Since we never figured CC Sabathia would leave New York, Jonathan Papelbon’s tentative agreement with Philadelphia is the first big player move of the offseason.
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For the Phillies, the impact is obvious: They have a new closer, one who is in his prime and coming off an impressive season with the Red Sox. He won’t be cheap. He won’t be scared when it comes to closing important games in a small ballpark. He’s done that.
Four-year guarantees for pitchers are inherently risky. The Phillies, though, seemed destined to spend big money on a closer, and Papelbon deserved it as much as anyone else. He’s made four All-Star teams. He’s saved more than 200 games. He’s thrown the final pitch of a World Series.
Sure, it’s ironic that the Phillies went big on another closer immediately after Brad Lidge’s cinder-block paperweight came off the books. But it’s hard to find much fault with this.
Now the question is what it means for the remaining free-agent closers — and the teams who seek them.
As luck would have it, there are about as many needy teams as there are unemployed closers. So let the matching section of baseball’s offseason exam begin.
At least seven clubs will consider closer upgrades this winter: the Red Sox, Reds, Marlins, Twins, Mets, Rangers and Blue Jays.
The Padres probably belong on that list, since there’s a strong chance Heath Bell will return to San Diego through salary arbitration. The Orioles may ultimately join the shoppers, too, if new general manager Dan Duquette wants to upgrade on the Kevin Gregg/Jim Johnson tandem.
So, that’s nine potential buyers.
By my count, there are three capital-C closers left on the market: Bell, Ryan Madson and Francisco Cordero.
Bell has been an elite closer for several years and is coming off his third straight All-Star selection. Madson, meanwhile, performed at an All-Star level while closing for most of the year; he only inherited the role this season, but he handled the job well for a 102-win team.
Bell, 34, and Madson, 31, are in their primes. The industry views them as closers, and they will sign contracts accordingly. (It will be particularly fascinating to see Madson’s final number, after his reported $44 million deal with the Phillies never came to pass. The Rangers, seeking a closer who will enable Neftali Feliz to move into the rotation, are among the interested clubs.)
Cordero deserves capital-C status, too. Yes, he’s going to turn 37 in May. But he’s averaged close to 40 saves per season over the past five years. He’s coming off his lowest WHIP in a season since 2002 — and he did it while pitching half the time at hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark. At least one team will want him as its closer.
OK. That’s the easy part.
Now let’s consider a host of names who — because of health, performance, or player movement — didn’t close for the entire 2011 season: Jonathan Broxton, Matt Capps, Frank Francisco, Joe Nathan, Jon Rauch, and Francisco Rodriguez.
(Now the list of closers is at nine.)
Or if you’re really in the mood to gamble, there are those who have faded since posting 30-save seasons over the past several years: Lidge, Fernando Rodney, and David Aardsma.
(Now the list of closers — including the emeriti — is at 12.)
It’s here that the general managers and scouts will earn their keep.
K-Rod certainly deserves another chance to close. He performed well for the Brewers, despite expressing his misgivings about the eighth inning. His WHIP in Milwaukee for two and a half months (1.138) was actually better than what he posted with the Angels while setting the saves record in 2008. We’re eager to hear the Scott Boras sales pitch.
Francisco, meanwhile, could be a value buy. He didn’t attract a ton of attention while closing for a Toronto club that fell out of contention at midseason. But he had a 1.37 ERA and seven saves in 25 appearances after the All-Star break. He pitched a scoreless ninth inning to secure a Blue Jays victory on the season’s final day. Finishing strongly — and with a healthy arm — counts for something on the free-agent market.
At least in that respect, Francisco has an edge on Rodney, who didn’t pitch after Sept. 12; Rauch, who didn’t pitch after Sept. 4; Broxton, who didn’t pitch after May 3; and Aardsma, who didn’t pitch after Sept. 19 . . . of 2010.
Lidge is a fascinating case. His first pitch in a major-league game this year came on July 25. He has a history of arm trouble. He pitched on back-to-back days just four times during the regular season. So, there are some understandable injury concerns. But he also compiled a 1.40 ERA in 25 appearances and was a go-to reliever for manager Charlie Manuel in the postseason.
Nathan and Capps were a ninth-inning tag team for the Twins this year. Capps began the season as the closer and lost the job to Nathan (just back from Tommy John surgery) after the All-Star break. Neither was great in the second half, but Nathan was better than Capps.
Really, it comes down to an educated guessing game: Who’s going to be healthy? Who’s going to bounce back? Who’s willing to sign at the right price? Now that Papelbon is off the board, the free-agent footsie should end soon.