Friday, July 10, 2009

When life gives you lemons, stop giving free agent closers big contracts

The Hornet: The bane of the Beach family in the late '70s...and the Blue Jays today. Photo from this site.

Ex-Red Sox reliever Alan Embree made a bit of baseball history Tuesday, when he earned the victory for the Rockies despite not throwing a pitch. Embree picked off Austin Kearns to end the top of the eighth and the Rockies broke a 4-4 tie in the bottom of the inning and won 5-4.

Embree is only the second pitcher since 1990 to win a game in which he did not throw a pitch and the first since B.J. Ryan, who pulled off the feat in 2003. Ironically, in that it’s not ironic at all, Ryan was in the news himself less than 24 hours later, when the Blue Jays released their Opening Day closer even though he’s got a year-and-a-half and $15 million left on his contract.

Ryan’s release is a fascinating case study in baseball perceptions and realities. The perception is that the Jays wasted $15 million with Wednesday’s transaction. Toronto Star columnist Richard Griffin goes so far as to write that Ryan’s release reflects so badly on Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi that it may hasten his own dismissal.

But the Jays had nothing to gain, financially or otherwise, by holding on to Ryan. Sure, it would make the organization look a little better if Ryan was able to regain some semblance of effectiveness for the remainder of the deal. Yet even if Ryan somehow recaptured his job as Jays closer next year, he still would have spent nearly half of his five-year deal—all of 2007, which he missed due to Tommy John surgery, and most of this year—not closing. If Ricciardi is to be judged on this deal, the verdict was already in: Flop.

In addition, whether he was awesome or awful in a Toronto uniform, that money—and every cent of the $47 million the Jays agreed to pay him over five years following the 2005 season—was gone the second Ryan put pen to paper. He won’t pitch for the Jays next season, but the $10 million he’ll receive will still count against the Jays’ budget.

Baseball contracts are like new cars: Once you make the purchase, there are no refunds, even though the vehicle begins to depreciate the moment its new owner puts the key into the ignition.

The player-as-a-car analogy is particularly appropriate for relief pitchers, who, as noted in last week’s appreciation of Mariano Rivera’s 500th career save, are more prone than most to overnight transformations into lemons. (Much like my parents’ old Hornet, which terrorized our family for a couple years in the late ‘70s and still makes my father mutter curse words under his breath, but I digress)

To invest long-term in a closer if he’s perceived as the last piece to a championship puzzle would appear to be a risk worth taking, except history suggests an imported closer almost never makes the difference between euphoria and disappointment. Only one World Series champion in the last 25 years has featured a closer it signed the winter before: The 2004 Red Sox. And you may recall that Keith Foulke—whom the Sox signed to a reasonable three-year deal worth just shy of $21 million prior to 2004—did a bang-up impersonation of a lemon for the subsequent two seasons.

On the same day that the Jays made Ryan the richest closer ever, the Mets made Billy Wagner the second-richest closer. The Mets got a little better return on their investment than the Jays, who recorded winning seasons in each of the last three years but never sniffed the playoffs, yet the end result was the same: More Tommy John surgeries than championships.

The Mets made it to Game Seven of the NLCS in 2006 and Wagner provided two-and-a-half pretty good years before his elbow began throbbing last summer. He underwent Tommy John surgery last September and will likely miss the entire 2009 season.

The Ryan and Wagner deals did more to drag down the market for free agent closers than the toxic economy. Francisco Rodriguez ended last season with 208 saves at just 26 years old and reportedly harbored hopes of a five-year, $75 million deal, but his lone offer was from the Mets at three years and $37 million. So the Mets are paying nearly $20 million this season to two pitchers whose entire job description is to get three outs. Wonder no more why they’re destined for fourth place.

And Brad Lidge, who converted all 48 save opportunities—41 in the regular season and seven in the playoffs—last season for the world champion Phillies, signed a three-year extension worth $37.5 million last season instead of testing the free agent waters.

All of which means Francisco Cordero’s status as the richest free agent closer ever (at least in terms of average annual salary) is pretty safe, and that the Reds should be getting nervous right about now. Cordero signed a four-year deal worth $46 million after the 2007 season and has 55 saves and a 2.79 ERA in 108 appearances for a team that is 16 games under .500 since his arrival.

Not all long-term deals for closers end badly. Rivera is in the midst of his third extension with the Yankees—this one a three-year deal worth $45 million that takes him through the end of 2010—and as someone who has penned more than one “Rivera is not what he used to be” pieces, let me say, I’m an idiot and he looks like he’ll be just as brilliant for the duration of this contract as he was the previous two.

It’s too early to declare Joe Nathan’s deal with the Twins—he was re-signed last year to a four-year, $47 million contract that takes him through 2011—a successful one, but his dominance with Minnesota (221 saves, a 1.78 ERA and a 0.92 WHIP since 2004) indicates he could follow the Rivera path as someone who becomes a closer in his late 20s and thrives throughout his 30s.

The moral of the story? If you’re going to go long-term with a closer, better to re-sign your own—better to keep investing in the family’s well-worn yet reliable used car, because you know what’s gone on under the hood. The car on someone else’s lot might look shinier and flashier, but who knows what havoc is bubbling beneath the surface?

It’ll be interesting to see if the Sox prefer to reinvest in Jonathan Papelbon, who will be eligible for free agency after the 2011 season, and if the market by then is conducive to Papelbon becoming the highest-paid closer ever. If that’s Papelbon’s goal, as he has alluded to previously, you can be pretty sure the Blue Jays won’t be the team to make his dreams come true.

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