There was Jonathan Papelbon, in the middle of August, blistering through his third save in as many nights. The Red Sox closer required just seven pitches — all fastballs — to conclude the Red Sox’ 4-3 victory over the Twins.
In a luminous Red Sox career, the save marked a new milestone for the closer. Since blowing a ninth-inning lead against the Twins on May 9, he has converted 21 consecutive save opportunities over a three-month span.
In that time, opponents are hitting .215 with a .594 OPS against him. For the year, in fact, he has converted 26 of 27 save opportunities; the Sox have won every game that he’s entered with a lead.
The development, of course, is significant for the Sox. After he suffered through the most difficult season of his career in 2010, Papelbon has come back in near-vintage form in 2011. His effectiveness appears undiminished with the season nearly three-quarters done, and his stuff suggests that it is more than mere lip service when he says that he feels strong for the stretch.
“It’s knowing when to push the gas and brake,” Papelbon told reporters in Minnesota. “I know I’m 30 years old right now, but I feel stronger than I really have in seven seasons of big league baseball. That comes with experience.”
His ERA (3.14) is higher than it was during his historic start to his career, but nonetheless he has been a dominant force at the end of games, getting swings and misses at one of the best rates of his career and attacking the strike zone relentlessly. He is back to being a pitcher who can tell opponents that a fastball is coming while still being able to blow the pitch past them.
“When it’s a 2-0 count or a 1-0 count and the hitters know it’s a fastball coming, I’ve been able to still throw my fastball and get outs with it,” Papelbon told reporters. “That’s a huge, huge part of pitching. My delivery is better, and therefore I’m finishing it better. It’s a domino effect.”
The 2011 season was bound to be a fascinating one for Papelbon even before it began, given that the closer was entering his contract year. He has never been bashful about pronouncing his goal of being the best closer in the game — and being paid accordingly.
While Papelbon is unlikely to surpass the $15 million a year standard set by Mariano Rivera, his performance should have him at or near the top of the pile of this coming winter’s class of free agent relievers. His age, ability to sustain his stuff and consistently elite performances (a characterization that would appear to fit the 2011 season, the fifth time in six full big league years that he has lived up to such a billing) over time suggest that he may be as good a bet as there is in the game when it comes to this winter’s class of free agent closers.
Of course, the market overall for closers has taken a bit of a hit in the last few years, with teams becoming increasingly reluctant to give out eight-figure salaries to relievers for more than a couple of years.
Since Francisco Rodriguez (3 years, $37 million) and Kerry Wood (2 years, $20.5 million) signed multiyear deals to close on consecutive days in December 2008, in fact, only one team — the Yankees — has given a reliever a multiyear deal of $10 million or more per year. At a time when middle relievers have seen their years and salaries go up, the market for closers has gone down.
That, in turn, makes it somewhat difficult to predict what Papelbon might receive on the open market this winter — especially given that the Sox have a compelling in-house option to succeed him in Daniel Bard (even though it is worth mentioning that the Sox would then have to replace Bard as a setup man — no small feat). The Sox will make an offer to him based on what they see as fair value for his services, rather than getting into a bidding war for the longtime closer.
That said, based on what Papelbon’s done in 2011 and its resemblance to his career performance, the Sox closer has put himself in good position to be the alpha dog on a closing market that was once considered extremely deep, but that has subsequently seen a number of top options slip.
Here is a look at the class of free agent closers for the coming winter:
JONATHAN PAPELBON, RED SOX
30 years old
4-0, 3.14 ERA, 26 saves, 1 blown save, 11.8 K/9, 1.5 BB/9
The electricity has returned to Jonathan Papelbon’s fastball, as it appears once again to have that jolt at the end as it crosses home plate. The late explosive life on his primary offering has marked a return to his pre-2009 form, but he has sustained his 95 mph gas for several years now. Moreover, whereas he once complemented that offering only with a splitter, he is now comfortable with both a splitter and slider, giving him different weapons against right-handed and left-handed hitters.
The sub-2.00 ERAs that he produced year after year through 2009 likely reflected some luck. He may never be able to replicate those sorts of staggering marks. Still, he is in his fifth straight year of at least 40 appearances while averaging 10 or more strikeouts per nine innings. He is alone among this winter's crop of free agents in such sustained dominance.
While some teams will have his shoulder subluxation in 2006 in the back of their mind when considering him as a free agent option, he has been as healthy as any closer in the game since 2007, in part due to a relentless commitment to the Red Sox’ shoulder program.
HEATH BELL, PADRES
33 years old
2-4, 2.82 ERA, 31 saves, 3 blown saves, 7.1 K/9, 3.2 BB/9
Bell made his third straight All-Star appearance, and he has recorded three straight seasons of 30 or more saves. However, his strikeout numbers have taken a major hit this season, declining from 11.1 per nine innings in 2010 to a career-low 7.1 per nine innings this year.
