If you're waiting for something to happen this week, you might be wasting your time. The week in between Christmas and New Year's Eve is typically slow in the baseball world, and there is no one who knows that better than non-closer relievers still on the free agent market.
That's even more the case this year, when successful closers from 2011 are still waiting by the phone waiting for the latest -- or sometimes the first --contract offer of the off-season. It's likely that the bargains and useful (but non-elite) pieces won't get a call until the Ryan Madsons of the world sign. There are a few other options who might command more money due to their closing background -- Kerry Wood, Francisco Cordero -- but it seems no one can do anything until the premier reliever left on the market, Madson, signs.
Here's the best of the group being held up by Madson and his ilk, non-closer division:
Chad Qualls: Try to forget the 2010 version of Qualls, the one that pitched with a knee injury that ruined his mechanics as well as the Diamondbacks' bullpen. Think instead about the Qualls of the past, as well as the one that succeeded in 2011 with the Padres: that Qualls is a groundball machine with control of his stuff. What's not to love, then? Qualls didn't miss bats last year like he used to -- just 5.2 strikeouts per nine, thanks to his slider being just average at inducing swings-and-misses -- and considering how many ground outs you'll see him get, he has an odd tendency to give up homers.
He was horrific outside of pitcher-friendly Petco, allowing an 817 OPS and six of his seven homers, but his past success at least makes him worth a look in camp for some team in need of bullpen depth, or one with a quality infield defense or friendly home park. The days of him anchoring a pen are likely over, but his new price tag will reflect that.
Dan Wheeler: His 2011 got off to a rough start, as he allowed four homers by May 4 and owned an ERA of 11.32 because of it. Things improved once he came back from a short DL stint, though, and Wheeler posted a 2.54 ERA and 4.4 K/BB in his remaining 39 innings. He should have been better than that, too, but the Red Sox primarily used him in low-leverage, mop-up situations. This resulted in 40 percent of his opponents batting from the left side, or far more appearances against left-handed hitters than is good for Wheeler. In his career, he has allowed lefties a cumulative line of .275/.341/.487, basically making every lefty into Billy Butler. The Red Sox declined his $3 million option for 2012, but if a team wants a pitcher who can be a dominating ROOGY when left away from southpaws, Wheeler is the guy to sign.
Brad Lidge: It's odd seeing Lidge's name in an article about bargains, given he is coming off of a three-year, $37.5 million deal with the Phillies. He's also a season removed from elbow soreness that cut into his 2010 campaign, though, and shoulder problems limited him to fewer than 20 innings in 2011. His history of injuries means he won't be receiving another major paycheck, but a team that can afford to give him a roster spot as he works his way back to dependable reliever could be very happy with their find.
Over the last three seasons, Lidge pitched just 123 innings, but just missed striking out 10 batters per nine while he did it. Granted, he did walk half as many, too, so it's not all sunshine and puppy dogs, but at this late date and in such a deep market for relief arms, his options are going to be (1) pay cut or (2) unemployment. The team that gets him to accept a cut first might end up with a high-quality reliever... or just 20 innings of wasted promise. But if the price is right, then he is a sound option to look into, especially in a park that can limit homers.
Darren Oliver: It's not that Oliver is an unknown quantity. It's just that it's after Christmas, and he remains unemployed. There are only so many jobs left, and Oliver deserves one of them. He will be 41 years old in 2012, but he also has 185 innings, a 2.52 ERA, and 3.6 K/BB over the last three seasons, two of which occurred in an extreme hitter's park in Texas.
His career looked like it was over a decade ago when he couldn't miss any bats and struggled to stay healthy as a starter. He has been nothing but excellent in relief, though. He shows no real platoon splits (.235/.278/.381 vs. lefties, 243/.306/.352 vs. righties since 2006), has been healthy in the pen, and still has swing-and-miss stuff even now.
He will be inexpensive relative to his production just because of when he signs, but as long as his stuff holds up one more season (a legitimate question given his age), whoever his new boss is will be pleased.