The Changing Closer Market

This offseason, we've seen a $240MM contract for Robinson Cano. We've seen $153MM for Jacoby Ellsbury. We've seen $130MM for Shin-Soo Choo. There seems to be no shortage of money for free agents. What we haven't seen is much of that money going to closers. There's been a pronounced change in the closer market this year compared to last.

Here are the pitchers who recorded at least ten saves in 2012 and signed as free agents the following offseason.

Brandon League Dodgers 3 years, $22.5MM, 2016 vesting/player option
Jonathan Broxton Reds 3 years, $21MM, 2016 team option
Rafael Soriano Nationals 2 years, $28MM, 2015 team/vesting option
Jose Valverde Tigers Minor-league contract
Brett Myers Indians 1 year, $7MM, 2015 team option
Matt Capps Indians Minor-league contract

The Yankees also signed Mariano Rivera, who missed most of 2012 due to injury, to a one-year, $10MM contract. This was a special circumstance, however, since Rivera was 42 and not looking to maximize his value on the open market.

Rivera aside, this wasn't a very good set of deals. League struggled in 2013, losing the Dodgers' closer job in the first year of his deal. Broxton did not pitch well, then had elbow surgery. Soriano fared better, but had peripheral numbers that suggest the possibility of a decline next season. The market seemed to have significant reservations about Valverde and Myers (who wasn't even signed as a closer anyway), and those reservations turned out to be well-founded. Capps missed much of the 2012 and 2013 seasons with arm injuries.

In any case, the League, Broxton and Soriano contracts probably weren't the best examples of how teams should approach the task of finding a closer (or a setup man, in Broxton's case). That same offseason, the Pirates re-signed Jason Grilli for two years and $7MM and installed him as their closer, shipping Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox for Mark Melancon, who settled in as Grilli's setup man, and three other players. Grilli and Melancon were the two most important parts of a terrific Pirates bullpen in 2013. Hanrahan, who made $7.04MM in his last year of arbitration, missed most of the season due to injury, and the Red Sox turned to Koji Uehara to replace him. Uehara, who had signed for $4.25MM plus a vesting option the previous offseason, was dominant.

The lesson here is clear: Get good relief pitchers, and don't overpay for closers. League cost five times as much as Uehara on the 2012-2013 offseason market. That should not have happened.

Let's look, then, at pitchers with at least ten saves in 2013 on this year's free agent market.

LaTroy Hawkins Rockies 1 year, $2.5MM, 2015 team option
Joe Nathan Tigers 2 years, $20MM, 2016 team option
Edward Mujica Red Sox 2 years, $9.5MM
Chris Perez Dodgers 1 year, $2.3MM plus incentives
Jose Veras Cubs 1 year, $4MM, 2015 team option
Joaquin Benoit Padres 2 years, $15.5MM, 2016 team/vesting option

These relievers don't all compare cleanly with last year's. Perez, for example, cited the Dodgers' chances of winning as a reason he signed with them, and it's possible he left some money on the table, either in the long term by not giving himself much of a chance to close, or in the short term. It's also not likely most teams approached the 41-year-old Hawkins as a good first choice for closer.

We should also mention Brian Wilson, who got no saves in 2013 but has a long history of closing — he received $10MM for 2014, plus a 2015 player option that will be worth at least $8.5MM. Perhaps the thread connecting this offseason's market and last is the Dodgers paying heavily for relievers, with League in 2012-2013 and Wilson this year. On the other end of the spectrum, there's also former Brewers closer John Axford, who received one year and $4.5MM from the Indians.

Broadly speaking, though, the difference between these two groups is clear. The market for generic closers seems to have shrunk dramatically, to about two years and $10MM, plus a team option. And that's in a free agent market where teams have had few qualms about paying heavily for other types of players. Many closer types are receiving less than anticipated. We guessed Benoit would receive two years and $16MM, which was close, but we also projected Nathan would receive two years and $26MM, and that Mujica would get three years and $21MM.

