02 December 2013

Jim Johnson: Being Sent to the Ravine?

Jim Johnson - aka "The Janitor"
Over the past decade and a half there has been a growing discord in the value of a closer.  First this was seen in the fringe statistical element, then flashing in the majors (most memorably with the Red Sox failed closer by committee attempt), and now reaching a slow boil among the general mainstream fan base.  The attack on closers comes in three flavors:
  1. Playing Time Argument: How can a player who at most spend 70 innings in the game be worth 10 MM a year?
  2. Sabermetrics Approach: Mariano Rivera, the best closer ever, was worth about 2 rWAR a year without much variation, so how can the quasi-elite arms be worth just as much?
  3. Practical Concept: The difference between the best and worst closers is maybe blowing 3 more games or so, which can be mitigated by putting in the hot hand.
In an abstract sense, I agree with all of those sentiments.  I also think that for a team like the Orioles, who are probably saddled with a payroll limit of maybe 100 MM or so, it makes little sense to devout 10% of your resources to a player who plays so little and whose impact is not so great considering the alternatives.  With that in mind however, for the right team, it makes complete sense to pay a seemingly exorbitant amount of cash for a relief pitcher.

Sabermetrically-inclined teams spend about 5% of their budgets on closers whether it is Kyle Farnsworth or Fernando Rodney for the Rays or Grant Balfour for the Athletics or Joel Hanrahan for the Red Sox.  Wherever those teams are located in the scheme of things with payroll, they tend to wind up around 5% of their contract money on that position.  That is part of what lead to my view that signing Joe Smith as a potential replacement for Jim Johnson was a good idea (Smith wound up signing with the Angels for 3/15.75MM).  Teams with less statistical care or perhaps more money choose to be more free with the money they alot their closer (e.g., Phillies).  Still, even the rich teams tend to pay their closer about 5%.  The Yankees did that with Rivera.

With that in mind, if Johnson is going to see about 10 MM, then the team will be looking to clubs with payrolls over 150 MM (assuming the Orioles are willing to kick in a million or two).  This leaves us with Boston, Detroit, LAAA, Philadelphia, LAD, and San Francisco.  What we need to look for are teams in need of closers and two fringe B level prospects to grab.

The Red Sox are unlikely feeling much need for a closer.  Koji Uehara filled the position in nicely and the team has several interesting arms to back fill positions.

The Tigers certainly have in-house options, but they have never shied away from securing the noble proven veterans.  They could potentially be an option.  I would come in hard asking for SS Eugenio Suarez and RP Bruce Rondon and hope either for that or downgrade Rondon to RP Drew VerHagen.  The Tigers may also wish to cash their chips on Rick Porcello, but I think he probably is more highly valued than Johnson.  I doubt the Orioles would package Johnson with a prospect to acquire one year of Porcello.

Ernesto Frieri is their closer and I see no reason why they would think otherwise.  Money has also been a bit tight for them with Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols, so a 10 MM closer might be a bit frivolous.  Additionally, their minors are pretty rough and they may be hesitant to deplete it further.

Jonathan Papelbon ends the conversation.

They have a perceived need at the closer slot and the money to resolve that issue.  There are two ways the Orioles could go about things here.  One, there is word that the Dodgers are seeking to be involved in the bidding for Tanaka or another free agent pitcher.  That might mean that they are looking to move Josh Beckett or Chad Billingsley.  Both pitchers come with injury issues, but the Dodgers may be willing to stomach Johnson and then throw in some money to reduce payroll enough to seek a more desirable player.  Alternatively, the Orioles could look to build up their prospect base more by asking for LHP Chris Reed and LHP Onelki Garcia or perhaps settle for depth in C Tim Federowicz.

San Francisco
Sergio Romo performed well enough last year, so I doubt this is a viable destination.

I think in all practicality, the two teams likely to seek Johnson without the Orioles throwing too much money into the deal would be the Detroit Tigers or the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Both teams have decent fits for the Orioles to find fringe meaningful prospects as well as opportunities to fill in the veteran hole left by Jason Hammel.  Johnson certainly is a very solid closer and a pitcher any team would like to have on the roster.  Most teams would love him as a closer.  However, nearly all teams would shy away from that price.

This all said, there could always be a fringe team that would be interested in only investing one year at 10 MM instead of paying someone like Joe Nathan 10 MM a year on a multi-year commitment.  A team like the Reds could see value in what Johnson has to offer if they really think Aroldis Chapman is a starter.  The same, perhaps, could be said of the Rangers as well.


Mike Bonsiero said...

I've long wanted to see a "situational" WAR statistic. You mentioned Rivera was only about 2 WAR a year for his career, despite being the best ever. To further put that in perspective, that's only about 2-2.5 ahead of Kevin Gregg's typical year. But if you replaced Rivera with Gregg, based on the situations they were used, you'd cost yourself more than 2 wins (I hypothesize, anyway). So I'd like to see a WAR stat weighted to the leverage of the situation the player is cumulatively used in. Not a "clutch" statistic that deals with situations specifically, but one that adjusts the players "value" based on his typical usage.

Jon Shepherd said...

Like WPA/Li?


Mike Bonsiero said...

WPA/Li deals with specific situations. So Johnson getting lit up with the Orioles down 6 and then closing out a 1 run win would not hurt his WPA/Li. I'm looking at something that assumes that his performance is random within his realm of outcomes, but accounts for the fact that he's used in high-leverage situations.