Major League Baseball teams seem to have two very different lines of thinking when it comes to paying closers. One group emphasizes the role and spends lavishly to fill it. The other side becomes creative through the trade market or uses an in system low cost option. In my opinion, there are very few closers who deserve 8 digit salaries and fewer who deserve 4/5 year deals along with 8 digit salaries. The role of the closer is too fickle to heavily invest in. This season the divide has been especially apparent. More than a few teams have doled out huge contracts for their ninth inning man, and arguably each one was risky. Some others have fallen in line with the theory that while the role of the closer is important, the likelihood the player becomes injured or pitches poorly is too risky, and signs someone they feel is competent yet inexpensive.
This offseason, the apparent agreement (four-years/$44 million) between Ryan Madson and the Philadelphia Phillies back in early November, indicated that some teams were ready to spend top dollar to fill their closer position. Of course nothing came of the agreement. Madson claimed there was a deal on the table he was willing to accept and the Phillies claimed that was not the case. The Phillies instead went even higher and signed former Boston Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon to a four-year deal worth $50 million plus a $10 million option for a fifth year. The Texas Rangers then signed former Minnesota Twins closer, Joe Nathan to a two-year deal worth $14.5 million. The Miami Marlins followed suit and inked former San Diego Padres closer Heath Bell to a 3-year/$27 million deal, including a vesting option for a 4th year at $9 million. The New York Mets, not to be outdone, took on erratic reliever Frank Franciscowith a two-year/$12 million contract. It seemed teams were more than willing to put big money down on risky closers.
Then along came the clubs which decided to wait out the absurd market established for closers or go the trade route instead. Madson was recently signed to a one-year $8.5 million deal with the Cincinnati Reds. This is amazing, as he was expecting a multi-year deal and had to settle for one year. The Reds were wise to sit back and let the market come to them versus creating it like the Phillies did early on in the free agency period. The money is substantial but if Madson is a bust, the Reds move on.
The Toronto Blue Jays traded for the White Sox closer Sergio Santos who is signed for three seasons at a total of $8.25 million. The Boston Red Sox traded for former Oakland A’s closer Andrew Bailey, who was signed yesterday to a one-year $3.9 million deal to avoid arbitration. Also yesterday, the St. Louis Cardinals agreed to a one-year deal with presumed closer Jason Motte for one-year at $1.95 million. The Red Sox and Cardinals each have two more years of control over these players as well.
Each of these signings shows the thought process of what I consider wise bets. Teams that employ this philosophy realize that the man closing a game on Sunday may not necessarily be the same guy closing on Monday. The closer role can seem like a merry-go-round for many teams. This is the point. Injuries and ineffectiveness cause managers to make decisions on their closer virtually every other day. Look at the number of teams who have begun to raise closers through their minor league systems; Los Angeles Angels closer Jordan Walden and Atlanta Braves closer and 2011 Rookie of the Year Craig Kimbrel to name a couple. These guys can hum fastballs day in and day out. They are cheap and under club control for several years. Again, if they begin to falter or get hurt the team is not stuck with a lofty contract.
The closer is the one player on the field whose immediate impact on the game is magnified. Fans will instantly jump on the guy who blows a save. He is almost always the one at fault in a game that is lost in the ninth inning. It is hardly ever the shortstop who threw the ball away earlier in the game which led to the tying run. Or the bone head running mistake which costs an out and runs. The player who is named the closer knows this going in. He must have thick skin and be ready to lose the job at a moment’s notice and work to regain it when he does. Players who make $12.5 million per season for four years are inherently given an extremely long leash and do not need to think along these lines.
The closer role is obviously important but I question whether teams should heavily invest in them with substantial salaries or lengthy terms. Due to the nature of the role, teams which break the bank filling the position can become hamstrung by the salary if an issue arises with the player’s health or performance. If teams throw loads of money at a closer, will they be able to swallow the contract when he fails to fulfill it? Would they have a choice? Would you want to be the general manager who can’t give away a contract or the one who can rely on an equally effective and less costly player? I would choose the later.
Be sure to check out all of Call to the Pen’s transaction breakdowns for the 2011-12 offseason. You can follow Call to the Pen on Twitter at @FSCalltothePen or like us here on Facebook. You can also subscribe to our RSS feed. You can follow Chris Carelli on Twitter at @Chris_Carelli.