The 2013 free agent closer class and why you “don’t pay for saves”

John Axford

photo1I am a Fantasy Baseball player. I love the game. Have been playing for 25 years. I am in two leagues (one being a daily lineup change league), read all of the articles, am dialed into all of the prospects. The more information you can consume, the better the chances you have to succeed. Heck I even listen Fantasy Baseball podcasts (yes, I have issues).

Though he isn’t a part of it anymore, ESPN’s Fantasy Focus Baseball Podcast used to be hosted by “The Talented Mr. Roto” himself, Matthew Berry. You know him as a Football guy, but he has plenty of Baseball opinions as well. For years on the podcast, Berry lived by one adage – “don’t pay for saves.” His view was that wasting high draft picks/big auction money on a closer is a gigantic waste. “You can always find guys who save games later” he would say. And you know something, he was NEVER wrong.

Every single season, closers lose their jobs due to performance issues or injury. Inevitably, someone pops up out of nowhere to take their place, does the job just as well if not better, usually at a lesser price. Or a surprising team will change closers in the Spring and that guy will have a 40-save season. For example, in fantasy terms Greg Holland was not exactly thought of on the Mariano Rivera plane a year ago, but by season’s end, he was one of the best in baseball.

Now let’s talk real world. Berry’s old adage about not paying for saves has real merit. For every Rivera, I can show you Kerry Wood, who came to Cleveland in 2010 on a two-year, $20.5 million deal. It took all of two months to see that signing was an epic failure, especially when the injured and ineffective Wood was replaced by a younger, less expensive set up arm on the come. You might remember him…. Chris Perez.

Perez spent four and a half seasons in Cleveland where he saved 124 games, including a career high 39 in the second of his two All Star seasons of 2012. Four years as a closer with one team is considered an eternity these days.

If we learned anything about the closer’s role over the past decade plus, it is that unless you have a freak like Rivera or Atlanta’s Craig Kimbrel as your guy, there is a shelf life. The closer is like the Running Back in the new pass heavy NFL. It’s a few years of being run into the ground, and then on to the next guy. Free agents RB’s who sign big free agent deals with a new team rarely have panned out over the past decade or so. How did that Shaun Alexander to Washington deal or the LaDanian Tomlinson to the Jets signing work out? Sure, Reggie Bush had a nice year in Detroit in 2013, but there are exceptions to every rule.

The Indians are one organization that cannot afford to waste money on free agent signings. Nobody hates using the “in our market” excuse more than I do, but in our market, a big money closer is a luxury. If you look back at some of the big name free agent closers that became available over the past three years, the majority of the teams that made those signings would love a do over. The Phillies gave Jonathon Papelbon four years and $50 million before the 2012 season. They have been looking to dump him since year one and nobody will take that contract on. Nobody. Papelbon’s performance hasn’t been terrible and he never has lost his job, but the days of giving closer’s $12 million a year are over. It is just not money well spent. As former Tribe GM John Hart used to say: “closers grow on trees.”

You think the Pirates had any plans on then 36-year old Jason Grilli, on his sixth team in 13 years, becoming their guy in a playoff season a year ago? The career journeyman saved 33 games after spending the previous two years as a set up man. It was his first time closing. The 2007 Indians featured one year wonder Joe Borowski as their ninth inning guy. He saved 45 games on a team that was one game away from the World Series. He flamed out in April of 2008 and never closed again.

The Tampa Bay Rays have made a killing turning their closer’s role over every single year, taking a chance on someone with limited to no closing experience for a low salary. Go back between 2005 and 2012, the Rays had a different pitcher lead the team in saves each year. They would either let that player go via free agency (i.e. Rafael Soriano 45 saves in 2010, walk to the Yankees in 2011), or trade that player away at the deadline (Danys Baez 41 saves in 2005, traded to Dodgers). After another playoff season in 2013, they let closer Fernando Rodney walk (who earned $4.2 million in his two years in Tampa), knowing they had other less expensive options available.

