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Madson to Cincinnati

Walt Jocketty and his Cincinnati Reds have signaled to the baseball community that they believe the NL Central to be ripe for the taking in 2012.

The organization has been extremely bold this offseason. They opted to leverage several of their young, valuable assets — namely Yonder Alonso, Travis Wood, and Yasmani Grandal — to acquire Mat Latos and Sean Marshall, in hopes of complementing a potent offense that posted the fourth-best team wOBA in the league last season and catapulting the team into the postseason.

Cincinnati ratcheted up that aggressiveness even further on Tuesday evening by inking closer Ryan Madson to a one-year, $8.5M contract.

In many ways, this is an overpay by the Reds. According to the WAR-to-dollars conversion, Madson has never been worth $8.5M in a single season. Not only has Madson never been that valuable in a single season, but also only seven relievers were worth at least $8.5M last year: Craig Kimbrel, Jonathan Papelbon, Sean Marshall, David Robertson, Mariano Rivera, Greg Holland, and Joel Hanrahan. Madson did approach that amount last season — as his +1.7 WAR estimates open-market value at $7.6M — but it is simply uncommon for any reliever be worth that much in a single season.

As has been illustrated countless times amongst the sabermetric community, relievers do not provide as much value as an everyday position player or a starting pitcher. For example, the most innings a reliever threw last year was 93 innings by Alfredo Aceves, while 137 starting pitchers threw at least 100 innings. The overall impact is lessened due to fewer opportunities.

Despite that fact, closers are still paid top dollar on the market. It is a ugly truth in today’s baseball economy. So when evaluating a closer’s contract, it is perhaps more informative to compare that contract to the other free agent contracts given to closers during that same offseason rather than by WAR and that corresponding monetary value, because the latter will almost always result in the same conclusion: overpay.

Here are the contracts given out to closers this offseason:

Closer Years Contract 2011 FIP
Jonathan Papelbon 4 $50M 1.53
Ryan Madson 1 $8.5M 2.25
Heath Bell 3 $27M 3.23
Jose Valverde 1 $9M 3.55
Frank Francisco 2 $12M 3.80
Joe Nathan 2 $14.75M 4.28
Matt Capps 1 $4.75M 4.75

In comparison to the rest of the closer’s market this winter, Cincinnati seems to have done a wonderful job guaranteeing the second-lowest amount of money to the second-best available closer. The only closer to get less guaranteed money is Matt Capps, who was terrible for the Twins last season.

The Cincinnati Reds may have overpaid Ryan Madson in terms of the amount of wins he is likely to provide in 2012, but by isolating the closer’s market, the Reds made out like bandits by signing Madson to a one-year, $8.5M deal. After all, he is the exact same pitcher who almost signed a four-year, $44M deal with the Phillies earlier in the offseason before that fell apart at the last moment.

With Madson now in the saddle as the closer and Sean Marshall able to remain in the set-up role, Walt Jocketty has fashioned what should be one of the best bullpens in the league next season. At the very least, it will be significantly better than the 2011 bullpen for the Reds.

Ryan Madson (+1.7 WAR) replaces Francisco Cordero (+0.1 WAR) = +1.6 WAR gain
Sean Marshall (+2.8 WAR) replaces Nick Masset (+0.6 WAR) = +2.2 WAR gain

Net Gain = +3.8 WAR

Thus, Madson and Marshall — if their respective performances remain similar in 2012 — should provide Cincinnati with a four-win increase in the back-end of their bullpen alone. This does not even include the natural improvements that will occur by shifting Masset, Bill Bray, and perhaps even Aroldis Chapman to the middle innings, where all three will be above-average.

Signing an established closer generally means having to overpay, which the Reds did do. In the context of the specific closer’s market this winter, though, the Reds signed arguably the second-best closer on a one-year, low-risk deal. Not only is the contract extremely team-friendly compared to Madson’s peers, but the Reds’ bullpen is significantly improved for the 2012 season and could legitimately become the best bullpen in the league, outside of Atlanta.