30 December 2013

Relievers Getting Paid the Same and Resolving the Orioles Closer Postion

Hunter is Baltimore Backup Plan | Photo by Keith Allison
Yes, we have written a great deal about the Orioles' closer position over the past few months.  It has ranged from a lament about how much in terms of resources was devoted to Jim Johnson, to potential replacements, to the Grant Balfour quasi-fiasco, and, now, where to go now.  Before we move on, let me write one thing, I doubt the Balfour situation changed anyone's mind about the Orioles.  I think all it did was provide evidence for people to solidify their thoughts about the Orioles.  This, I believe, is primarily true because most people in baseball have negative thoughts about how the team has been, is being, and will be run.  With that in mind, the club can still compete for high profile players and retain high profile home grown talent.  They have done it and they will do it.  That said, not all teams and talent will be willing to listen too long given the history of the franchise.  However, I digress.  That is a topic to explore at another time.

In general, closers are overrated.  Over time, that view has ebbed and flowed.  As the save statistic was embraced and bullpen specialization flourished in the 1980s, we began seeing importance grow for pitchers who ended game and threw maybe 60-70 innings a year.  The high water mark took place in 1989 where for a few weeks the Royals' signing of Cy Young winning closer Mark Davis to a 4 year, 13 MM contract made him the highest paid player in baseball.  Since Davis, no closer has been the highest paid player in baseball.  A lesser water mark took place in early 2000 when Mariano Rivera set a record for a salary awarded through arbitration when he lost and received 7.25 MM.

Currently, there appears to be an ebb after Ruben Amaro Jr. awarded the last major free agent deal to a closer when he signed Jonathan Papelbon to a 4 year, 50 MM deal with a vesting option for another 13 MM.  This off season there has been a common refrain that the golden age of closers has ended as teams become more aware that the difference between an elite 60 innings pitched and a good 60 innings pitched might not matter all that much.  That, perhaps, not all relievers have the mentality to be closers, but many of them do.  The longest contract a closer has received has been 2 years (i.e., Joaquin Benoit, Edward Mujica, Joe Nathan), the great commitment was 20 MM (i.e., Joe Nathan), and the largest annual salary was 10 MM (i.e., Joe Nathan, Brian Wilson).  Those numbers may not seem much different than Papelbon's.  This seems especially true when you consider the injury histories, age, and performance of the pitchers mentioned.  In other words, this idea that the golden age is done might be more sound than fury.

Maybe the tide is turning, but I don't see the proof of it yet.  Here is a quick table showing top relief pitcher signings over the past several years and contract salary adjusted for this offseason (assuming 20% increase in costs this offseason):

2014 Joe Nathan 10 10

Brian Wilson

2013 Rafael Soriano 14 16.8
2012 Jonathan Papelbon 12.5 16.6
2011 Rafael Soriano 12 16
2010 Jose Valverde 7 10.5
2009 Francisco Rodriguez 12.3 16.5
2008 Mariano Rivera 16 21.3
2007 Danys Baez 6.3 9.1
By my eye, it appears that this may simply be a down year and teams are valuing elite closers as guys worth about 2-3 WAR.  Perhaps the only real exception would be Rivera who had two things going for him: (1) Hall of Fame closer ability and (2) deep Yankee pockets.  Nathan and Wilson (throw in Jim Johnson if you wish) are simply closers with some questions attached to them in their placement as a first division closer.  Nathan and Wilson have injury concerns while Johnson closes in an incredibly non-traditional way.

Now, with that slight aside over with, whom should the Orioles target?  Below is a quick rundown of five candidates who would be on my board (in order of my preference):

Jesse Crain
In July, the White Sox placed Jesse Crain on the disabled list for a shoulder strain/tendonitis.  The Rays traded for him while he was on the disabled list and never pitched for them even though he was activated at the end of September.  The Rays lost LHP Sean Bierman and SS Ben Kline for their overtaking of Crain's rehab.  His time missed for a shoulder problem is worse than Balfour's long junked shoulder.  However, Crain will carry a lower price tag because of it and arguably has been the better pitcher during this time.  He is a fly ball pitcher, like Balfour, who dominates right handed batters and makes lefties look slightly below average.  It certainly is a split that can work as a closer.  He can throw in the mid 90s with a plus breaking ball.  He would be a target as a low base with incentives type of deal.  Crain should also be cheaper as he has never experienced closing opportunities as a MLB pitcher.

