The closer carousel has been spinning this winter -- seven of the 28 relievers to notch 20-plus saves in 2011 have changed teams. But it appears its rotation is slowing, the music about to stop, the ride nearly ending.
In what might be the final high-fantasy-impact closer transaction of the offseason, Ryan Madson, having watched the position's market dry up over the past several weeks, agreed to a one-year, $8.5-million contract with the Cincinnati Reds early Wednesday morning.
Madson immediately takes over as the Reds' new finisher, and his signing continues a chain of transactions that indeed fuels the "closer carousel" moniker: Madson is now with the Reds, his former team the Philadelphia Phillies signed Jonathan Papelbon, and Papelbon's former team the Boston Red Sox traded for Andrew Bailey. What's next? Will the Oakland Athletics, Bailey's former team, sign ex-Reds closer Francisco Cordero, still a free agent? (More on Cordero in a bit.)
Replacing Cordero with Madson is a smart move, the Reds shedding $3.625 million in salary at the position for a marginal difference in 2011 performance: Cordero was the No. 8 relief pitcher on our Player Rater, Madson 13th. They also get younger at the position: Cordero is 36 years old, and turns 37 in May, while Madson is 31.
About the only people who would argue that the Reds have downgraded are those who chase raw saves totals, as Madson's only failing is that he lacks Cordero's experience in the role. Interestingly enough, Madson has spent exactly 162 team games as a closer -- I admit that "days as closer" is partly a judgment call -- over parts of the past three seasons. Cordero, meanwhile, spent all 162 Reds games as closer in 2011. Here's how their numbers during that time compare:
Cordero: 69 G, 37 SV, 6 BS, 86.0 SV%, 2.45 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 5.43 K/9.
Madson: 73 G, 38 SV, 6 BS, 86.4 SV%, 3.39 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 9.17 K/9.
In Madson's defense, his worst numbers as closer came during his brief fill-in stints of 2009-10, which might explain the infamous quote by Phillies pitching coach Rich Dubee between the 2010 and 2011 seasons: "What did he do, take a crash course in how to close or something?" Madson responded well when asked to close last season; he was 32-for-34 (94.1 percent) in saves with a 2.52 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and 8.89 K's-per-nine ratio in 55 appearances in the role.
Now, compare Cordero and Madson's performances the past three years combined:
Cordero: 211 G, 116 SV, 18 BS, 86.6 SV%, 2.84 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 6.85 K/9.
Madson: 196 G, 47 SV, 13 BS, 78.3 SV%, 2.78 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 9.61 K/9.
Though the save totals are hardly equal, Madson has been the better performer of the two. If you consider saves plus holds during that span, Madson is Cordero's equal in terms of success rate; 86.7 percent of either of their "save situations," per Baseball-Reference.com, resulted in a save or hold.
To argue that Madson should have no problem matching or exceeding Cordero's 2011 fantasy output, which was that of a top-10 closer, is reasonable. In fact, he might be one of the better draft-day bargains, being that he lacks the track record in the role of many of the top-10 candidates, yet is joining a Reds team that significantly upgraded its rotation with the acquisition of Mat Latos. Originally my No. 16 closer -- ranked that low due to concerns he might agree to terms as a setup man elsewhere -- Madson now vaults to ninth at the position, and 124th overall.
Cordero, meanwhile, suffers significantly as a result of Madson's signing, as the Reds represented one of the few logical remaining destinations where he'd still be the unquestioned closer. Looking at our Closer Chart, there are really only four obvious places where he'd close: the Baltimore Orioles, Chicago White Sox, Houston Astros and Oakland Athletics. However, all four of those teams are rebuilding and/or aren't interested in spending money on a veteran closer. Chances are, Cordero will have to agree to a setup role for a contending team, meaning his prospects of saves come Opening Day are substantially lower today than yesterday.
Here's why that's bothersome: Though Cordero posted his lowest WHIP in 2011 (1.02) in nine years, that category has rarely been a strength for him in the past, as he preceded it with 1.41, 1.32 and 1.43 numbers and has a 1.33 mark in his career. His strikeout rate has also plummeted, dropping from a career-high 12.22 per nine in 2007 by more than two whiffs per nine in each of 2008 (9.98) and 2009 (7.83), and resulting in a career-worst 5.43 in 2011. Cordero's fastball velocity also dropped by nearly 2 mph from 2010 to 2011, going from an average of 94.3 mph to 92.6, his well-hit average soared from .213 to .317, and he served up line drives on 26.1 percent of his balls in play (up from 18.4 percent). This is a pitcher who might regress in a noticeable way in 2012, and if he does it as an eighth-inning arm instead of a clear closer, it's not as large a step down into mop-up relief.
Once my No. 25 fantasy closer -- that ranking due to the large number of available closer jobs to begin the winter -- Cordero's stock has dropped to 36th at the position. At this point, it's time to draft assuming he won't be a closer to begin 2012.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can email him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.