So what are the reasons for the change in the market? One is the number of young, cost-controlled closers. The Cardinals, for example, didn't bother to bring Mujica back, because they have flamethrowing youngster Trevor Rosenthal to replace him. In an era in which pitchers throw harder and harder and allow fewer runs than they once did, the archetypal closer skill set is no longer all that rare, and many teams can turn to a relatively cheap, cost-controlled pitcher to do the closing. Pitchers like Aroldis Chapman, Greg Holland, Rex Brothers, Danny Farquhar, Steve Cishek and Kenley Jansen all fall into this category. The Diamondbacks, for example, traded for Addison Reed, who will become their closer; the White Sox will probably just replace Reed with Nate Jones. The emergence of the hard-throwing Jones effectively means there's one less team that might be looking for a closer on the free agent market.

Another part of the equation, though, is that teams are looking for good pitchers, rather than pitchers with closing experience. Soriano, for example, is a good reliever, but he produced 1.5 fWAR in 2011 and 2012 combined. The Nationals overpaid significantly. So did the Phillies, for example, when they signed Jonathan Papelbon to a $50MM contract prior to the 2012 season.

It doesn't look like the Papelbon contract will repeat itself anytime soon. Closers have always been more fungible than many fans think, and they're especially fungible now, when many teams seem to be producing a 96-MPH-throwing reliever at a rate of about one a year. And anyway, closers change — of the 37 pitchers who recorded at least ten saves in 2012, only 22 did it again in 2013. If a team signs a closer to a four-year contract, particularly if the pitcher is moving further into his 30s, chances are he won't still be the closer when the contract ends. This year's free agent contracts reflect that. Teams aren't over-committing, either in dollars or in years.


31 Responses to The Changing Closer Market Leave a Reply

  1. Christopher A. Otto 2 years ago

    Excellent commentary. …. the one possible exception is that it will be interesting to see what kind of money Kimbrel gets if he reaches free agency as a healthy pitcher. … He would seem to warrant Papelbon money, no?

    • Frittoman626 2 years ago

      I might be hesitant to give Kimbrel big money. While he is the best closer in baseball and has been since his rookie year, his mechanics scare me a little. He throws a fastball in the high 90’s and a slider which are known to put real strain in the arm. Not saying that necessarily means he’s guaranteed to get injured, but it is pretty concerning. We’ve also seen how closers start to wear down as they age, for every Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman there’s an Eric Gagne and Francisco Rodriguez. If he were a Free Agent today I’d give him way more money than Papelbon, but whenever he becomes a free agent I would prob try and give him something around what Papelbon and Soriano got, even if he’s been healthy to that point, but again that’s just me. So to answer your question, yes he should get the same if not more than Papelbon.

    • Edictor27 2 years ago

      Kimbrel is Arb eligible after the 2014 season. If he has a healthy 2014 and pulls another All star season I can see him getting papelbon money or close to it

      • Matt Talbert 2 years ago

        The problem is you worry about this is yes he is a bit scary, its just those mannerisms early on in his setup etc. His delivery is very fluid and easy. You know Billy Wagner had a pretty easy delivery from the left side and he had all sorts of problems, but maybe Craig will be an exception. Shoot even Mariano had a little bit of problem from time to time.

        • Christopher A. Otto 2 years ago

          Oh I think WE are all correct to have misgivings about giving big money to Kimbrel. But the point, I think, is that some team out there will salivate at the chance to give him 4/56, and one team is all it takes

  2. MB923 2 years ago

    Rivera had 5 saves in 2012, not 10.

  3. bjsguess 2 years ago

    Looks like there is approximately a 30% turnover rate year to year with closers. This seems high but I’m not sure that it is disproportionately high compared to other positions. For example, if you tracked #3 starters – I wonder how many #3’s in 2012 were still considered to be #3’s in 2013 or in 2014. My guess is that at least 30% saw their stock slip enough to where they were moved to the backend of the rotation/swing-men or to the bullpen.

    The reality is that all positions experience shuffling due to injury/performance. And while closers are high profile, even the elite level aren’t paid much. $10M for a starting pitcher gets you guys with injury and poor consistency. $10M for a closer gets you someone with a great track record who should be highly reliable. Personally, I would rather have a shut down performer for 70 innings vs a guy that sports a 5 ERA over a 150 innings.

