It’s an old adage that rings true whether you’re a big time MLB General Manager or just the owner of a fantasy baseball team. Never overpay for saves. Last season closers started dropping like flies before the season even started. That trend would continue throughout the year and big league managers were forced to reevaluate their bullpen personnel on a regular basis.
There are those who will tell you that the final three outs of the game are the most difficult to achieve; those who say it takes a pitcher with a certain mentality to be a closer. But is that genuinely the case? I don’t think so. If it is, then there were more pitchers with a closer’s mentality last season than there were the year before. In 2012 there were 143 pitchers who earned at least one save. In 2001 there were only 127.
As I eluded to earlier, injuries had a serious impact on the overall landscape of the closer in 2012. Of the 30 pitchers who led their team in saves in 2011, only eleven were able to achieve more than 15 saves in 2012. Nineteen pitchers reached the 30 save plateau in 2011. That number was achieved by only 15 hurlers last season.
Several veteran closers changed uniforms prior to last season. Among them were Jonathan Papelbon, Huston Street, Heath Bell, and Frank Francisco. Of those four, only Papelbon was able to stay healthy and hold down ninth inning duties for the entire season. In addition, Andrew Bailey and Ryan Madson changed teams only to miss most and all of the season respectively.
Heath Bell signed a huge Free Agent contract with the Marlins but eventually lost his job to Steve Chisek, who earned the league minimum annual salary of $480,000. Bell was dealt to the Diamondbacks in October and the Marlins will be stuck paying him $8 million over the next two seasons. Oops.
Cincinnati signed Free Agent Ryan Madson and payed him $6 million last season. Unfortunately, Madson blew out his elbow in Spring Training and never threw a pitch for the Reds in the regular season. In addition, the Reds payed an estimated $500,000 buyout of Madson’s 2013 contract plus whatever expenses are involved in rehabbing from Tommy John Surgery. This offseason the Angels signed Madson to an incentive laden contract that guarantees him “only” $3.25 million. Last year Ernesto Frieri saved 23 games in Anaheim for around the league minimum. Good luck, Artie Moreno.
Brian Wilson and his beard made $8.5 million last year despite missing almost the entire season with Tommy John Surgery. The Giants were still able to piece together a solid bullpen that would carry them all the way to a World Series title. Santiago Casilla and Sergio Romo teamed up to save 39 games for a little less then $4 million.
San Francisco wasn’t the only team to experience playoff success with an unlikely closer. In fact, the Braves and Tigers were the only teams to reach the post-season with the same closer they employed in 2011. But neither Craig Kimbrel nor Jose Valverde would prove to be a factor. The Braves were ousted in the wildcard play-in game and Valverde was eventually replaced by Phil Coke due to ineffectiveness.
Baltimore’s Jim Johnson led the league with 51 saves and helped the Orioles reach the playoffs for the first time in 15 years. Johnson earned $2.625 million. Fernando Rodney, who had 48 saves and a microscopic ERA, was a bargain for the Rays at $1.75 million. He was also a great waiver wire pickup for my fantasy team that coasted to their typical second place finish.
Kimbrel was a bargain in his second year with Atlanta, notching 42 saves for a salary of $590,000. Jason Motte ($1.95 million) and Rafael Soriano ($11 million) equaled Kimbrel’s production, tallying 42 saves apiece. Soriano was being payed in Yankee dollars, which are a little different than American currency. He would have been the world’s most expensive setup man had he not been forced into the closer’s role by Mariano Rivera‘s ACL injury. Rivera made $15 million and saved one game.
The most cost-effective closer in 2012 was Addison Reed of the White Sox. Reed saved 29 games for the league minimum. The ChiSox also acquired Brett Myers from the Astros at the trade deadline to serve as a setup man for Reed. The Astros, however, payed the bulk of Myers’ $11 million salary.
After dealing Myers the Astros acquired Francisco Cordero from Toronto and gave him a shot at ninth inning duties. Cordero, who made $4.5 million in 2012, lasted only six games in Houston before being released. The Astros finally settled on Wilton Lopez, who earned $515,500 and saved ten ballgames down the stretch.
Jeff Luhnow tried to capitalize on Wilton’s success, reaching a deal with the Phillies last week that reportedly would have netted the Astros a pair of top prospects. The deal fell through at the last minute and Luhnow will have to look elsewhere if he intends to duplicate last winter’s fleecing of the Red Sox. In his first trade after taking over as the Astros’ G.M. Luhnow sent closer Mark Melancon to Boston for Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland. Luhnow understands the adage and it will be interesting to see what he does moving forward.
Elite closers still don’t make the kind of money top of the rotation starters do but the gap has narrowed in recent years. If what happened in 2012 proves to be a trend that gap could start to widen once again.