There was a user here that stated roughly "If the closer is the highest-paid player on your team, you're not destined for great things." With that in mind, let's take a look at the highest-priced relievers in the game who were signed to specifically be closers.
Earlier in the decade, a free-agent closer earning $10MM per year looked fairly implausible, but it seems the dominance of players like Mariano Rivera and Eric Gagne made teams salivate at the thought of an unhittable late-game fireman. Since then, closers have become increasingly expensive and the results have been mixed. Let's look at what the top contracts have produced for teams, whether they're the highest contracts on the team or not:
- B.J. Ryan – Signed a five-year, $47MM contract in 2005. One brilliant season (2006), one good one (2008), one completely missed season (2007) and now out of a job with another year to go on his contract. The Blue Jays didn't make the playoffs.
- Joe Nathan – Signed a four-year, $47MM contract in 2008. He's been fantastic, putting up sub-2 ERAs and saving 68 games while blowing nine. But the Twins are five games back and look like they'll miss the playoffs this year, as they did last.
- Mariano Rivera – Signed a four-year, $40MM deal in 2001, a two-year, $21MM deal with vesting option in 2005 and a three-year, $45MM contract in 2008. Rivera has been exceptionally brilliant since he was given his big deal in '01, putting up five seasons of sub-2 ERA and 30-save seasons in all but one. Perhaps it's semi-notable that the Yankees haven't won a World Series since they first broke the bank on Rivera.
- Billy Wagner – Signed a four-year, $43MM deal in late 2005. Pitched magnificently for two and a half seasons until he was forced to have elbow surgery last season. Mets made NLCS in 2006.
- Francisco Rodriguez – Signed a three-year, $37MM deal w/$17.5MM option in 2008. Has been good but not great for the Mets this year, putting up a 3.35 ERA and 53/30 K/BB ratio in 51 IP. Mets aren't going to make the playoffs this year, but it can't really be traced to his performance.
- Francisco Cordero – Signed a four-year, $46MM deal in 2007. Cordero was good in 2008 and has been pretty great this season, posting a 1.79 ERA and 37/19 K/BB ratio. He's saved 59 games and blown only seven since last year, but the Reds continue to scuffle.
- Brian Fuentes – Signed a two-year, $17.5MM deal in 2008 with a vesting option for 2011. He's had a bumpy ride this season, but he's saved 32 games in 36 chances. Angels could be set for the playoffs.
- Brad Lidge – Signed a three-year, $37.5MM deal in 2008 w/Phillies. Has been erratic this year, posting a 7.29 ERA and 44/25 K/BB ratio and saving 21 of 28 games after a nearly flawless campaign last season. Phillies look committed to forge on with him, but will it cost them late in the season? We'll see.
- Kerry Wood – Signed a two-year, $20.5MM deal with vesting option for 2011 w/ Indians. Wood has been a frustrating sign, posting a 4.72 ERA and 45/19 K/BB ratio while saving 15 games and blowing five saves. Pretty big disappointment for the Indians, who were looking to contend this year and have now blown up their team.
So what can we learn from these? One prevailing trend is that the small-market teams (Blue Jays, Reds, Indians, Twins) have paid astronomical contracts to closers with few good results. While a closer may put up solid numbers here or there, the middling teams haven't seen their overall performance improve significantly, if at all, by the season's end. When a larger-market team invests, the player has usually rounded out an already robust squad–one with enough depth and cash to recover.
This conclusion has probably been made a few times, but there seems to be a correlation that shouldn't be ignored: Signing a high-priced closer long-term is likely to be an unwise move for a small-market team, as the risk of injury or sudden ineffectiveness is high. A closer isn't likely to be the piece to make a middling team a great one, and money would be well-spent on other resources.
Special thanks to Cot's Contracts.