Ryan Madson’s pillow contract just turned into a bed of nails.
Madson needs Tommy John surgery and is out for the season. The Cincinnati Reds closer won’t command a lucrative multiyear guarantee next winter. Instead, he will be rehabilitating his right elbow and likely sign a short, incentive-laden deal.
So much for the “pillow contract,” a coin termed by Madson’s agent, Scott Boras, to describe a contract that gives a free agent coming off a down season a soft, temporary landing before he goes back on the open market.
The concept worked brilliantly for Boras client Adrian Beltre, a third baseman who parlayed a brilliant season with the Boston Red Sox into a five–year, $80 million free-agent deal with the Texas Rangers. But the strategy is far riskier with pitchers, and Boras employed it three times last offseason, accepting one-year deals for Madson, Francisco Rodriguez and Edwin Jackson — none of whom were coming off down seasons.
Jackson, a 28-year-old starting pitcher, still could benefit. He turned down at least one three-year offer, from the Pittsburgh Pirates, but might be in heavy demand next offseason if he — ahem — stays healthy and pitches well for the Washington Nationals.
Madson won’t be so lucky. And Rodriguez, who signed a one-year, $8 million contract to remain the Milwaukee Brewers’ setup man rather than accept a one-year deal at comparable money to close for the San Diego Padres, remains in a dicey spot.
The market for closers last offseason was different, flooded with options. The smart play for players and agents was to strike quickly and avoid getting trapped in a high-stakes game of musical chairs. But striking quickly is not Boras’ style.
Boras got into a well-documented dispute with Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. over a supposed four-year, $44 million offer for Madson. The Phillies signed free agent Jonathan Papelbon to a four-year, $50 million deal instead.
Even if Boras was correct to think he had a deal with the Phillies, he could have adjusted when the talks went awry.
The Phillies likely would have signed Madson to a three-year, $33 million contract, a far less expensive deal than the one they gave Papelbon. Boras also could have grabbed the next open chair by turning aggressive with the Miami Marlins, who were spending quite freely. The Marlins made Madson an offer, but ultimately signed Heath Bell to a three-year, $27 million, free-agent contract.
In fairness, the Marlins seemed to prefer Bell; owner Jeffrey Loria had targeted him early in free agency. But the bottom line was this: The agents for Papelbon and Bell, Seth and Sam Levinson, twice outflanked Boras in the closer market.
In the end, Madson signed an incredibly club-friendly deal with the Reds — one year, $8.5 million. The contract included a $6 million salary for 2012, $4 million of which is deferred, and a $2.5 million buyout on an $11 million mutual option for ’13.
No chance the Reds exercise their end of that option now, not with Madson uncertain to be fully effective at the start of next season.
Madson, 31, could land his big multiyear deal after he returns from surgery. But other Boras free agents also experienced less-than-ideal outcomes this offseason.
Outfielder Johnny Damon, coming off a decent season with the Tampa Bay Rays, remains the best player available on the open market.
First baseman Carlos Pena, who accepted a one-year, $10 million deal from the Chicago Cubs in 2011, took a $2.5 million paycut on a one-year deal with the Rays.
And even first baseman Prince Fielder, who landed a nine-year, $214 million contract with Detroit, might have been in a compromised position if not for a season-ending knee injury to the Tigers’ Victor Martinez.
Rival agents say Boras misread the Fielder market, too, but that criticism is too harsh — in free agency, it’s the outcome that matters, and Fielder got his money.
Well, the outcome for Madson was far worse than it should have been even.
Madson won’t exactly go broke; he was coming off a three-year, $12 million contract that Boras negotiated with the Phillies and will get his $8.5 million from the Reds.
Still, a one-year deal put him at risk, where a multiyear guarantee would have protected him against injury.
His pillow contract turned out to be a nightmare.
Madson should be sleeping in king-size luxury, not on a bed of nails.