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.

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