Boston Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington received the Sporting News Executive of the Year award from his peers last week as a reward for all the prudent choices he made in assembling his 2013 roster. Even when Cherington's first or second moves went awry, he was astute enough with his Plan B's and C's to adequately cover his posterior.
There's no more compelling example than Boston's closer situation. The Red Sox began the season with Joel Hanrahan in the role only to lose him to an elbow reconstruction in May. Then they handed it off to Andrew Bailey, who lost the job to Koji Uehara before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in June. All Uehara did was average 12.2 strikeouts per nine innings, post a 0.565 WHIP and allow one run in 13 2/3 postseason innings to help the Red Sox win a title. The organization couldn't have asked for anything more in exchange for a two-year, $8.5 million commitment.
The experience showed Cherington that it's important to be flexible with the back end of his bullpen. But then, he's known that all along.
"Closers just sort of appear a lot of times, and you don't know for sure who's going to do it until they've done it," Cherington said. "There's something to having stuff and the ability to execute, but it's also a different exercise to be out there for the last three outs than at other points in the game. There are probably more guys who can do it than we think."
It's perpetual fodder for debate in front offices: The closer job is one of the most high-profile in baseball. Managers get grilled about it constantly, and the slightest whiff of uncertainty can become a major problem for teams with championship aspirations. The 2013 Detroit Tigers are a classic example.
But since closers come in a variety of shapes, sizes, gun readings, service time and salary brackets, teams are wary of making big-money, long-term commitments for 60 or 70 innings of work -- no matter how high-leverage those innings are.
So what are executives in need of bullpen upgrades to do this winter? They're not lacking for choices.
A crowded market
Among the teams that could be in the mix for a closer, a sidekick or late-inning bullpen depth: the Tigers, Colorado Rockies, Tampa Bay Rays, Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, New York Yankees, San Francisco Giants, Texas Rangers, Los Angeles Angels, Baltimore Orioles, Seattle Mariners, Oakland Athletics, Philadelphia Phillies and Houston Astros. The Cincinnati Reds might even jump into the fray if they decide to resurrect the Aroldis Chapman starter experiment again in spring training.
Among the former All-Stars or 30-save closers on the free-agent market: Joe Nathan, Grant Balfour, Brian Wilson, Fernando Rodney, Kevin Gregg, Hanrahan, Edward Mujica, Juan Carlos Oviedo (formerly the artist known as Leo Nunez), Chris Perez and Ryan Madson, who hasn't pitched since 2011 because of arm problems. Throw in Joaquin Benoit, Francisco Rodriguez, potential non-tender candidates John Axford and Bailey, sidearming setup man Joe Smith, a rehabbing Jesse Crain and former Yankees golden boy Joba Chamberlain, and teams have a multitude of options to consider.
The catch is, all these pitchers come with enough age, mileage, injury issues or other yellow caution flags that potential suitors might prefer to take things slowly. According to one big league executive, several of the aforementioned players are seeking shorter-term deals for more than $10 million annually.
"Every guy has some trait or wart that makes teams say, 'Yeah, but,'" said an agent. "The question is, what flaws are teams willing to live with, and at what price?"
Nathan is tied with Rollie Fingers for 10th place on baseball's career save list (with 341) and is coming off a superb year, but he turns 39 on Friday. Benoit and Balfour were terrific in 2013, but they'll both pitch at age 36 next season. Wilson made a nice comeback from Tommy John surgery in Los Angeles, but it was his second career elbow reconstruction. Rodney notched 85 saves in Tampa Bay over the past two seasons, but his ERA spiked from 0.60 to 3.38 and his walk rate nearly tripled. And on it goes.
If teams are wary of paying big money to established closers based on gaudy save totals, it's because the position is so unpredictable and, in the estimation of many executives, interchangeable.
"If you look among the different positional groups when you break down starting pitchers, position players and relievers, there's clearly the most volatility in relievers," said Cleveland GM Chris Antonetti. "There are minor league free agents contributing in meaningful roles in the bullpen. Failed prospects go on and get an opportunity, and guys that were formerly starters can have meaningful roles. Relief pitchers and closers come from a variety of places. You see it every year."
