The Jim Johnson Gambit fails

Last winter, the A’s and Rays both spent more money on relief pitchers than we believed smart teams should spend on relief pitching. This led Jeff Sullivan to wonder if maybe the A’s and Rays were even smarter than us.

Maybe they are! (Okay, they definitely are.)

Still, $10 million for Jim Johnson seemed like a lot. At least for a team like the A’s with an $82 million payroll; Johnson became the Athletics’ third-highest-paid player, just a smidge behind Yoenis Cespedes and Scott Kazmir (counting Kazmir’s signing bonus). Seemed like a lot. Now it especially seems like a lot, with the A’s DFA’ing Johnson.

But wait! Last winter, Matt Murphy noticed that a bunch of teams were signing veteran closers to good-sized contracts, even though the clubs already had impressive young closers-in-waiting. Was this merely fealty to Proven Closers run rampant? Or was something else going on?

Murphy focused on the A’s and found something else. Something really interesting. Murphy found that paying a veteran now means saving millions of dollars later, because your impressive young closers-in-waiting, if kept in setup roles for an extra season or two, won’t make as much money in the arbitration process. Because the arbitration is skewed, however ridiculously, toward saves.

Running the numbers, Murphy figured the A’s would save roughly $7 million on closer-in-waiting Ryan Cook’s salaries during his arbitration years, merely by keeping him out of the closer role in 2014. They’re paying Johnson $10 million this season. But $10 million minus $7 million equals $3 million … or Johnson’s effective cost in 2014.

All of which makes sense, in theory. In reality, Johnson’s been terrible this season and Cook’s been just okay in the setup role, with Sean Doolittle taking over as closer and doing a bang-up job.

I don’t think you can fault the A’s for the theory (assuming, of course, that Murphy has correctly divined management’s rationale). But Johnson’s not the only veteran closer who’s struggled this season with a new team. Fernando Rodney’s been fine with the Mariners, but Heath Bell and Grant Balfour flamed out with the Rays, John Axford lost his job as closer (but has pitched well since), and LaTroy Hawkins is getting by with smoke and mirrors.

I like the theory. But relief pitchers, leaving aside the elite, might just be too unstable for testing a theory that might cost you $10 million. Not to mention a few critical victories.