Grant Balfour Gets a New New Home

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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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

36 Responses to “Grant Balfour Gets a New New Home”

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  1. Jason Collette says:

    2 days before the team traded for Rafael Soriano, Stu Sternberg said there wasn’t $7M laying around to sign a closer.

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  2. triple_r says:

    Over his entire career, he has a better RA9-WAR than regular WAR, and that’s what you expect from a strikeout, flyball reliever.

    The same can go for low-strikeout, groundball relievers. It’s not a matter of type, but of skill — good relievers will outperform their peripherals.

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    • 2002-2013, GB% at least 50%, K% under 20%

      -72 relievers with at least 150 innings
      -93 average ERA-
      -97 average FIP-

      Most relievers beat their peripherals, just from being relievers. But Balfour’s type do it by more.

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      • Commanding Ramorda says:

        That’s because FIP underrates flyball pitchers. It punishes them for the higher number of home runs they give up but ignores the lower BABIP they tend to induce.

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  3. ralph says:

    So just how fascinated are you by another low-budget smart team paying a decent amount of money for a Proven Closer?

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    • It’s interesting, but less interesting than the A’s committing so much money to Johnson. Balfour’s just a good value in an otherwise thin relief corps.

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      • Jacob Jackson says:

        My hunch is that the A’s are hoping that Johnson might eventually net them a compensatory pick.

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        • HawaiiFO says:

          95% Not going to happen.
          If Johnson is offered $15-15.5 million for a QO, he should absolutly take it.
          If he declines, I doubt a GM wants to lose a draft pick AND
          pay basically the same as a $40 million dollar a year starting pitcher.

          Yes it has happened in the past, but its extremely rare, Johnson is good, not great, and I suspect the QO back then wasn’t as unreasonable for a relief pitcher. You could get 2.5 years of Balfour for that.

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        • Jason B says:

          $40MM/year starting pitcher??

          There are zero of those things.

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        • Trotter76 says:

          @Jason B: Pretty sure HawaiiFO is saying paying a closer 15 mil is equivalent to paying a starter 40 mil, and that neither should exist.

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        • Jacob Jackson says:

          Mariano Rivera made $15M for five consecutive years (2008-2012). With inflation and exploding salaries, another closer will again soon – very likely Kimbrel.

          Johnson’s not worth $15M a year, but the decision he’ll be faced with is turning down that $15M in favor of a multi-year FA offer worth $30M. That’s a tougher decision.

          The $40M starting pitcher comparison is way off base.

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    • H says:

      Does anyone else wonder if this is a PR move with the end goal being relocation? Signing proven players, stretching their budget beyond what is affordable seems like prime arguments for relocation. Doesn’t TB have ties to Montreal ownership? Maybe Im just dreaming, but it would be great to see the Rays in Montreal..

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  4. Grant Balfour says:

    About f@$#king time!

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  5. NatsFan73 says:

    So am I to understand that the Orioles are driving down the price of players such that other low/mid payroll contenders can sign them instead? One must always assume incompetence over maliciousness absent any clear motive, but sheesh!

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  6. deezy says:

    Rays bullpen seems to be criminally underrated. With Balfour, Bell, Peralta, McGee, Oviedo lining up in the back half of the pen and a slew of upside arms like Boxberger, Gomes, Lueke, Figueroa, Yates and Riefenhauser, the Rays have more than enough depth and upside. Add in Lowe (minor league deal), and its an impressive group.

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  7. Mr Punch says:

    Balfour may not be altogether unhappy about taking 20% less to join a team that’s apparently going for it instead of one that clearly isn’t.

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    • pft says:

      So he gives up 3 million for a chance at 400K post season earnings, losing a months vacation, and getting a 50K ring?

      The Trop should help his numbers though. No idea why the Orioles would want an extreme GB pitcher in their park.

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      • Ruki Motomiya says:

        When you make millions of dollars, winning a World Series can be worth some of it. As a player, you can’t buy a World Series win after all. The ring, maybe, but not the win.