Just think of the twists and turns that several playoff teams experienced with their closers in 2013:
• Mujica, who entered the season as a career setup man, stepped in and saved 37 games after the St. Louis Cardinals lost Jason Motte to Tommy John surgery in May. When Mujica faded at the end, Trevor Rosenthal assumed the role and struck out 18 batters in 11 2/3 innings in the postseason.
• The Pittsburgh Pirates found their lockdown closer in Jason Grilli, who made his first All-Star Game at age 36. When Grilli suffered a strained flexor tendon in July, former Red Sox setup man Mark Melancon ably filled the void.
• The Tigers hoped in vain that rookie Bruce Rondon would be ready to assume the closer role in spring training. Then they recycled Jose Valverde only to find he couldn't get by on a fastball alone. Benoit stepped in and saved 24 games, but allowed a crucial grand slam to David Ortiz in the American League Championship Series to end the season on a rough note.
• The Reds have one of the most dominant closers in baseball in Chapman. But they began spring training with a plan to move him to the rotation before punting on the idea and keeping him in the bullpen.
• Chris Perez, who averaged 30 saves a year in Cleveland from 2010 to 2013, was so shaky down the stretch that he lost his job in late September and got released by the team after the World Series. The Indians are monitoring the relief market. But if they can't acquire a closer who fits their budget, they'll look internally and let Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw compete for the role in spring training.
Braves' Kimbrel a rarity
There have been 12 deals of $30 million or more for closers in MLB history. Future Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera signed three of them in New York. The others went to Jonathan Papelbon (Phillies), B.J. Ryan (Toronto Blue Jays), Nathan (Twins), Francisco Cordero (Reds), Billy Wagner (New York Mets), Brad Lidge (Phillies), Francisco Rodriguez (Mets), Rafael Soriano (Washington Nationals) and John Smoltz (Atlanta Braves).
Have we seen the last contract of that magnitude for a closer? Don't bet on it. Atlanta's Craig Kimbrel has 139 saves, a 0.90 WHIP and 381 strikeouts in 227 1/3 career innings with Atlanta, and will be 28 years old when he's eligible for free agency after the 2016 season. Assuming Kimbrel stays healthy, he has a good chance to surpass Papelbon's record four-year, $50 million contract with Philadelphia.
Maybe Kansas City's Greg Holland will join him in the $30 million-plus closer fraternity. Or perhaps it will be Rosenthal, if the Cardinals don't move him to the starting rotation. But the 10-15-year closer is such an outlier, Kimbrel is more the exception than the rule.
The agents entrusted with negotiating deals for late-inning relievers still preach the gospel of depth and reliability at the back end of the bullpen. That group includes Seth Levinson's ACES agency, which negotiated Papelbon's $50 million contract and lucrative multiyear deals for League, Heath Bell and several other relievers. This winter ACES is representing Balfour and Benoit, pitchers whom Levinson sees as potential difference-makers for teams with an eye on contending.
"Take, for example, the Arizona Diamondbacks, who finished 81-81 this season with their closers having a save percentage of .739," Levinson said in an email. "If the Diamondbacks' closers' save percentage was comparable to Grant's .927, it would have resulted in nine more wins and a possible trip to the postseason. With parity and the additional wild-card teams, the difference between the playoffs and the golf course is all but a handful of games."
Levinson adds that the financial health of the industry, the need for a strong bullpen and the depth of this year's free-agent group "provide an opportunity for teams to either transform into contenders or realistically expect to be playing into late October."
The next few weeks will show if MLB front offices share his enthusiasm. In the early going, it's been all about bargain shopping. The Colorado Rockies signed 40-year-old LaTroy Hawkins to a $2.5 million deal and plan to give him a crack at their closer job. The Rays signed hard-throwing (and often-injured) Mark Lowe to a minor league deal over the weekend, and the Diamondbacks picked up lefty Ryan Rowland-Smith, who went 7-0 with a 1.55 ERA for Boston's Triple-A Pawtucket club in 2013.
For teams in search of bullpen help, it's all about balancing opportunism and cost-consciousness with the fear factor of guessing wrong. It's easy to say the closer's job is overrated until it's mid-June, the fans are about to revolt and every ninth-inning lead brings an accompanying sense of dread.
"When it doesn't work out with a closer, you lose games," said an agent. "And if you lose the wrong game at the wrong time, you can lose the season."
That's something executives throughout the game will keep in mind in their quest to find the next Koji Uehara.