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Setup men are all the rage...


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By Jerry Crasnick

ESPN Insider



Setup men are an overworked, underappreciated fraternity. They eat anti-inflammatory pills like candy, rarely leave the bullpen to heavy metal theme songs and take pride in "holds" and stranding inherited runners. How unglamorous is that?


But what they lack in cachet, they're making up for in desirability.


Vladimir Guerrero, Miguel Tejada and Gary Sheffield have yet to find homes for 2004, but big-league teams are addressing their pitching needs one inning at a time. Of the 18 multiyear agreements so far this winter, nine have gone to relievers. Tom Martin, Kerry Ligtenberg and Scott Sullivan are in that group, in case you missed it on the transactions page.


The latest trend is pitchers spurning a chance to save games and signing as setup men or closer insurance for contenders. Say hello to Eddie Guardado (Seattle), Tim Worrell (Philadelphia), Tom Gordon (Yankees) and LaTroy Hawkins (Cubs). Rod Beck could have gone to Colorado, but chose to sign a $1.85 million deal to back up Trevor Hoffman in San Diego.


No matter how deep a bullpen looks, chances are it's not deep enough. Kansas City general manager Allard Baird appeared to be finished after signing Curtis Leskanic and Jason Grimsley to complement Mike MacDougal, Jeremy Affeldt and D.J. Carrasco in the pen. Then he went a step further and picked up Sullivan, an innings machine who averaged 104 a season with Cincinnati from 1997-2001. He'll make sure the kids don't get abused.


Cubs GM Jim Hendry made the bullpen a priority this winter even though Chicago had four starters surpass 200 innings last season.


"A bullpen is like a house of cards," Hendry said. "If one guy falls by the wayside with an injury, other guys start pitching in roles they're not used to, and the whole thing stacks up in a negative way. It's hard to have a quality six-man bullpen the whole year."


One agent said the run on setup men doesn't reflect the quality of this year's relief crop as much as the sad state of starting pitching. It keeps driving up the cost of middle relievers.


"It's like teams are saying, 'We're OK to pay for that market, but for some everyday players we're going to shut it down at $1.5 or $2 million,' " the agent said. "You look at some guys and say, 'Am I missing something?' "


The Blue Jays, who rank among baseball's premier buck-squeezers, signed Ligtenberg to a two-year, $4.5 million deal after Baltimore declined to pick up his option. Martin, a situational lefty who has pitched a total of 183 innings in seven big-league seasons, signed a two-year, $3.2 million contract to return to Los Angeles.


It'll be interesting to see how people like Reggie Sanders and Kenny Lofton fare in comparison. Sanders has averaged 29 homers and 87 RBI over the past three seasons, while Lofton is working on a 12-year streak of at least 90 runs scored. They're attracting more attention than last year, when they signed with Pittsburgh as post-January charity cases. But they'd still be better off financially if they could learn to pitch the eighth.


The Mets' big gamble


Several talent evaluators share John Franco's reservations about the Mets' decision to move shortstop Jose Reyes to second base to make room for Kazuo Matsui. The Mets say Reyes was agreeable to the shift, but he's 20 years old. Did they really expect him to speak up and say no if he had reservations?


Ryne Sandberg is a prime example of a player who made a successful transition from shortstop to second base. But if Reyes has trouble adapting to his new position, the Mets risk setting back or even ruining their best prospect.


"It's not that easy a transition," said a National League scout. "Even if you're a good athlete, turning the double play is so different it takes some time to learn. And if they ever try to move him back, his skills at shortstop won't be the same. You lose arm strength and the ability to go into the hole and make throws when you're playing second."


While new GM Jim Duquette tries to implement a long-term plan, this looks like yet another Wilpon-orchestrated short-term fix. The Mets have enough holes to fill without creating new challenges for Reyes.


Picking their poison


When the Giants signed outfielder Michael Tucker before Sunday's salary arbitration deadline -- giving away a draft pick in the process -- they were basically saying they wanted to spend the money elsewhere. The Phillies, in contrast, have been intent on keeping or adding picks this off-season.


First they acquired Eric Milton in a trade rather than sign a free agent who might require compensation. Then they offered salary arbitration to Kevin Millwood, in part, because they didn't want to lose the right to compensation.


"We've lost a number of first- and second-round picks the last three or four years, so that was a strong consideration for us," said Phillies assistant GM Mike Arbuckle, who has played a major role in rebuilding Philadelphia's farm system. "We don't want to look up in a few more years and say, 'What's happened? Where are the prospects in our system?' "


Around the game


Armando Benitez isn't interested in joining Guardado and Worrell as a setup man. "He's definitely a closer, and he wants to continue to be a closer," said Mike Powers, Benitez's agent. Minnesota, Toronto, Tampa Bay, Florida, the Mets and the loser of the Oakland-Boston Keith Foulke sweepstakes could all be looking for help at the back of the bullpen. The Mets, at least, are certain to take a pass on Benitez.


Veteran pitcher Rick Helling, looking for a job after pitching long relief for Florida, has switched agents. He recently left Jeff Moorad for Barry Axelrod, whose clients include Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and Phil Nevin.

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