Teams would be wise to keep door open on closers
Ninth-inning relievers tend to be volatile, but desire for bullpen stability is irresistible
The final out of the World Series was recorded by Koji Uehara, the Boston closer who opened the season probably fourth on John Farrell's bullpen depth chart.
The bottom of the eighth inning was pitched by Trevor Rosenthal, the Cardinals closer thrust into the role only after Jason Motte got hurt and Edward Mujica flamed out late in the year.
In fact, of the 10 teams that reached the postseason, only four -- the Braves, Rays, Pirates and A's -- finished the season with the same closer they opened with.
Indeed, in a year in which Mariano Rivera gracefully bowed out of the ninth-inning job he so routinely dominated, baseball's biggest stage reminded us, convincingly, that the closer role is, with precious few exceptions (Rivera, of course, being the most prominent), a fungible and precarious position.
Therefore, it is, with precious few exceptions, an area in which it is all too easy to throw good money away. And as more and more teams come to accept this painfully clear concept, the free-agent market could become quite a bit less fruitful for the "proven" closer types clubs once fawned over.
This, then, is an especially interesting offseason, because the free-agent market is overloaded with guys -- Joe Nathan, Brian Wilson, Grant Balfour, Joaquin Benoit, Mujica, Fernando Rodney and Francisco Rodriguez -- who, for various lengths of time, have thrived in the ninth. General managers will have to balance the understanding that closers generally have the lifespan of a carnival goldfish with the desire to line up some semblance of stability in the back end of the bullpen.
"If you look at the role of closers," said Indians GM Chris Antonetti, "there are very few guys that are consistent in that role over time. And if you go back and look at any team's history, there are very few guys that have a five-, six-, seven-year track record in that role. Those guys are few and far between."
Antonetti should know. He recently let go of Chris Perez, who, for a short but not insignificant stretch, filled the role ably, only to bottom out not long after his arbitration-aided salary had increased to $7.3 million. Perez's effectiveness ran in reverse proportion to his price tag, and that's a common complication that clubs must overcome.
That's why Craig Kimbrel's first offseason of arbitration eligibility, which will cause his salary to skyrocket from the $655,000 he earned in 2013, is going to be so interesting to monitor, especially since the Braves are always careful not to overextend themselves with any particular player. There is, therefore, a strong argument to be made for trading Kimbrel while his value is sky high, though that's not an avenue Atlanta is expected to take.
As far as free agents are concerned, Nathan is the head of the class, and for good reason. He is entering the Rivera realm in terms of consistency and longevity. They are, in fact, the only two relievers over the past decade to work at least 500 innings while accruing a WHIP lower than 1.00.
So, yes, Nathan, even at 39, is going to get paid this winter. He is expected to get a multiyear commitment with an average annual value that exceeds the $9 million mutual option he turned down in Texas.
But while the club that signs Nathan (and the Tigers and Yankees are viewed as front-runners) will address a clear and pressing need in the ninth, that club will have to understand and accept that closers, by the sheer nature of their limited number of innings, can make only so much of a contribution to the bottom line.
The cold, hard numbers show that teams, regardless of the closer, have protected ninth-inning leads at about a 95-percent clip going back five decades -- long before the concept of the closer as we know it today existed. So it's fair to wonder why a club would make a closer such a high-profile item on its shopping list.
The sabermetric argument against current bullpen-usage patterns is that teams ought to use their best relievers in the highest-leverage situations, regardless of what inning that happens to be. If you're Farrell, and you're protecting a one-run lead in the eighth with the meat of the opposition's order due up, the argument goes that you should use Uehara in the eighth and figure out the ninth later.
It's sound and sensible thinking, but it's proven difficult -- perhaps impossible -- to implement at a level in which relievers value their roles, and managers, by and large, cling to the status quo. Teams have a wealth of analytical data at their disposal, and it's led to the increasing use of effective defensive shifts, to name but one development. But it hasn't been employed nearly as effectively in the realm of bullpen use.
"What's available today is far different than five, 10 years ago," Cards GM John Mozeliak said. "But does everyone use it?"
The answer is no, and that's due in no small part to the sheer existence of the save statistic, which has evolved into an important bargaining chip in arbitration and free-agent settings.
As long as that stat is attached to dollar signs and associated with the ninth, the ninth is where relievers will, understandably, yearn to work.
The other unquantifiable element to all this is the supposed psychological effect an unsettled closing situation can have on the rest of a club. Maybe the starting pitchers feel more pressure to finish what they start and it affects their performance. Maybe the offense feels encumbered with the weight of knowing no lead is ever enough. A bad bullpen has been known to cause much clubhouse strife, and that's why teams will go to great lengths this time of year to arrange as practical and predictable a back-end situation as they can possibly muster (or afford).
Closers, therefore, are still a costly commodity, even if they have been demonstrated to be, generally speaking, as interchangeable as the batteries on your remote control. We rightly laud the likes of the Rays, A's and Pirates for the cost-effective bullpens they've built in recent seasons, but the truth is they had no alternatives (Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said searching for a closer is "too restrictive" given the basics of his budget). Teams richer in resources are, quite naturally, going to apply them.
The Tigers, for example, are quite possibly -- maybe even probably -- going to overpay for Nathan or Wilson or someone else. But after being burdened by a bad bullpen in which the "closer by committee" was not so artfully employed by Jim Leyland, they'd rather run that risk than try to solve the situation on the cheap.
"We want to bring a guy that's a closer back," Tigers team president, CEO and GM Dave Dombrowski said. "We're going to have a closer. We're going to pursue somebody to pitch at the back end of the bullpen."
So it is, and so it shall be. But the market has at least evolved enough that you can envision Jonathan Papelbon's four-year, $50 million pact with the Phillies, signed two years ago, as the crest of the closer contract cliff. Even though Papelbon has lived up to his end of the deal thus far, it's difficult to imagine a club going to quite that extent to pull in a proven ninth-inning option.
After all, guys like Uehara and Rosenthal have reminded us that there's something to be said for unproven closers, too.