Cincinnati Reds general manager Walt Jocketty may be too old to do a backflip, but he may be attempting one right now. This is how you build a good team in a small market with a limited budget: Sign one of the better closers in the game for a one-year, $8.5 million contract, as Jerry Crasnick is reporting.
Over the past five seasons, only eight relievers with at least 300 innings pitched have a lower ERA than Madson's 2.89 mark. Over the past two seasons, he has a 2.45 ERA, a 126-15 strikeouts-unintentional walks ratio and has allowed just 96 hits in 113.2 innings. In his first season as a closer, he converted 32 of 34 save opportunities. Importantly for the Reds, considering the cozy dimensions of Great American Ballpark, Madson keeps the ball in the park, allowing just two home runs in 2011 and six over the past two seasons.
Madson should be viewed as a solid upgrade over Francisco Cordero, whose 2.45 ERA last year masked a pitcher in decline. In 2007 with the Brewers, Cordero was a pure power reliever, averaging 12.2 strikeouts per nine innings. That number steadily dropped during his years with the Reds, all the way down to 5.4 in 2011. Cordero managed to survive last season due to improved control and a likely unrepeatable .215 batting average on balls in play.
Mind you, this doesn't necessarily make the Reds better than what Cordero gave them in 2011 -- although he did blow six saves (the Reds lost four of those games) -- but it does make them better over what Cordero likely would have given them in 2012.
The Reds' bullpen now looks pretty solid with Madson, lefty setup man Sean Marshall (acquired from the Cubs), Bill Bray, Nick Masset, Logan Ondrusek and possibly Aroldis Chapman. The Reds will need a lot of quality innings from the 'pen, since their rotation ranked 13th in the NL in ERA and eighth in innings in 2011. The addition of Mat Latos will help that group, but the bullpen now appears to be the strength of this pitching staff.
As for Madson, he misread the free-agent market for closers, that's for sure. His initial asking price was reportedly $40 million for a long-term contract, but once the Phillies signed Jonathan Papelbon, the Marlins signed Heath Bell and the Red Sox traded for Andrew Bailey, there were no more big-market teams on the search for a closer. So he'll take the one-year deal and head back into free agency, hoping for that monster deal next offseason.