  4. Mike1L 2 years ago

    Not the most exciting group (with respects to Nathan, who is quite good) but maybe we are seeing a fundamental reordering of the market.

    • LoneTXRanger 2 years ago

      I’m a Rangers can, but I’m glad Nathan is gone. He has aged and his velocity as dropped. It was his time to move on, just wished we would have traded him while closers were in high demand this past season. Rangers could have filled some holes we knew we had coming this offseason.

  5. Gary Kimbrel 2 years ago

    I wonder what that means for Toronto’s bullpen surplus. I’m sure they want to use it to address their needs if they can. Janssen makes the most at 4M, but only being under contract for 1 year, I’m not sure what his value is.

  6. liberalconservative 2 years ago

    Brandon League contract didn’t make sense at the time of the signing. He was never a great closer and lost his starting job. If he was available now he would be looking at a minor league deal.

  7. JAMCTribe 2 years ago

    Myers was signed as a starter not a closer and therefore should not be included on this list.

    • Charlie Wilmoth 2 years ago

      I noted that in the post. I just included everyone who got ten-plus saves, regardless of what role they were signed for.

  8. Mike89 2 years ago

    The Papelbon contract is actually pretty amazing. Sure it was a lot of money, but you can’t quantify his value with those cyber mattricks. He has a lot of veteran presents and is great in the clubhouse. He got over 50 saves in two years. Tell me, who else has done that and kept a sub-3.00 era. He’s also only had 2 IBB and ZERO balks. Clearly he has control of the 9th inning and knows what to do. Can you really put a monetary value on that???

    • Matt Talbert 2 years ago

      He has a lot of veteran presence and sabermetrics. Mike, bro reread your entry :D. Only trying to help ya out. I wonder if Paps is the Santa of his clubhouse? XD

      • Mike89 2 years ago

        I don’t understand what you’re talking about.

        • leowalter 2 years ago

          Are ” veteran presents ” different than Santa’s presents ?

    • Ryan 2 years ago

      Quote:

      “No, I would like to stay here. But if I’m going to have to put up with this year after year, then no, I don’t want to be here. Why would you? Why would anybody?”

      What price exactly would you put on that type of “veteran presence”.

  9. Since_77 2 years ago

    I wonder if Balfour will still get a deal similar to what Joaquin Benoit got?

    • tigersfan33 2 years ago

      If there’s something wrong with his physical, I doubt it.

  10. Matt Talbert 2 years ago

    A lot of times, we fans give these writers a lot of flack, but this article (Imo) was one of the best I’ve EVER read on MLBTR. It had a very solid analysis (well thought out and presented) with specific data to back their claim. Well done.

    • Charlie Wilmoth 2 years ago

      Thanks!

    • Guest 2 years ago

      I agree…one of the best articles I’ve ever written. I’m continually impressed with this website and the quality of the articles that its contributors provide.

    • Lee Foo Young 2 years ago

      Matt….Charlie does Bucs Dugout (I am a Pirate fan). We’re used to it. Just another great CW article….ho hum.

      :) :) :)

  11. Denny Kissane 2 years ago

    The emergence of Jones doesn’t mean the White Sox will be off the closer market. Jones is going into his 3rd year, 27 years old, and still has no secondary pitch. His fastball is ;good but he’s not consistent enough to get the nod as the closer. It’s more likely Matt Lindstrom gets the job if they’re going internally. I just don’t see Don Cooper and Co wanting Jones to close.

  12. Mark P 2 years ago

    excellently written – the article that everyone has kind of observed, but it needed to be explained to that level of detail. Nice work.

  13. Lee Foo Young 2 years ago

    Charlie…As a Pirate fan, I love it when other teams overpay for relievers and closers.

  14. Mike89 2 years ago

    The Mets don’t have any, so how can you comment on influential veterans. The last best veteran was Julio Franco

  15. diehardmets 2 years ago

    Lets pretend for a second that this is actually a worthwhile factor to consider (spoiler, it isn’t). David Wright says hello.

  16. Mike89 2 years ago

    David Wright doesn’t have TWTW like a true veteran so idk what your point is. When was the last time the Mets were relevant?

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