Grant Balfour
Unless you have been out in the remote tundra, you probably know who Balfour is, the troubles the Orioles have had with him, and how the closer market moved on while he danced with the Orioles.  Why do I prefer him?  I imagine his arm is no worse than it was the past several years (which means that his arm has been on the brink of falling apart for a long while as it is with many older pitchers with injury history)/  I have him second because he has been a solid fly ball pitcher.  He is certianly fine as a closer.  With many things being equal and if Crain looks like he cannot pitch, I'd try to make things right with the Orioles and mend this relationship.  Not signing him likely won't affect things much, but it would be good to show some good faith that can be leaned on with other players in the future.

Suk-Min Yoon
Yoon is a free agent after a rather successful Korean Baseball Organization career.  As a starter, he profiled as a low 90s pitcher with a good changeup and an average breaking ball.  It is a profile that looks good as a backend arm in a rotation, which is supposedly what Yoon is looking for.  Part of the reason he has yet to sign is that the starting pitcher market has been frozen as teams have been waiting to see what happens with Masahiro Tanaka.  With his posting ending in late January, free agent pitchers probably will need to simply move forward.  The other issue with Yoon is that performance in KBO is often held as suspect and he has also experienced shoulder trouble.  From my perspective, I think a multiyear deal with an initial handling of closer duties would put Yoon in a position for success.  He might see an uptick in his velocity as well, which will make his offering more playable in MLB.  Worse comes to worst, he can be a middle reliever and spot starter.  I'd offer something around 3 years and 10 MM and see what comes of it. I don't think he is the third best closer available, but he should be able to admirably serve in this role while freeing up the team to spend elsewhere.

Fernando Rodney
What irks people most about Rodney is his rendition of Katniss from the Hunger Games after every successful save.  Aesthetically, it can be pretty annoying.  However, most fans like it when their team wins games and Rodney does a great job putting teams in the position of winning games.  He is one of the hardest throwers in baseball and misses a lot of bats.  You can rather easily argue that he is the best closer on the market.  With the Rays, he found performance levels similar to those he experienced early in his career and he is the only elite talent out there without the specter of arm troubles.  He is looking for Joe Nathan money and commitment.  Teams have no agreed so far with that assessment.

Miguel Gonzalez
MiGo is the second player on the list whose health is not questioned and is the only player on this list already owned by the Orioles.  So, why MiGo?  He simply is not that good of a starter and the reason for that is also the reason why I think he would do fine as a reliever.  Last year, the first time he runs through a lineup, he holds them to a .607 OPS.  Second time through, it rises to .671.  Third time, OPS of .903.  That deterioration is not something that works for well for a starter.  He tends to blow up in the 5th or 6th innings.  His ideal position would likely be as a long reliever, but he could work as a closer capable of going longer than three outs.  He also performs rather well against batters on both sides of the plate.  That is what the difference is between him and another starter who deteriorates rapidly after the first time through the order: Wei-Yin Chen.  Chen is rather susceptible to right handed batters.  Of course, a problem with this approach is that it will require the acquisition of a starting pitcher, which is more expensive than signing a closer.

Why not Darren O'Day and Tommy Hunter?
I hesitate making O'Day the closer.  I think he is the best reliever the team has and his services are needed to get the team out of sticky situations in the 7th and 8th innings in order for the eventual closer to be handed a clean slate in the 9th.  The worship of the save stat often prevents a team from employing their best reliever in some of the more important situations.  That explanation likely will irritate most people, but we have to acknowledge how pitchers are actually used.

Hunter?  Hunter displayed a rather amazing split between lefties (.857 OPS) and righties (.344).  He simply would not be best utilized as a closer.  Having trouble with lefties will not be exploited as well as Chen would be with righties simply because there are more righties than lefties in baseball as well as benches rarely having any decent options to pinch hit.  As an arm in the pen, Hunter can be deployed in right handed hitting heavy innings to make short work of the side.  This makes him a solid option as the third righthander in the pen, but not much more than that or he will be exposed.  This does not mean he would be a horrible closer.  He would be acceptable in that role.  The issue is that I think his value would likely decrease in that role.

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