Grant Balfour, Free Agent Closer at a Fair Price

Free agent closers are the most expensive single player type in baseball. When Matt Swartz did his price calculations for different positions a couple of years ago, he found that teams were paying approximately three times the average $/WAR for relievers as they were for the general population of players. And a disproportionate amount of the money going to relievers was paid to the “proven closers” who hit free agency coming off strong seasons with big save numbers. While solid setup guys might collection a few million and get a two or even three year deal occasionally, big name closers were racking up paychecks that paid them like above average everyday players, with the crazy Jonathan Papelbon contract ($50 million over four years) as perhaps the height of the market’s absurd closer valuations.

The days of Papelbon-style contracts for brand name closers seem to be over. Last year, Rafael Soriano got the largest contract of any free agent reliever, at $28 million for two years, and besides Mariano Rivera‘s final one year contract with the Yankees, no other reliever got more than $7 million per year. This year, Joe Nathan was the #1 closer on the free agent market, and he signed for $20 million over two years after the Rangers opted not to make him a $14 million dollar qualifying offer. Nathan’s age was always going to keep him from getting a long contract, but Nathan isn’t the only closer on the market, and now Grant Balfour is showing that the market for closers might not be what it used to be.

Today, Balfour has reportedly agreed to terms with the Orioles on a two year, $15 million contract. For reference, that’s basically the same AAV but for one fewer year than Jonathan Broxton got from the Reds last year and Brandon League got from the Dodgers. It’s slightly more than Mike Adams got from the Phillies, except Mike Adams wasn’t a “proven closer”. A couple of years ago, this contract — adjusted for inflation — got you Frank Francisco, Bobby Jenks, or Jose Valverde. Balfour signed a deal that, in other years, would have paid him as if he was either a good setup man or a mediocre closer.

But Balfour is neither of those things. Over the last three years, Balfour ranks 10th in the majors among relievers in RA9-WAR, sandwiched right in between Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen. He’s thrown almost 200 innings and has an ERA- of 64, and last year, he went 38 for 41 in save opportunities. This is the kind of pitcher that the market has historically paid a premium for.

Not this year, though. After years of paying for saves and reputations, the market seems to be correcting itself, even with runaway revenues leading teams to inflate spending on other types of players. Balfour actually got less guaranteed money from the Orioles in this deal than the Rockies just gave to a lefty specialist in Boone Logan, though it is for one less year, so the AAV is still slightly higher. Even still, Balfour just signed the same contract that Juan Uribe got from the Dodgers yesterday as a defense-first third baseman. He got a little more than Justin Morneau got as an underpowered first baseman. He got a little less than Phil Hughes, a back-end starter trying to revive his career.

The closer premium seems to be shrinking. And in Balfour’s case, this results in a pretty fair deal for the Orioles, who have managed to swap out regression candidate closers while saving some money in the process.

Even though I like the price, we have to acknowledge that Balfour is still a pretty strong regression candidate. A large part of his recent success has been a .230 BABIP over the last three years, and while relievers can hold down BABIP more than starters, especially fly-ball relievers, you have to think that he won’t get as many fly outs in Baltimore as he did in Oakland. His career BABIP is .264, so even just regressing back towards that should make him less valuable in the future than he was in the recent past.

And the Orioles did just sign up for his age-36/37 seasons, so we have to factor in some expected decline due to normal wear and tear. The Orioles shouldn’t expect him to match his recent performances, but this contract leaves plenty of room for regression without it being a problem. Even at $7 million per year, Balfour only has to be worth about +1 win to justify the deal, which based on RA9, is about half of what he’s been worth on an annual basis over the last few years. This deal pays him for something closer to his FIP, but as a high-K/high-FB reliever, Balfour should be expected to outperform his FIP by some margin.

This isn’t the biggest bargain of the winter or anything, and if Balfour’s hit prevention ways were unduly influenced by Oakland’s ballpark, perhaps this won’t even work out all that well for Baltimore. But, this contract is worth noting simply for the fact that it suggests that teams really are learning from the mistakes of the past, and the ability of a reliever to turn a high save season into a big free agent contract seems to be going away.




Print This Post



Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.


33 Responses to “Grant Balfour, Free Agent Closer at a Fair Price”

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
  1. Boris Chinchilla says:

    Aussie Aussie Aussie, O O O!

