Major League Baseball relief pitchers can play a variety of roles, yet also may have specific, defined places in games. From mop-up duty to the left-handed specialist to the closer who earns the save, relief pitchers must successfully fill each spot to ensure the success of the team. Most relief pitchers are not highly compensated in comparison to hitters and starting pitchers, with young pitchers generally earning less than $1 million and veterans upwards of a couple million dollars per year. But the best can earn tens of millions of dollars.
The lowest salary a relief pitcher can make is the major league minimum, which in 2011 was $414,000. This salary is usually paid to rookies and those who are within their first few years of playing professional baseball. Major League Baseball teams have control over a player – meaning he can only play for that team (unless traded or released) – through the first six years of his career. Over these six years, a player’s salary can increase gradually at the discretion of the team for which he plays, usually only a few hundred thousand dollars per year.
Major League Baseball doesn't impose a salary cap on its teams, unlike other North American professional sports leagues, such as the National Football League and National Basketball Association. That means relief pitchers will earn whatever amount a team is willing to pay. A few of the top earning relief pitchers in 2011 include Mariano Rivera of the New York Yankees ($15 million), Francisco Rodriguez of the Milwaukee Brewers ($12.16 million), Boston's Jonathan Papelbon ($12 million) and Joe Nathan of the Minnesota Twins ($11.25 million).
The typical major league bullpen will include players with varying salaries. In general, the more dependable a pitcher is, the more he is paid. Relievers may be failed starters, or pitchers who are more effective in the bullpen. Many teams convert starters into relievers early in their careers, so some relievers – despite their ability – are paid closer to the minimum league salary. Other relievers who've proven their ability, particularly in late inning situations, earn several million dollars per season for their services.
The most premium position in a bullpen is the closer. This player is expected to save games – that means they enter a game with the lead (usually three runs or less, depending on the situation) and finish the game with the lead intact. It's considered the toughest part of the bullpen to fill, as many pitchers who attempt the role fail. Teams will pay plenty for proven closers, which is why the highest paid relief pitchers are always closers. Rivera, Papelbon and Nathan are the closers of their respective teams. Rodriguez is a former closer.