me back then."
Spencer Patton, RHP, Chicago Cubs: He had a little big league time with the Rangers the past two seasons before the Cubs acquired him in the offseason. He's 28, throws 94, and mixes in a changeup and slider. He fanned 85 in 62⅓ innings in Triple-A in 2014 (although he gave up 10 home runs) and 36 in 27 innings last season while giving up just one dinger. The Cubs have a plenty of depth right now with guys such as Trevor Cahill (another good sleeper based on his September showing last year), Clayton Richard and Adam Warren, but Patton has had a terrific spring and will get called on at some point.
Adam Liberatore, LHP, Los Angeles Dodgers: Let's go with another lefty. Liberatore came over from Tampa Bay last offseason after a huge 2014 at Triple-A. He made 39 appearances for the Dodgers in 2015 but could have a bigger role in 2016. He's mostly fastball/slider, so he would mainly be used as a lefty specialist, but the 28-year-old throws hard enough (94) to use against righties, particularly if he starts throwing his changeup more often.