This brings us to this year’s free agent class. To say it has been a bleep show would be an understatement. The winter’s biggest bullpen prize was Former Twins and Rangers closer Joe Nathan, who has been money for the better part of a decade. Nathan and the Detroit Tigers were the perfect match; a contending team with lots of money desperate for a closer after years of instability at the position. Mike Illitch gave the 39-year old two years and $20 million. At the time, even I thought it was a good move. After all, Nathan had 341 career saves. But thus far, the Tigers look like they purchased a lemon.

Nathan has allowed more earned runs in 21 innings this season (16) than he did all of last season in 64.2 innings (10). His last three outings have been particularly brutal, allowing eight earned runs in an inning and a third while blowing a save and a 0-0 tie in the ninth. The barks are getting louder to replace him, but the Tigers shouldn’t and won’t panic. But if Nathan doesn’t find himself, they are stuck with his $10 million salary for another season.

The Oakland A’s thought they were doing the right thing when they let their closer, 36-year old Grant Balfour, hit the market after his two years as a closer by the bay. Instead, fiscally smart GM Billy Beane traded for Baltimore’s Jim Johnson, in his final arbitration year. Beane and Johnson eventually agreed to a one-year deal at $10 million, which flies in the face of what Beane likes to do financially. It took all of three weeks for Johnson to be ousted as the Oakland closer. The 31-year old has gotten to the point of being unusable with a 6.55 ERA, 1.99 WHIP, 16 K’s to 13 walks, and a whopping 12.3 hits per nine innings on to his record. The A’s have been said to be shopping Johnson, but who is going to take a chance on him with his salary figure?

Balfour was supposed to have gone to Baltimore as a free agent to replace Johnson, but failed a physical with the sketchy Orioles medical staff. His two-year $15 million was declared void, and he ended up in Tampa, who were searching for a closer after letting Rodney go. GM Andrew Friedman gave Balfour two years and $12 million. So far, like Johnson and Nathan, the results aren’t what the front office signed up for. The Rays are struggling with the worst record in the AL and Balfour has just nine saves in 11 chances with a 5.23 ERA. His K per nine a year ago was 10.3 while his walks per nine was 3.9. In 2014, his K per nine is at a career low 7.4 and his walks per nine is at a career high 7.8.

Our old friend CP lost his job as the Indians were winning 10 in a row in their march to the 2013 playoffs and couldn’t find a team willing to hand him the ball in the ninth this winter. He settled in Los Angeles with the Dodgers for one year and $2.3 million. He made the Indians decision to pass on his $7.3 million salary and non-tendered him the first day they possibly could.

Of the free agent closers this winter, only Rodney, the last one to find a stop on the carousel, has done well. After being passed over by the Orioles, Rays, and Indians, the crooked-capped closer landed in Seattle for two years and $14 million. He has an AL leading 16 saves in 18 chances and has allowed just two earned runs (in one game) since May 1st in 13.1 innings.

The Indians looked at all of the names mentioned above (other than Nathan) as well as 36-year old Joaquin Benoit, who took two years and $15.5 million to be a set up man in San Diego for Huston Street, but didn’t like the price tag of any of them. Who could blame them. Instead of promoting from within, they decided to sign two-time failed closer John Axford to a one-year, $4.5 million deal. At the time of the deal, I wasn’t a fan. On June 6th, I am still against it.

Let’s go back to December when I had major concerns after the Indians made the Axford signing.

Chris Antonetti seems to be putting his eggs in the basket of a guy who is coming off of close to two seasons of big time step backwards. Since 2012, he blew 16 of his 51 save chances, posted a ERA of 4.35, and watched his strikeouts go down and his walks go up. His hits per nine innings also went from under eight to over 10. Essentially, Axford regressed in every statistical category in 2012 and 2013.

Axford is a fly ball pitcher, always a scary proposition for a closer. In his last full season as closer for the Brewers (’12), the Canadian averaged 5.1 walks per nine innings. Not good. While everyone around here was scared to death that CP would walk guys and give up big homers, Axford was mirroring what Perez was doing. He allowed 10 homers in each of the past two seasons. Perez gave up six in 2012 and 11 last season.

