It both makes a lot of sense and it doesn’t. Grant Balfour is good, and the Rays have signed him for two years and $12 million. You’ll recall that’s $3 million less than it looked like he would be getting earlier in the offseason. That’s the sensible bit. This is the more confusing bit:
There’s also a price to pay with that, as Friedman acknowledged their payroll is projected to be higher than the franchise-record of $72.8 million in 2010.
“I think it’s an unaffordable figure for our franchise,” Friedman said.
“But it’s certainly not a sustainable number in terms of where we are revenue-wise, but we felt like we had a really good chance to be great next year, that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
That’s from the beginning of January. That’s when the guy in charge of the Rays’ roster referred to the payroll as “unaffordable” and not sustainable. You wouldn’t expect that team to add another eight-figure player, especially with that player being a relief pitcher. But, let’s just assume the Rays have a better idea what they can afford than I do. Let’s assume they’re prepared to move ahead with David Price in the rotation, salary and all. If you grant that the Rays can afford this, then it would appear like the Orioles gave them a gift.
I don’t need to write about a two-year Grant Balfour signing. That’s because we’ve already written about a two-year Grant Balfour signing. At that point, Dave called it a fair price, a reasonable price, and now Balfour has been actually signed for 20% less than that. He’s also been signed by a better team, in a more critical position on the win curve. There’s the take-home message right there: the Rays did well. They filled a need, and they didn’t pay much to do it.
The most interesting thing to consider, I think, is the effect of the Orioles’ behavior. The Orioles backed away from Balfour due to concerns with his physical condition, which isn’t a new thing for them. They’re going through the same thing right now with Tyler Colvin. Other people have reviewed Balfour’s medicals, people who don’t work with the Orioles, and if any of them have spotted a problem, they haven’t spoken up. External consensus is that Balfour looks fine. Balfour himself says he feels 100%. So, what should be the significance of one team — one notoriously difficult team — stopping in its tracks? What does it mean that the Orioles didn’t like what they saw?
Just going off salaries, the significance is $3 million over two years. The Orioles certainly didn’t do Balfour’s market any favors, if only by reducing his suitor pool by one. And it’s possible the Orioles didn’t actually even have a physical concern — this could’ve been straight-up Peter Angelos. My inclination is to assume that Balfour’s just peaches, but I feel like I can’t in good conscience ignore the Orioles entirely. But the Rays know better than I, and here they are with the biggest bid.
It definitely doesn’t make Oakland look great, in hindsight. For one year, the A’s will pay Jim Johnson just $2 million less than what Balfour will get for two years. That’s a big difference between two budget-conscious teams. In fairness, it looked for a while like Balfour would get more money. In fairness, getting Johnson allowed the A’s to settle things right away without having to wait. In fairness, maybe the A’s have their own concerns about Balfour, I don’t know. But as much as Oakland can afford Johnson for eight figures, it’s looking increasingly unnecessary.
And the Rays can come away pleased. Maybe they’re not a team you’d expect to sign a free-agent veteran, proven closer, but the Rays are all about value however they can get it. The Rays have to do better than usual free-agent prices. The last three years, Balfour has been worth 2.6 WAR, according to his peripherals. He’s also been worth 5.7 WAR, according to his innings and runs. Over his entire career, he has a better RA9-WAR than regular WAR, and that’s what you expect from a strikeout, flyball reliever. I identified, since 2002, 56 relievers with at least 150 innings and a strikeout rate of at least 20% and a groundball rate under 40%. They averaged a 78 ERA- and an 88 FIP-. They’ve been worth a total of 275 WAR, and 385 RA9-WAR. The short of it: Balfour is more valuable than his ordinary WAR. He’s probably worth more than a win a season.
And he’s showing no terrifying signs of declining. And he fills a need in an otherwise unremarkable bullpen. At this writing, according to our depth charts, the Rays’ bullpen ranks 24th in projected WAR. Balfour should make that plenty better, and while Jake McGee is real good, he can’t complain about having more support. Just because relievers are often overpaid doesn’t mean smarter teams can ignore them, and Balfour isn’t getting overpaid anyway. He’s getting paid an affordable rate to help a good team in some of its highest-leverage innings. They could’ve done well without him, but they should do even better with.
Word is the Orioles are getting close to signing Fernando Rodney. Which would mean the A’s got the Orioles’ closer, the Orioles got the Rays’ closer, and the Rays got the A’s closer. Rodney would still have to pass the Orioles’ physical. And out of that process, the Rays are presumably happy to benefit. That’s a team that barely spends money, and that’s a team that somehow doesn’t really have holes. Especially after today.
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