Too many closers, not enough jobs

BY Ken Rosenthal • December 19, 2009

For some closers, the free-agent game of musical chairs is not likely to end well.

Too many of ‘em are on the market. Not enough well-paying, ninth-inning jobs remain.

Two more closers -- Pirates righty Matt Capps and Nationals righty Mike MacDougal -- became free agents when their respective teams declined to offer them salary arbitration.

The availability of the Padres’ Heath Bell in trade only adds to the squeeze. Bell is more affordable than some of the closers on the open market; his salary in arbitration is likely to be in the $4 million range.

Four teams already have found closers. The Braves signed left-hander Billy Wagner. The Orioles signed left-hander Mike Gonzalez. The Rays traded for righty Rafael Soriano and the Astros signed righty Brandon Lyon and traded for righty Matt Lindstrom.

Only three teams are still looking for closers -- the Tigers, Nationals and Pirates.

The Tigers do not figure to spend heavily -- they traded center fielder Curtis Granderson and right-hander Edwin Jackson in part because of payroll issues.

The Pirates never spend heavily. The Nationals, like the Pirates, are rebuilding. Closers are luxury items for such teams; other needs are more pressing.

The good news is, a number of high-revenue clubs -- the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, Phillies, Mets and Cubs -- are looking for setup help.

The role isn’t as glamorous. The pay isn’t as good. But if the choice is setting up for the Red Sox or closing for the Nationals, most right-minded relievers would set up for the Red Sox.

Oh, it’s musical-chairs time, all right.

Jose Valverde. His problem is not performance; Valverde, 30, earned 91 saves in 2007 and ’08 and recovered from a right calf strain to go 17-for-17 in opportunities with a 1.64 ERA after the All-Star Game last season.

No, Valverde’s problem is that he is a Type A free agent who rejected his team’s offer of salary arbitration. His decision, in part, was fueled by emotion; Valverde, one friend said, was upset with the Astros for declining to sign him long-term.

Thus, he made a personal decision, if not -- perhaps -- the best business move.

Valverde, a right-hander coming off an $8 million salary, would have shot past $10 million in arbitration, though on a non-guaranteed, one-year deal. Now, any team that signs him faces an additional cost -- the loss of a high draft pick to the Astros.

Teams are interested. They have to be interested. The question is at what price.

Fernando Rodney. A published report said the Astros were discussing Rodney, but his asking price was $30 million for three years. That account was disputed both by Rodney’s agent, Seth Levinson -- “there is absolutely no truth to that claim” -- and by Astros general manager Ed Wade, who said, “We never really got numbers from Rodney’s guys.”

Rodney, 32, is a Type B free agent, so a team can sign him without losing a draft pick. Lyon was his setup man with the Tigers, so it stands to reason that he will exceed Lyon’s $5 million average salary with the Astros. His initial asking price, one source said, was in the range of $6 million to $8 million over three years.

A return to the Tigers might make the most sense.

Matt Capps. Not a lot to like going off last season; Capps, 26, had a 5.80 ERA and averaged nearly two baserunners per inning. But Capps’ agent, Paul Kinzer, has been stunned by the amount of interest in his client; the pitcher is expected to pick five finalists this weekend.

Capps performed well in 2007 and ’08, and a number of former Pirates executives around baseball -- including Dave Littlefield (Cubs), Roy Smithh (Blue Jays) and Bryan Minniti (Nationals) -- could attest to his makeup and push their respective teams to sign him.

Mike MacDougal. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is not good. His September ERA was 9.53. And he’s coming off arthroscopic surgery. Still, MacDougal throws 95 to 96 mph with sink and enjoyed something of a breakthrough last season.

The White Sox released MacDougal last April 29. The Nationals signed him to a minor-league deal and promoted him on May 28. After that, MacDougal converted 20 of 21 save opportunities and led all major-league relievers in groundball percentage.

The Nats non-tendered MacDougal for the same reason the Pirates non-tendered Capps -- they feared he would earn more than $3 million in arbitration. While neither is Valverde, their sudden entrances into the market only add to the glut.

Too many closers, not enough jobs.



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