Big money for closers might be gone

In the midst of discussing Jonathan Papelbon's eventual long-term contract, WEEI's Alex Speier reviews the recent history of big deals for closers:

    There have been 12 multi-year deals of at least $9 million a year signed by closers. Three of the pitchers to sign those contracts (Joe Nathan, Billy Wagner, B.J. Ryan) have been subjected to Tommy John surgery, and a fourth (Eric Gagne) also underwent a major procedure that left him unable to pitch for most of the two years of his deal.Seemingly, it represents a significant — and risky — leap of faith to assume that a closer can remain intact during the life of his deal. After all, on March 5, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire was offering his hope that Minnesota could keep Nathan healthy for the coming year, following an offseason in which he had surgery to remove bone spurs and loose bodies from his elbow.

    “[Keeping closers healthy] just depends on how you use them. If you’re going to take a closer and start stretching him out to two innings here, two innings there, save 50 games a year, you’re going to wear a guy out pretty quick,” Gardenhire said. “We’ve been fortunate enough to give him one inning at a time rather than the two.

    “Last year we were in a battle for our lives. The only way we were going to make it, we stretched him out a little bit. You know what? He was still as good as they get, and he will be, if you take care of him.”

    One day later, Nathan blew out while pitching in his first game of the spring against the Red Sox.

Pride goeth before the fall, etc.

In six seasons as the Twins' closer, Nathan averaged almost exactly one inning per appearance in each season.

Did Gardenhire "stretch" Nathan out "a little bit" down the stretch last season? Not really. He was asked to record more than three outs just twice in the entire season: six outs on the 21st of August and five outs in the playoff game against the Tigers in Game 163. Nathan did a couple of three-out stints against the Yankees in their Division Series.

So Gardenhire babied Nathan, as usual, and he's got a major elbow injury anyway.

Which doesn't necessarily bear heavily on Papelbon's situation. Still, the history isn't encouraging. Speier presents 12 multiyear contracts for closers that averaged at least $9 million per season. But three of those contracts went to the same man: Mariano Rivera (who's obviously a freak of nature). So we're talking about 10 pitchers. Three of them -- B.J. Ryan, Billy Wagner, and now Nathan -- wound up as subjects of Tommy John surgery. Brad Lidge was all sorts of hurt last year. Eric Gagne earned $19 million for pitching 15 innings. Kerry Wood was just decent last year, and will miss a month or two this year. The other four -- Rivera, John Smoltz, Francisco Cordero, and Francisco Rodriguez -- were both healthy and effective.

Of course, it's still early for the Franciscos; both have contracts running through 2011. So we can say that six of the 10 pitchers were disappointing because of injuries, two were unqualified successes, and two are still fighting the good fight.

Teams have figured out that relievers aren't worth more than about $10 million per season. Even the best of them, like Papelbon. The Red Sox can afford to overpay a little ... but on the other hand, a long-term contract affords the possibility of overpaying by a lot.