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  2. marlinswin12 says:

    The Orioles have had an interesting offseason. And by interesting, I mean not interesting as they’ve actually done nothing at all.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  3. Tom B says:

    Free agent closers are the most expensive single player type in baseball.

    I think you misspelled the word “overpaid”. :)

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  4. brendan says:

    are the A’s better off w/ jim johnson at 11M for one year? It’s hard to tell. they gave up a player for him also.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Daniel says:

      2 players actually, and I don’t see Balfour being any worse than Johnson this year. The O’s definitely got the better end of the deal at this point.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

    • AK7007 says:

      More like the A’s probably mis-read the market for Balfour or knew he had no intention of coming back. He or his agent probably started rumblings of three years, a desire to move on, or more per year than Johnson.

      Point is, at the time of the trade, Balfour might not have been an option in their minds. Or the idea of two years even was not acceptable. The result might not directly represent a desire by the A’s to swap out the two players, merely to replace one that was going to leave.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Hitler But Sadder says:

        Even at a misread it is still a fine move for Beane and company since it is a 1 year deal paid for by the $25 mil in TV funny money. Balfour’s GB rate can only play in a ball park like O.co– not an overpay for the O’s but 2 years for a meltdown guy like Balfour is super risky.

        Vote -1 Vote +1

        • AK7007 says:

          Everything you said is true. But the reason that it’s worth thinking about deeper is that the A’s had to give up a couple of warm bodies in order to get Johnson, while Balfour only costs money.

          Vote -1 Vote +1

  5. Brian says:

    So does this mean that closer arbitration prices are out of whack with the market? What with Johnson expected to make close to 11M.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Bill says:

      Yes, and it probably factored into the White Sox decision to trade Addison Reed pre-arbitration and Santos before that as well. Hey, how is that Santos ‘bargain’ contract working out for ya Jays?

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  6. O's Fan says:

    I’d rather have Jim Johnson next season than Balfour because I’m scared of fly ball pitchers in Camden Yards and because Balfour is 35. Also, having to commit to another year at $7.5M adds risk – if Balfour’s bad for whatever reason, even simple reliever volatility, the O’s are stuck with him. That’s happened too much to the Orioles for this fan to be comfortable: Danys Baez, Jamie Walker, Kevin Gregg, etc.

    Still, it saves maybe $3M this year and the Orioles got Weeks and a depth catcher. So that’s OK. I dunno. This pseudo-trade leaves me a little cold.

    Not to mention: why couldn’t the Orioles just take both next season? What else are they spending money on? Something like $20M worth of salary in free agents just left the team ($10M in Brian Roberts alone) and they’re getting the $25M in league TV money, but they had to give away Johnson to get Balfour and their other “big” signing was Ryan Webb – guess the Angelos grandkids can put up an extra stocking this year.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • AK7007 says:

      Why would they put out stockings? Grandpa is just going to fill them with coal. Better to teach them to fend for themselves, get their own damn money.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Inspector Gadget says:

      Orioles already got a Jim Johnson clone in Ryan Webb, so they kind of do have both. Except carrying Johnson and Balfour would have cost ~$18m for next year, while Balfour, Webb, Weeks, and Freitas will be under $10m.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  7. schlomsd says:

    Interesting that he used Mike Adams in his example. Adams was better than Balfour when they both hit free agency (http://goo.gl/Dk04qT) – the 5th best reliever from 2010-2012 instead of the 10th best from 2011-2013 and was two years younger when he hit the market. Yet his contract is going to turn out to be awful. What makes the Balfour contract any smarter? Because the A’s weren’t smart like the Padres and had their best reliever pitch before the 9th inning?

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  8. DrBGiantsfan says:

    I’ll just say it here: the Giants wear orange better. We have had the best offseason, have won two World Championships, and a poised for another epic run. We own orange. Sorry Baltiless.

    -26 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Machaut says:

      Way to rehabilitate the Giants fanbase’s reputation as bandwagoning blowhards with no tact.