Moreover, The Cardinals, perhaps the model franchise in pro sports, allowed Axford to walk with three years of control left on his deal. Yes, they have a pen loaded with options, but even still, you don’t just drop pen arms for nothing if you think the guy can still bring it for you. Usually, the Cardinals don’t make mistakes.

The Ax Man lasted six weeks as Tribe closer and was removed because of his walk issue. It was the same problem he encountered the two previous years in Milwaukee. The failures of Axford have had a direct effect on the rest of the Indians bullpen. The right-handed set up duo of Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen essentially now have to be used together in any game with a three run lead or less. As the Indians continue to win games, Shaw, Allen, and lefty Marc Rzcepcyznski are being overused. These three, along with Scott Atchison are the only guys Manager Terry Francona is trusting these days and this could come back and bite him come September.

After using Shaw back to back inning- plus outings on Saturday and Sunday, Francona told the media he has to do a better job of protecting his key guys. Then the next night, he went to Shaw again and watched as he had nothing and gave up a two-run homer to Boston’s Xander Boegaerts.
Rzepcyznski also pitched three consecutive days and four times in five days between the Colorado and Boston series and struggled mightily on Tuesday. Allen has pitched back to back days with one day off in between from May 27th through Tuesday. Rzcepcynski and Shaw lead the AL in appearances with 30. Allen is tied for second with 30. Lefty Josh Outman and Axford aren’t that far behind with 26.

Yesterday’s day off was a much needed rest for the Indians pen.

Nobody loves having multiple options in the pen more than Francona, but he clearly doesn’t trust anyone other than his big four. He had no choice but to try other guys in Wednesday’s 12-inning 7-4 marathon win. What he got was huge production from lefty Nick Hagadone (for a second straight night), Axford, and Carlos Carrasco. Hagadone will be used in late inning situations more thanks to his impressive work in the Boston series (one hit, four K’s in two innings, both in the seventh inning or later in tie games). While Axford K’d both men he faced Wednesday night, it was the first time he was used in a week and that only happened because Francona had little choice but to go to him.

Whether it is Hagadone, Axford, Carrasco, CC Lee, Kyle Crockett, or even Austin Adams, Francona has to find someone else he can count on. But the Indians would not be in this situation had they promoted their closer from within or spent their money more wisely than to bet essentially $5 million on a guy who hasn’t been good in more than two years.

The good news? This isn’t just an Indians problem. It is a plague all over baseball, including right in our own division where the Indians nemesis has an additional hole they thought they had plugged this winter.

“Never pay for saves.”

  • Pat Leonard

    Good stuff TD… “never pay for saves” should be a front office mantra. If the Tribe are “buyers” this summer, then I think it’s obvious that they’re going to trade for a reliever or two. Back to .500 baby!

  • TomWFNY

    “To say it has been a bleep show would be an understatement”

    For some reason I find that statement to be highly amusing.

  • WFNYJon

    I’ve always been a “don’t pay for saves” guy, so mostly I agree here.

    But there is some merit to the idea of paying some FA money to an old guy to get saves so that your young guys (Cody Allen, ahem) don’t rack them up and become overwhelmingly expensive in arbitration. Because the arb process values saves so highly (and more or less ignores holds, leverage, K/BB, etc) you can “hide” a really great reliever for six years while paying the John Axfords of the world a few million bucks. Of course this only works if the guy doesn’t suck so horribly that you have to remove him from save situations….

    Here’s a piece on that theory:

    But yeah, paying *premium* money for closers is silly business.

  • mgbode

    yes, I agree with you and TD here. my comment from the TD thread still applies as my approach to finding closers:

    Take a look at the peripherals and try to find a cheap guy who should do well in short IP and sign a few of them. Bullpens are so fungible that you should be able to do better with that approach than giving free money to has-beens (Axford, Perez, etc.).

  • nj0

    In related news, Chris Perez is having a rough go of it in Lala Land.

