MLBTradeRumors is firing up this year's vesion of the Free Agent Faceoff series, in which two comparable free agents are analyzed side by side. Each post will conclude with a reader vote on the value of the two players.
The free agent market for relievers with closing experience isn't exactly stacked this year, nor is it a particularly youthful crop. However, if you're looking for a solid arm with ninth inning experience that's still plenty successful in spite of his age, Joaquin Benoit and Grant Balfour are two of the better guys to turn to.
Balfour, a native of Australia, has served as Oakland's closer for the past two seasons and was their setup man in 2011. He's thrived in both roles, posting a combined 2.57 ERA with 9.0 K/9, 3.3 BB/9 and a 37 percent ground-ball rate in 196 1/3 innings. His FIP (3.43) and xFIP (3.63) both suggest that his ERA could come up a good deal. He's averaged 93 mph on his heater in that time but is averaging an even more impressive 93.4 mph in 2013. Balfour has also shown an ability to suppress home runs throughout his career -- just 7.9 percent of fly-balls against him have gone for homers. He will turn 36 years old in late December.
Benoit turned 36 in July and has similar stats to Balfour. He's posted a 2.89 ERA with 9.9 K/9, 2.8 BB/9 and a 38.9 percent ground-ball rate in 193 1/3 innings since 2011. He throws noticably harder -- averaging 93.9 mph on his fastball and sitting at 94.1 mph in 2013 -- and generates more swinging strikes than Balfour (14.9 percent compared to 9.1 percent). However, Benoit has proven more susceptible to the long ball, yielding more homers in 2012 alone than Balfour has in 2012-13 combined. For his career, 9.9 percent of the fly-balls hit against Benoit have gone for homers. Like Balfour, Benoit has outperformed both FIP (3.39) and xFIP (3.27) over the past three seasons.
Both Balfour and Benoit will pitch most of next season at 36 (Benoit will turn 37 just prior to the trade deadline). Both average a strikeout per inning or better with solid command and a fly-ball profile, and both have done well when handed a closer's job late in their careers. It can be argued that Benoit's advantage in strikeouts and walks can be offset by Balfour's stingier ways with home runs, lower ERA and slight age advantage, begging the question...