An elite, shutdown closer is a luxury for many noncontenders, but is a seemingly essential component for a championship ballclub (see Rivera, Mariano). Closers in general command a premium in the free agent market, but for many teams, their investment can go horribly wrong. Let's take a trip back to the 2008-2009 offseason, where four closers: Francisco Rodriguez, Brian Fuentes, Kerry Wood, and Trevor Hoffman, were free agents selling their services to the highest bidder. These are their stories, after the jump.
As a Mets fan, the 2008 season was a heartbreaking disappointment that put the disgusting taste of 2007 back in my mouth (but looking back, wouldn't you rather be in the Mets position at the end of the 2008 season than now? That's another story, I digress). The Mets offense ranked 2nd in the National League with 799 runs, thanks to stellar production from David Wright, Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, and Carlos Delgado. The starting pitching in general fared well, with both Johan Santana (2.53 ERA) and Mike Pelfrey (3.72 ERA) each going over 200 innings for the year. Even now-pariah Oliver Perez (4.22, 194 innings) and injury prone John Maine (4.18, 140 innings) turned in solid years.
The Achilles heel of the 2008 team, however, was the bullpen. When Billy Wagner was lost to Tommy John surgery in August, no one stepped up and filled his shoes. Luis Ayala was the only rabbit that Omar Minaya was able to pull out of his hat, and he failed in epic fashion, pitching to the tune of a 5.50 ERA in 18 innings. The bullpen debacle was only magnified in the last game of the season, when Ayala and his partner in crime, Scott Schoeneweis, gave up back to back homers to the Marlins that effectively killed the Mets run at the postseason. It was obvious that the bullpen needed a major makeover, with arguably the only reliable piece being Joe Smith. In typical fashion, Minaya fixed only the most glaring issue by signing Francisco Rodriguez, the premier free agent closer on the market that year, without doing much else to improve the team (left field, second base, etc. But that's another story).
Coming off a record setting season of 62 saves, Rodriguez signed a contract for 3 years/$37 million, with the vesting option of doom that may possibly kick in for 2012 that is worth $17.5 million. Fangraphs tells us that his 2009 WAR was .3, and his 2010 WAR was 1.4 (even with an abbreviated 2010 season that ended in August). This production, according to Fangraphs, was worth $1.3 million and $5.5 million, respectively. This is a far cry from the $12.3 million dollars on average that the Mets are paying him per year. Currently, Rodriguez has produced a .6 WAR in 2011, which figures to rise to about 1.8 if extrapolated over the course of the season. However, it is easy to say that the money spent on Rodriguez could have very easily been spent somewhere else with more bang for the buck. It is also important to note that during Rodriguez's record setting 2008 season, he was being overpaid by $2 million according to Fangraphs, and his 1.8 WAR that year was worth $8 million. Rodriguez actually posted his best WAR in 2004, with a 4.0, which would have been worth $12.3 million. That was the only season in his career that would have been worth Minaya's contract, and there would have been no surplus value whatsoever. But maybe, in Minaya's defense, the overpay was justified for the higher probability, certainity, and security that Rodriguez would be better overall than the others on the market. As we will see, even being overpaid and with a declining fastball velocity, Rodriguez was the most productive out of relievers who received multi-year, eight figure dollar deals.
Verdict: Overpay (-$17.8 million, 1.6 WAR, 2009-2010)
The Angels were unwilling to overpay Rodriguez, despite his record setting walk year. Rodriguez's saves were a direct product of the Angels playing in numerous close and late games, and Angels management knew this best of all. Instead, after the Mets signed him on 12/10/08, the Angels went after and overpaid for what they thought was the next best thing: Brian Fuentes. Fuentes first became a full-time closer in 2005 for the Colorado Rockies, and made the All Star team that year, the first of three straight. However, in June 2007, he lost the closer role to Manny Corpas after blowing four saves in an eight day span, a role that he would not regain until April 2008. After a very good 2008 season, he was signed by the Angels on New Year's Eve to a 2 year/$17.5 million contract, with a vesting option for $9 million for 2011.
However, his 2009 was a disappointment, compiling a .3 WAR, which was worth $1.5 million according to Fangraphs (coincidentally, the same WAR as Rodriguez that year). Even though he led the majors in saves with 48, his ERA went up over a full run, to 3.93 from 2.72 in 2008, and his WHIP was a dangerously high 1.40. As stated earlier, the copious amount of saves that Angels closers seemed to earn were more a product of the team playing in late and close games than anything else. Realizing that Fuentes was a shaky option and appeared to be reverting back to the ways that cost him the closer's job in Colorado back in 2007, the Angels signed Fernando Rodney in the 2009 offseason for 2 years/$11 million as an insurance policy and to split up the saves.