      +7 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • SUPERDUPERGIANTS says:

      MACHUAT YOU MUST BE BITTER THAT YOUR TEAM DOESN’T APPRECIATE IT’S PLAYERS LIKE THE GIANTS DO. THIS TEAM IS STACKED AND READY FOR ANOTHER RING AS THE YEAR ENDS IN AN EVEN NUMBER (=GIANTS WIN=SCIENCE.) THE TIM LINECUM CONTRACT ALONE WILL GO DOWN AS ONE OF THE BIGGEST BARGAINS OF THE OFFSEASON, THE GUY HAD 10 WINS LAST YEAR. THIS SITE SAYS 1 WIN = 6-7 MILL SO THE GIANTS ARE SAVING AT LESAT 50 MILLION US DOLLARS NEXT YEAR ALONE. PLUS THEY LOCKED UP EXPERIENCED JAVIER LOPES FOR ONLY 13MILL = SMALL PRICE FOR NO OPPONENT LEFTIES EVER REACHING BASE FOR NEXT THREE YEARS (/3 WS CHAMPIONSHIPS).

      ALSO DRBIG IS RIGHT ABOUT ORANGE. WHO CARES ABOUT SOME DUMB BIRD EVEN IF IT IS ACTUALLY ORANGE AND BLACK- I WOULDN’T WANT TO RUN INTO AND ORANGE AND BLACK GIANT IN A DARK ALLEY! HO HO HO AND I’M NOT TALKING ABOUT YOUR MOTHER AND TWO SISTERS. FACE IT, THE BALTILESS ORILULZ JUST SIGNED A CLOSER WHO’S NAME MEANS GIVES UP WALKS! I’LL BET DAN DUQUETTE IS CRYING BECAUSE HE SAW BALL FOUR SIGN THE CONTRACT AND ONLY JUST REALIZED.

      in CONCLUSION, THANK YOU DRBIG FOR YOUR ALWAYS INSITEFUL COMMENTS ON ARTICLES THAT SHOULD BE ABOUT THE GIANTS- THEY SHOULD MAKE YOU A STAFF WRITER AND CHANGE THE NAME TO GIANTSGRAPHS!!!! I LOVE YOU BIG MAN!

      -8 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Brandon Firstname says:

      I know you’re just posting for responses, but it’s not funny. It’s a rather tired attempt at humor.

      If you want to keep talking up Sabean go for it, he gets a lot of flak here and not all of it is deserved. But please proceed in a more reasonable way.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  9. jdbolick says:

    Balfour signed a deal that, in other years, would have paid him as if he was either a good setup man or a mediocre closer.

    Wouldn’t the market perceive him to be “a mediocre closer,” both because it’s obvious that he hasn’t been as dominant as his ERA would suggest and because he spent most of his career as a non-closing reliever? As an Orioles fan I’m not so much enthused about the signing as I am relieved they didn’t give him even more money. That said, his HR/FB% in 2013 was already 11.1%, so it probably doesn’t climb significantly higher.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  10. Luke says:

    Due to your infamous ranking of the Mariners as the “#6 org”, I think that you would like this video, Dave:

    http://youtu.be/OPHcyRmQRbo

    Just sit back and enjoy.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  11. Ryan Sullivan Kelley says:

    Listen, before this year’s implosion, Balfour was a very good reliever and he generally was paid a fair wage. But to say that he was undervalued is a mistake.

    He was a reliever entering his late 30’s that pitched in the most favorable pitchers parks during his successful years. Tampa Bay is forgiving for right-handed pitchers, the empty park makes every situation low-leverage and Joe Madden is a master at shielding his pitcher’s weaknesses. In Oakland, just about any pitcher with an average K/BB and an 86+ mph fastball will put together good numbers. Massive foul ground, outstanding defense, impossible walls for right-handed and even left-handed power hitters.

    Balfour has average groundball rates, and the kind of arm troubles and repertoire that deteriorates with age. People also forget that he had only 1 full season as a closer–in 2013 right before free agency–and lost the job multiple times in a pitchers’ park.

    I like Balfour, but he hasn’t really been overlooked or underpaid in any way. If you’re looking for someone to write about, look at Darren O’Day’s production and value, how little he is paid, and how little he will probably paid via free agency. How about Eric O’Flaherty? Just because the guy has an elbow surgery he’s totally forgotten?

    If not O’Day, then what about Andrew Miller? He’s one of the best bullpen arms in the game. He’s the kind of pitcher that can get even the best hitters out, and was labeled as the best lefty in the game by Mark Teixeira a few years back. All Miller commanded was a second-tier prospect at the deadline, at that was coming from a division rival.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>