That, in turn, likely will lead to some questions about the direction in which he is trending at age 33, particularly given that he doesn’t exactly look like a fitness freak. His numbers have also undoubtedly been influenced by pitching in the safe haven of Petco Park, a venue that has allowed one reliever after another to achieve exceptional numbers.
Even so, he has been a dominant closer on a sustained basis. He will be paid accordingly.
JOSE VALVERDE, TIGERS
33 years old
2-3, 2.92 ERA, 32 saves, 0 blown saves, 8.2 K/9, 4.7 BB/9
Valverde was an All-Star for the second straight year, and he’s been the most reliable pitcher in the game when it comes to locking down leads in the ninth, converting all 32 of his save opportunities.
Interestingly, he’s gone back to being primarily a fastball pitcher in 2011 after having thrown his fastball and split in roughly equal measure in 2010, also an All-Star season. He has done so despite the fact that his fastball velocity (94.1 mph) has been lower than in any season since 2007. His career-high walk rate represents something of a concern, but his performance suggests a pitcher who could be in line for a multiyear deal.
The Tigers do have a $9 million option on Valverde for the 2012 season. There would seem a solid likelihood that Detroit will exercise it given the pitcher's performance under the first two years of his deal and the fact that they would not need to commit to him beyond next season if they do exercise it.
RYAN MADSON, PHILLIES
30 years old
3-1, 1.82 ERA, 20 saves, 1 blown save, 9.8 K/9, 2.7 BB/9
It has been a good year to be Ryan Madson. The 30-year-old has been a top-tier middle reliever for some time. This year, with injuries plaguing the back end of the Phillies bullpen, Madson has graduated to closing duties and has been nearly flawless in the process.
He’s blown only one of 21 save opportunities, and in addition to striking out more than a batter an inning, he’s also allowed just one homer this year. The Scott Boras client is at the end of a three-year, $12 million deal with the Phillies. He’ll improve significantly on that based on his performance for a perennial World Series contender over the last three years.
Madson doesn’t have the established track record of some of his fellow free agent closers, but if Boras could get Rafael Soriano a three-year, $35 million deal, then it would seem difficult to dismiss his chances of landing one of the biggest free agent closing contracts of the offseason for Madson. It is entirely possible that he could jump into an upper-tier contract.
FRANCISCO RODRIGUEZ, BREWERS
29 years old
2-0, 2.70 ERA, 23 saves, 5 blown saves, 10.3 K/9, 3.6 BB/9
Perhaps the most startling thing about K-Rod is that he is still, after all these years, younger than Papelbon and almost every other closer who will be on the market this winter.
He continues to get a ton of strikeouts, and despite the expectations that his violent delivery would send his arm flying over the backstop at some point, it hasn’t happened yet. However, his fastall velocity continues its steady decline, having been whittled from its peak of 94.8 mph in 2006 to a career-low 90.2 mph this year.
His year-after-year performance would have him rank among the top free agent closing options on the market this winter, but makeup and health questions likely will dampen the market for his services to some degree. That said, he’ll still find suitors this offseason, given his track record and the fact that he can still get swings and misses.
FRANCISCO CORDERO, REDS
36 years old
4-3, 2.45 ERA, 20 saves, 5 blown saves, 6.4 K/9, 3.0 BB/9
Cordero is at the end of a four-year, $46 million deal, at the same time that Joe Nathan is at the end of a four-year, $47 million contract. Since those deals were signed following the 2007 season, no free agent closer has received a four-year contract, and that would appear unlikely to change this winter.
Cordero has been a solid, consistent performer for the Reds in the late innings. This year, he has the lowest WHIP of his career (0.99) despite the fact that he is striking out batters at his lowest rate in more than a decade. A freakishly low batting average on balls in play of .206 (almost 100 points below his career .301 mark) has a lot to do with that.
He has earned an opportunity to continue closing somewhere. But whereas he was at the top of the mountain the last time he was a free agent, this winter he projects as a secondary option.
JOE NATHAN, TWINS
36 years old
1-1, 5.28 ERA, 8 saves, 3 blown saves, 7.6 K/9, 3.2 BB/9
In his return from Tommy John surgery, it hasn’t always been smooth for Joe Nathan, who from 2006-09 was in the argument for the most dominant closer in the game along with Papelbon and Mariano Rivera. Even so, as the season has progressed, so has Nathan.
Despite hiccups in his last two outings (3 combined runs in one total inning), he has a 2.51 ERA, .189 average against, 11 strikeouts and two walks in his last 16 games. In the process, he has reclaimed the Twins’ job as closer.
There will still be some red flags, most notably the fact that he underwent Tommy John surgery as a 35-year-old, and that he is producing his worst strikeout and walk rates since becoming a closer.
He would be an interesting buy-low candidate for a club, particularly given the common trajectory of pitchers returning from Tommy John. However, insofar as he is likely to be available at relatively short money (perhaps with an incentive-laden deal), one would expect that the Twins would be in position to retain their long-time closer.
