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.
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