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      • Wally says:

        Balfour has already made about $17M. Another $12M gets him to about $29M. After taxes, lets just call it $14. With an extra $3M, it would maybe be $15.5M after taxes.

        I don’t have that kind of cash hanging around, but I get the sense that once you have $10M+, you life probably doesn’t change much until you reach the ubber-rish category.

        Even with ~$15M already in the bank, another $1.5M isn’t going to buy you a private jet. It might get you a nicer house on Hawaii or something, but you could still have a pretty good one as is.

        Not that $1.5M after taxes is nothing, but I’d bet if you already had $15M, you might be willing to take a couple of shots at a WS ring (remember its a 2 year deal).

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        • Ian R. says:

          You’re assuming Balfour has been somewhat smart with his money. Plenty of pro athletes blow through tens of thousands every week and live paycheck-to-paycheck. If Balfour is such a player, the extra 3 million matters quite a bit.

          Conversely, if Balfour IS smart with his money, he may be thinking about all the investments he could make with that money.

          Either way, yeah, it matters. You’d have to be much, much richer than any baseball player to just shrug off a difference of $3 million.

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  8. Robo says:

    Looks like the only way that the Orioles front office doesn’t come out of this looking like complete clowns is if Balfour pitches terribly or suffers a significant arm injury. Just when I thought (hoped) they were making progress…

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    • Birdlander says:

      I’m sure if he does end up injured regarding the wrist/knee concerns the Orioles were worried about, everyone will happily eat their words and say the O’s were right all along…

      Oh wait, no they won’t. And they’ll even refer to the O’s as making a bonehead move with Balfour the same way they have this time with Aaron Sele, even though Sele started breaking down within the time frame of that proposed contract.

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  9. MrKnowNothing says:

    When the A’s and Rays disagree on wanting a reliever it’s like watching Sabre-Mommy and Sabre-Daddy fight.

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  10. LHPSU says:

    The timing is interesting. Rays might upped their bid once rumors that the Tyler Colvin deal fell through came out.

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    • Trotter76 says:

      Apparently the Mets offered the same contract terms as the Rays but Balfour chose the Rays due to proximity to his Florida home. And likely chances of winning in the short term.

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  11. Eric R says:

    Since they got the extra $25M from the TV that everyone else got, shouldn’t that easily pay for this?

    Last year their payroll was $71M; the average MLB team spends about 55% of revenue on payroll, so $71M + $25M x 0.55 = $85M. I think they still have some room :)

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    • Eric R says:

      Cot’s has some different figures; they have the 2013 Rays at $62M, not $71M, so that plus 55% of the new TV money is ~$76M.

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  12. Alex says:

    Yet another affordable reliever Detroit wanted nothing to do with this offseason. Could have built such a good bullpen and somehow ended up even worse.

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  13. Josh says:

    Having watched Balfour pitch for the A’s the last two seasons I see him as a performance risk more than an injury risk. He frequently teetered on the edge last season and was often bailed out by the A’s defense (and home park). This and age 37 is why the A’s were ok letting him go despite good numbers.

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    • Hitler But Sadder says:

      I agree, I think the A’s had major concerns over Balfour’s performance. Balfour in the second half was almost unbearable to watch. I can’t claim this as fact but I would be shocked if another closer walked more first batters. At the end of the season Balfour, for all intents and purposes, lost the closer job do Doolittle, Cook, Anderson. I know part of that was stretching Anderson out for the playoffs but still Balfour was down right hard to watch the second half.

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  14. Ian R. says:

    You know, Balfour was a Ray before. Shouldn’t this be “Grant Balfour Gets a New New Old Home?”

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  15. Jose says:

    What’s wrong with the A’s getting Johnson? He’s a little pricey but they had some room in the budget and a job to fill and he fits in perfectly. They gave up Jemile Weeks, who is terrible, and no prospects. And it’s only for one year, so the money is freed up for 2015. Sounds pretty smart to me.

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  16. BullChip says:

    Maybe the A’s tired of his act on the field. I know I will have a hard time watching him 19 times a year vs. the Red Sox.

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