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The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim signed middle reliever Joe Smith to a three-year, $15.75 million deal to be one of the centerpieces of the team’s bullpen.

Let me repeat that: Joe Smith got a three-year, $15.75 million contract from the Angels.

That is a huge deal for a middle reliever, even one who has had as much recent success as Smith, who compiled a 2.76 ERA in five seasons with the Cleveland Indians.

Joe Smith is key for the Angels
Photo by Keith Allision, used under creative commons license.
But this deal shows how much teams -- especially those seeking bullpen help -- value middle relief pitching. The Angels were desperate for a bullpen arm and got easily one of the top free-agent relievers on the market.

The Angels announced that they are committed to keeping Ernesto Frieri in the closer’s role, despite a 3.80 ERA in 2013, which is a bit high for a closer. His WHIP and strikeouts were on par, but he surrendered 11 home runs, again a lot for a closer.

So with Frieri remaining in his role, Smith joins lefty Sean Burnett, who only appeared in 13 games last season after dealing with back and elbow injuries, as well as righties Michael Kohn, Dane de la Rosa and Kevin Jepsen.

The Angels’ bullpen ranked 26th last season with a 4.12 ERA. But of the returning bullpen members, only Jepsen (4.50) was above that average mark.

De la Rosa really impressed in his first full season of action, appearing in 75 games and recording six wins and a 2.86 ERA. Even Kohn looked good in 63 games, pitching to a 3.74 ERA.

With a healthy Burnett, who had a 2.38 ERA in 2012 for the Washington Nationals, and adding Smith, the Angels all of a sudden have turned an area of weakness into a relative strength. And again, the willingness to spend the money to bring in Smith was viewed as necessary.

When the team signed Albert Pujols prior to the 2012 season, the Angels were viewed as World Series favorites. After a slow start, Mike Trout helped resurrect the franchise, though the team still missed the playoffs.

But last season, even after bringing in Josh Hamilton, the Angels never got going.

It goes to show that a team’s offense can only carry it so far. Usually, the teams that put together consistent pitching staffs, and especially bullpens, are built for sustained success.

Smith will be getting a hefty paycheck, and as long as he pitches to form from the past few seasons, the Angels will relish this signing. But relief pitching is such a volatile position that tends to see different arms step up -- and also falter -- each season.

That’s why committing three years at more than $5 million per season to a middle reliever is definitely a gamble, but it’s one that the Angels were forced to take given the bullpen’s struggles from last year.