FRANK FRANCISCO, BLUE JAYS
31 years old
1-4, 4.41 ERA, 9 saves, 4 blown saves, 10.1 K/9, 3.6 BB/9
The stuff remains powerful, as evidenced by his 10.1 strikeouts per nine innings and his career rate of 10.0 punchouts per nine frames. However, he won’t be at the front of the line this winter given that he’s lost his job as the Blue Jays closer and his 1.47 WHIP and 1.3 homers per nine innings (the worst rate of his career, albeit one likely influenced by the fact that he’s pitching in the homer haven of the Rogers Centre) suggests a reliever who drives managers to start smoking.
BRAD LIDGE, PHILLIES
34 years old
0-0, 1.69 ERA, 1 save, 0 blown saves, 8.4 K/9, 8.4 BB/9
Lidge just recently returned to the Phillies after missing most of the year with injuries. He’s been usurped by Madson for closing duties.
His velocity is down significantly from his heyday, and his seemingly annual need for one surgery or another would make it difficult for teams to build the back end of a bullpen around him. It would be nearly impossible to imagine the Phillies exercising their $12.5 million option on him, just as it would be nearly impossible to imagine Lidge being more than an intriguing fallback option on the open market.
Still, if he performs reasonably well down the stretch, given the fact that he is a couple years removed from All-Star status, he represents an interesting candidate to be signed as a late-innings reliever who could, perhaps, compete for a closing role.
JON RAUCH, BLUE JAYS
32 years old
4-3, 4.53 ERA, 11 saves, 5 blown saves, 6.0 K/9, 2.3 BB/9
The hulking sometimes-closer of the Blue Jays has had a tough go of life in the AL East. He’s in line for the worst ERA, lowest strikeout rate and highest home run rate of his career. The Blue Jays hold a $3.75 million team option; if they decline it (something that would serve as its own red flag), he wouldn’t affect the market for elite closers.
He’ll find himself in similar waters this coming winter to the ones in which he paddled last offseason, when he got his one-year deal with an option.
JONATHAN BROXTON, DODGERS
27 years old
1-2, 5.68 ERA, 7 saves, 1 blown save, 7.1 K/9, 6.4 BB/9
The massive, hard-throwing right-hander ran into elbow trouble at precisely the wrong time. With a strong season, he could have been in a class with Papelbon and Bell, a closer who strikes out more than 10 batters per nine innings every year. Moreover, he would have been the youngest closer on the market, something that might have helped to diminish some of the concerns about his physique.
But this year, he has spent the last few months sidelined by elbow injuries that had him experiencing his worst performance in the majors since his debut in 2005. He is not expected to pitch in the majors until late September, if at all. He represents something of a lottery ticket for a team this coming winter, rather than a reliable late-innings option.
MATT CAPPS, TWINS
27 years old
3-5, 4.31 ERA, 15 saves, 7 blown saves, 4.3 K/9, 1.1 BB/9
His age works in his favor, and his fastball velocity — while down slightly to 92.8 mph from the 94.0 mph that he featured in 2010 — is still sound. But he’s had a rough year, losing his closing job to Joe Nathan, and the fact that he’s not striking out anyone will limit his appeal.
LIKELY UNAVAILABLE AS FREE AGENTS
RAFAEL SORIANO, YANKEES
31 years old
1-1, 4.26 ERA, 1 save, 1 blown save, 7.1 K/9, 5.2 BB/9
The Yankees signed him to a three-year, $35 million contract in the offseason that included an opt-out after both 2011 and 2012. After a year in which his contributions have been limited in middle relief, and in which he’s faced injuries, the chances that he opts out are next to nothing.
Many executives felt his contract was one of the worst they’d ever seen when it was signed. Nothing has changed that.
All the same, the Yankees can absorb the contract of a massively overpriced middle reliever, and he did look like he was on the path to become a useful late-innings option when in Fenway over the weekend.
KYLE FARNSWORTH, RAYS
35 years old
4-1, 2.00, 20 saves, 4 blown saves, 7.0 K/9, 1.6 BB/9
Entering this year, Farnsworth was viewed as a pitcher with electric stuff but lacking the makeup to compete in the AL East, and with plenty of questions about his ability to close. There wasn’t a huge market for the hard-throwing right-hander’s services, allowing the Rays to swoop in late in the offseason and sign him to a one-year, $2.7 million deal with a no-brainer $3.3 million option.
In the unlikely event that the Rays didn’t exercise it, Farnsworth would have played himself into an interesting position on an open market. Thanks to the development of a nasty cutter, he’s seen his strikeouts go down but his effectiveness increase significantly, and he’s succeeded as a closer in the toughest division in baseball.
But, of course, the only reasons why the Rays wouldn’t exercise the option would be either A) if they work out an August trade for him to a team that will exercise the option or B) if something disastrous from a performance or health standpoint happens to him down the stretch, thus savaging his value.
There’s no indication that either will happen, and so Farnsworth likely won’t be competing for free agent dollars with Papelbon or Bell, or for that matter Valverde, Madson or even the middle-tier options such as Francisco Rodriguez.