Right-hand men: Reliable relievers available
Crain, Smith among free-agent starboard-side bullpenners who can provide stability
Bullpen success seems to come and go so quickly in Major League Baseball.
Some relievers who locked down opposing offenses all year in 2012 earned cushy contracts that backfired big-time in '13. With small sample sizes come big risks, and general managers have to spend time strategizing when it comes to creating ideal 'pen-manship.
In other words, it helps a lot when you can make a solid, educated guess at what you're getting, and in this year's free-agent market, there's a lot more of the stable than the spectacular.
Here are some right-handed relievers who are available and could give teams some bullpen security at a reasonable cost:
Jesse Crain: Crain turned from a very good reliever in 2011 and '12 into a nearly unhittable one in '13, with 46 strikeouts in 36 2/3 innings, an ERA of 0.74 and a selection to his first All-Star Game. Unfortunately, a shoulder strain in July sidelined him for the remainder of the season, and he didn't pitch for the Rays, who landed him from the White Sox in a Trade Deadline deal. If he's healthy, he's the headliner on this list -- a late-inning arm with shutdown stuff and versatility.
Joe Smith: Three consecutive seasons with a sub-3.00 ERA should result in this right-hander getting a nice deal. Smith was terrific for the Indians this year, with the best strikeout-to-walk ratio (54-to-23) of his career and a 2.29 ERA. He has pitched in at least 70 games for three consecutive seasons and will turn 30 in Spring Training.
Jamey Wright: This soon-to-be 39-year-old veteran has stuck on Minor League deals for years now, but he's due for a Major League deal after what he did in 2013. Wright appeared in 66 games for the Rays and put up a 3.09 ERA and 1.20 WHIP. Both were the best numbers of his career.
Francisco Rodriguez: He might not be the classic K-Rod, the one who owns the single-season saves record (62 in 2008). But Rodriguez can still get the strikeouts. He fanned 54 batters in 46 2/3 innings for the Brewers and Orioles and pitched to an overall 2.70 ERA. And he's only 31 years old.
Matt Belisle: He isn't flashy, but he's reliable. Over the past four seasons, all with Colorado, Belisle, 33, has averaged a little more than 75 appearances, including a Major League-leading 80 in 2012. His ERA has gone up in each of those seasons, however, which might give some general managers pause, although his 1.25 WHIP last year is good enough for many big league bullpens.
Carlos Marmol: Marmol might be a tough one to figure, but maybe a full year away from being a closer will help. He's still got raw stuff -- his strikeouts-per-nine ratio remains in double digits. He also pitched to a 2.14 ERA in 21 1/3 innings after the Dodgers acquired him from the Cubs, so another change of scenery might do him even more good.
LaTroy Hawkins: Hawkins is 40, but he still throws in the low 90s and gets batters out, plus he's one of the best clubhouse guys around. He had a 2.90 ERA in 72 games for the Mets, which should get him another deal if he wants one.
Octavio Dotel: Dotel holds the Major League record for having played for the most teams (13). He turns 40 in a few weeks and is coming off a lost season because of right elbow inflammation, but he has said he wants to come back for a 16th Major League season, and maybe it'll be with a 14th team.
Juan Carlos Oviedo: The bullpen artist formerly known as Leo Nunez hasn't pitched in the Majors since 2011, but he saved 26, 30 and 36 games from 2009-11 while with the Marlins. Oviedo has always had good strikeout numbers. He's coming back from Tommy John elbow surgery and will almost certainly have to take a Minor League deal.
Joba Chamberlain: It's been five years since Chamberlain looked like a valuable piece of the Yankees pitching staff -- either as a starter or reliever -- for years to come. Even though his recent performance hasn't come close to those expectations, he still has decent strikeout numbers -- 38 in 42 innings this year -- and is only 28 years old. If he can get his command ironed out, he could help a team.
Other possibilities: Luis Ayala, Kyle Farnsworth, Frank Francisco, Matt Guerrier, Zach Miner, Brett Myers, Pat Neshek, Josh Roenicke.