The early part of 2010 saw Fuentes struggle with a declining fastball velocity and strikeout rate, and a rising walk rate. However, Fuentes still had an aptitude for getting out left handed batters. In August 2010, Fuentes was put on waivers and traded to the Minnesota Twins for minor leaguer Loek Van Mil, who is more famous for being the tallest player in the minors at 7'1'' and being from The Netherlands than anything else. Fuentes put up a .4 WAR in 2010 between the two ballclubs, only a marginal improvement that was still worth $1.5 million according to Fangraphs. The vesting option for 2011 did not vest, and Fuentes signed a contract worth $10.5 million over two years with Oakland, where he currently plays. Was he more of an overpay than Rodriguez in the end? No. But, his production was less than Rodriguez's, so pick your poison I guess.
Verdict: Overpay (-$14.5 million, .7 WAR, 2009-2010)
Alternating between periods of dominance, injury, and freak accidents as a starting pitcher, Wood returned in 2007 as a reliever, and became the full-time closer in 2008 for the Chicago Cubs. He amassed 34 saves for the NL Central Champs, and parlayed this comeback season of sorts into a 2 years/20.5 million dollar deal with the Cleveland Indians. The deal also came with an 11 million option for 2011.
This was a foolish overpay from the jumpstart. Wood had only one season under his belt as closer, and even that was marked by a 15 day DL stint. His last full healthy season was 2003. Regardless, it was apparent that the Indians thought Wood was better than Fuentes, because they signed him earlier (12/13, as compared to 12/31 for Fuentes) and gave him more guarenteed money ($20.5 million for Wood against $17.5 million for Fuentes).
In 2009, Wood put up a .4 WAR, which was actually better than both Rodriguez and Fuentes, even with the two DL trips Wood made that year. Fangraphs pegged his production as being worth $2 million dollars. Wood put up a terrible 6.30 ERA with the Indians in 2010, before being traded to the Yankees at the deadline for two prospects and cash. Wood then proceeded to be lights out, putting up a .69 ERA with his new club. His final ERA split between the two clubs stood at 3.13, however, due to the limited number of innings he pitched that year due to injury, his total WAR was only .1. Fangraphs puts that production as being worth $500,000. Wood's contract option was declined by the Yankees, and he came home to the Cubs for 2011. Wood's inevitable DL stints, in addition to his dreadful first half of 2010 with the Indians, make him more of an overpay than both Rodriguez and Fuentes, even though Rodriguez was guaranteed $16.5 million dollars more than Wood. That's pretty bad.
Verdict: Overpay (-$18 million, .5 WAR, 2009-2010)
The Major's all-time leader in career saves was slighted by the Padres and their GM at the time, Kevin Towers, with a lowball contract offer after the 2008 season ended. The Brewers seized the opportunity, and signed Hoffman to a 1 year/6 million dollar deal on January 13th, 2009. After missing almost the first month with a strained ribcage muscle, Hoffman had a stellar first season with the Brew Crew. He won an All-Star selection, and was also named NL Pitcher of the Month and MLB Delivery Man of the Month for May. With a 1.83 ERA in 54 innings pitched, Hoffman compiled a 1.5 WAR that year, which was worth $6.7 million dollars, a surplus value of $700,000.
He resigned with the Brewers for $8 million in 2010 with a mutual option in 2011. However, Hoffman lost his closer's spot, and retired at the end of the year. We will only count his first contract with the Brewers, because we are only comparing contracts signed in the 2008 offseason.
Verdict: Underpay (+$700,000, 1.5 WAR, 2009)
So what does this all tell us? Looking back at articles from that 2008 offseason, the mainstream media proclaimed that the glut of free agent closers that year made for a buyer's market. However, as demonstrated, three out of the four closers got more money than their production actually dictated they should. This is due primarily to the heavy reliance on the save by many teams, which is a near useless statistic. Saves are what closers live for, which in turn deliver them the big paycheck when they hit free agency. However, saves are more beneficial to the closer and his wallet than they are to the team and the greater goal of winning. So the answer to the question posed in the title "Were They Worth It?" is no, most of the time. Giving multiyear deals to free agent relievers is a bad idea. Only Trevor Hoffman, who was paid the least, and only received a one year deal that offseason, had the highest WAR of the four, and even contributed surplus value.
Billy Beane had the right idea in Moneyball when he took a somewhat above-average pitcher, put him in the closer's role, let him accumulate a ton of saves, and sell high on him in a trade. I propose going one step further: developing so-called "relief aces" in the farm system, for cost effectiveness with more production. They will be able to pitch in any high-leverage close situation, regardless of the inning, and be able to go 2-3 innings at a time. It will lead to a higher WAR for the player, and will allow the team to maximize their pitchers' win potential. Sooner or later, teams will realize that the money that they have been spending on closers that only provide marginal WAR is better used elsewhere.