  • mgbode

    however, his dog’s cataract prescription is making it easier to handle

  • nj0

    The thing about Axford is that we didn’t spend that much. One year at $4.5M isn’t much in the grand scheme of things. I see the deal as a typical “underperforming vet at a saving” signing. Sometimes those guys are Axford or Mark Reynolds. Sometimes you get an Austin Kearns or Dave Murphy.

  • Jason Hurley

    Austin Kearns being notable because we were able to trade him for McAllister?

  • mgbode

    or his 116 OPS+ in his first go-around with us.

  • Adam Copeland

    While I agree with the overall premise of the piece, that you shouldn’t “overpay” for closers, I’m not sure if the lesson is particularly applicable to the Indians situation. Even though the Indians are a small market team, a $4.5 million deal for a reliever that can theoretically close is not a crazy risk; especially when viewed in context with the other deals you mention (e.g., Nathan, Johnson, Balfour, etc.) where the guy was paid significantly more and has so far under-delivered.

    Also, I just don’t agree with this statement: “But the Indians would not be in this situation [i.e., overuse of Allen, Shaw, Scrabble] had they promoted their
    closer from within or spent their money more wisely than to bet
    essentially $5 million on a guy who hasn’t been good in more than two

    Let’s say they had promoted Allen or Shaw from within to the closer’s spot. That’s essentially what they’ve done since they’ve demoted Axford and yet the backend guys are still pitching way too much. Even if Allen or Shaw had started out the season as closer, Tito would still need to find guys to get to the 9th before the closer could pitch.

    Conversely, had they not taken a flyer on Axford, they would have had to bring in somebody to supplement the pen, whether in free agency or the minors and who’s to say that Tito would have trusted that guy?

    So I just don’t agree that the bullpen overuse has been dramatically impacted by the Axford signing. Afterall, when Axford was holding down the closer’s fort, Axford was being overused too.

    The bullpen overuse is a direct symptom of 2 causes: 1) failure of the starting pitchers to work deep enough into games (this was the main problem with having Carrasco and Salazar in the rotation, though both Masterson and McAllister also have had their share of short outings); and 2) Tito’s unwillingess to distribute high leverage situations beyond a core group of guys. If Tito doesn’t trust certain guys to work in high leverage situations, they just shouldn’t be on the roster. But, as you point out, maybe the Boston series provided a tipping point for Hagadone and Carrasco who both pitched well in high leverage spots.

  • nj0

    Exactly. Probably should have qualified with “the first time around”. Guess, the second time around just goes to show how these vet flyers may not work out.

  • nj0

    I especially agree with your point #2. I think Tito’s trust of Allen and Shaw is appropriate, but at some point you have to let the other guys pitch. It’s sort of a self fulfilling prophecy when you never give those guys a chance.

  • Steve

    I think they really need to find one more guy that Francona can depend on. Shaw and Allen are fine, Rzep pitches a bit too often against RHB for my liking.

    I’m not sure if its Axford getting things figured out, Carrasco taking a liking to his new role, or having to add someone from the outside, but I think they don’t have much work to do to solve the bullpen issues, which are probably more about what you said about starters not working deep in games.

  • Jason Hurley

    If there are guys that Francona doesn’t “trust” to pitch, why are they on the roster?

  • Steve

    Because its nearly impossible to find 7 or 8 guys you can “trust”. I’d say you’re good with 3-4.

  • Matt S

    By that theory, shouldn’t our closer be Atchison? He’s been reliable enough this year. His career splits aren’t horrible (there’s the thought that you want your closer to have close to no splits, because the 9th is generally when teams are most likely to pinch-hit for matchups). And he’s cheap and old!

  • Smitty

    Agreed, but they should’ve resigned joe smith. We probably could’ve had him for 4.5 mill/year (signed for 5.25/year with LAA) and surprise surprise! He’s super consistent again this year. Our bullpen would’ve been MUCH better with Smitty locked into the 9th.

  • Ed Carroll

    FWIW, Axford has options and the team controls him beyond 2014 if they so desire, which is why he got $4.5 mil.

    If you have to pay a reliever, one year deals are your best options. Avoid pre-arb guys in the role at all costs (cause it will cost you later). At the end of the day, closers are relievers, so they’re mostly interchangable.