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Tigers 'not done' with bullpen as relief pitching market heats up

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Here is a look at the free agent market for relievers after a frenzy of signings.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Just hours before the 2015 Winter Meetings in Nashville got under way, four major free agent relief pitcher signings were reported. Former Tigers and Royals' closer Joakim Soria rejoined Kansas City on a three year deal after reportedly spurning a similar offer from Detroit, while the Tigers signed setup man Mark Lowe to a two year contract.

Over the weekend, Darren O'Day reportedly agreed on a four year contract to remain in Baltimore, and Royals' comeback pitcher Ryan Madson has signed a three year deal with the Oakland Athletics for quite a bit more money than anyone had forecast. That's four of the top free agent relievers signed within hours before the winter meetings got under way. O'Day was projected to be at the top of the free agent relief market, so it's not surprising that his signing broke the logjam loose and set off a frenzy of signings.

O'Day's four year deal, along with Madson and others getting more money than anyone thought, has shaken the relief market loose, and could set a high bar for the remaining bullpen arms. There are few, if any closer jobs available for the players. That may help to keep salaries reasonable, but many players are still projected to make between $4 and $ 7.5 million in 2016. Early indications are that teams are paying more than expected for good relief arms.

This is important, because the Tigers are not done fixing their bullpen, according to Tony Paul of the Detroit News. Other reports have the Tigers inquiring on a pair of lefthanders, Tony Sipp and Antonio Bastardo.

Shortly after the 2015 baseball season drew to a close, MLB Trade Rumors and Fangraphs posted their forecasts for projected salaries of free agent players. None of the top 11 free agents on the market had signed as of last Saturday, but that has changed, dramatically.

Player FanGraphs MLBTR Actual Contract
Darren O'Day 3 years, $7.5 million 3 years, $7 million 4 years, $7.75 million
Joakim Soria 3 years, $6 million 2 years, $7 million 3 years, $8.33 million
Tyler Clippard 3 years, $6 million 2 years, $5 million -
Antonio Bastardo 3 years, $5 million 2 years, $4 million -
Ryan Madson 3 years, $5 million 1 year, $5 million 3 years $7.33 million
Shawn Kelley 2 years, $6 million 2 years, $4 million 3 years,$ 5 million
Tony Sipp 3 years, $4 million 2 years, $5 million 3 years, 6 million per
Tommy Hunter 2 years, $5 million - -
Mark Lowe 2 years, $4 million - 2 years, $5.5 million
Jonathan Broxton 1 year, $4 million - 2 years, $ 3.75 million
Brandon Morrow
1 year, $4 million - -

O'Day's salary is in line with forecasts, but the fourth year is the exception for a reliever. Soria received a fourth year mutual option plus incentives, and a salary a bit above the forecast. Madson is well above the forecasted numbers. Even two unlisted free agents, Jason Motte and Chad Qualls, received two year deals at $5 and $6 million, respectively. By that standard, the Tigers' two-year deal for Lowe, which is now reported at a total of $11 million, could be a bargain if he repeats his 2015 performance.

Since these forecasts were made, trades dominated the relief market in the early going. A number of top relief pitchers have been traded; Craig Kimbrel to Boston, Rodriguez to Detroit, and Joaquin Benoit to the Seattle Mariners. The M's then shipped their own closer, Tom Wilhelmsen, to Texas.

The trade market continued to percolate on Monday, as the Cincinnati Reds attempted to trade elite closer Aroldis Chapman to the Dodgers, and the Washington Nationals, who traded for Jonathan Papelbon during the past season, will reportedly make their former closer, Drew Storen available. Each of these pitchers will be paid at least the $7.5 million shown at the top of the free agent scale above, but for no more than a year or two remaining on their contracts.

Former Colorado Rockies closer John Axford and former Miami Marlins closer Steve Cishek have been set free by their former clubs because of escalating salaries, but they will draw some interest. Yusmeiro Petit was let go by the San Francisco Giants, and he could be a nice swingman in any bullpen.

This is not to say that the Tigers will be signing any of the relief pitchers on this list, or that they won't continue to upgrade their relief corps via the trade market. With the eighth and ninth inning roles filled, another bullpen addition could either be a seventh inning type of setup man, or more of a long/middle reliever. It seems unlikely that the Tigers will be players near the top of the market, but as the saying goes, you can never have enough pitching.