Well, that didn’t take long.
The starter’s pistol for free agent closers went off on Tuesday, and teams in the market for free agent closers were floored when it did so. The Phillies and closer Ryan Madson were reportedly nearing a four-year, $44 million deal that also included a $13 million vesting option for a fifth year.
Word of such a contract arrived as the equivalent of nails on a chalkboard in the Boston front office and others throughout the game. In many respects, the deal represented a massive reversal in the direction of contracts for top closers of recent years.
No closer has been given a four-year deal since prior to the 2008 season, when Francisco Cordero was given a four-year, $46 million deal by the Reds and Joe Nathan signed a four-year, $47 million deal with the Twins. And aside from Mariano Rivera, who received a two-year, $30 million deal from the Yankees last winter, and Rafael Soriano, whom the Yankees signed for more than $11 million a year to set up, no closer since the 2009-10 offseason had received a multi-year deal of $10 million or more.
Baseball teams -- at least 29 of them -- had collectively acted on the premise that closing is a volatile undertaking that is fraught with risk. The resulting contracts had served as something of a hedge against that notion. Even at a time when contracts for setup men had taken off (last winter featured a binge of three-year deals for middle relievers), contracts for closers had moved in the opposite direction.
The 31-year-old (a few months older than free agent closer Jonathan Papelbon) just concluded an undeniably spectacular season. Even so, it was his first as a closer after a career spent setting up, and it did come with the footnote of a brief trip to the disabled list (Madson’s fifth of his career, and his fourth in the past five years) for a right hand contusion.
Madson has long been a member of the Very Good But Not Great Relievers Club. In 491 career games, he has a 3.59 ERA. In the last five years, that mark dips to 2.89. In his career, he has struck out 7.8 and walked 2.7 batters per nine innings; again, he’s improved on those numbers since 2007, with marks of 8.6 and 2.6. He’s also been an important postseason contributor to the Phillies, having logged 35 innings with a 2.31 ERA, going 2-1 with a save, seven holds and four blown saves.
As a result of that Very Good But Not Great Reliever track record, when the offseason began, Madson seemed like a potentially more cost-effective alternative to Papelbon, and a likely fallback option for the Sox to consider if their longtime closer went elsewhere. Instead, his deal now represents something of a nightmare scenario for those (including the Sox) who were and are in the market for closers.
After all, Madson and the Phillies appear to be taking the closing market to a place where a lost year is virtually an assumed risk. There have been five closing contracts of at least four years at a minimum of $9 million per season. Three of the closers who signed those deals (B.J. Ryan, Billy Wagner, Nathan) lost at least one year to injury (and in the case of Ryan, it was closer to three years), one hails from Krypton (Mariano Rivera), and one mortal stayed healthy and delivered the goods.
Taking a slightly broader look at expensive multi-year deals for closers, few have panned out. In baseball history, 11 closers (if one counts Soriano as such, even though he signed with the Yankees to be a middle-innings reliever) have been given multi-year deals of at least $9 million per season.
Rivera, when not spending his winters in Smallville, has received four and has held up his end of the bargain with each of them to date. He has averaged at least 60 innings a year in each of those four deals.
As for the other 10 who depend on oxygen for sustenance … the returns are decidedly less impressive. Of those nine, just three (John Smoltz, Cordero, Francisco Rodriguez) averaged as many as 60 innings a year over their contracts. Five (Eric Gagne, Ryan, Nathan, Brad Lidge and, through one year of his deal, Soriano) failed to deliver as many as 50 innings per season during their contracts.
Put another way: Gagne was paid more than $1 million per inning that he threw for the Dodgers. Soriano was paid about $350,000 per inning last year. Ryan and Lidge received roughly $300,000 per inning and Nathan was compensated at the rate of roughly $260,000 per inning. If CC Sabathia received that kind of income, he’d be paid over $60 million a season.
But that’s the brutal past history of big money contracts for closer. But the more germane question is, after Madson, what now?
That is a particularly interesting question for Papelbon and the Red Sox, of course. Papelbon’s track record is far more impressive than Madson’s. In his career, Madson is 47-30 with a 3.59 ERA, 7.8 strikeouts per nine innings and 2.7 walks per nine in 491 games. He has 52 career saves.
Papelbon, meanwhile, is 23-19 with a 2.33 ERA, 10.7 strikeouts and 2.4 walks per nine innings in 396 career games. In 27 postseason innings, he has a 1.00 ERA and seven saves.
So, how far north of Madson’s contract might Papelbon look to go?
“North Pole of that,” joked one major league executive.
Perhaps Madson’s contract will be treated as an outlier, but that’s not really how these things work. Historically, aggressive early deals set the market rather than defying it, and other contracts following suit. One need look no further than last winter, when Joaquin Benoit’s three-year, $16.5 million deal at the start of free agency set the precedent for a cascade of deals of three-plus years, most of them using a baseline of $4 million or more per season.
For that industry, members of the baseball industry were already bracing Tuesday night for the likelihood that the closing market will go to places well beyond what they had anticipated as recently as, well, Monday. It is not just Madson and Papelbon and Heath Bell who likely will be impacted. Even second-tier or buy-low closers -- such as Nathan (now two years removed from Tommy John surgery), Cordero, Francisco Rodriguez and Frank Francisco -- will now have visions of even more dollar signs dancing before them.
There will be teams that refuse to bend their principles about reasonable risk in the closing market, and that simply refuse to consider four-year deals for closers. There is a good chance that the Sox will be one of them, as new general manager Ben Cherington is of a similar mind to former Sox GM Theo Epstein when it comes to the significant risks inherent in multi-year deals for relievers.
Under Epstein, the Sox signed just one reliever to a deal of as many as three years. That was the three-year, $20.75 million deal signed by Keith Foulke after the 2003 season (which included team and player options, both of which were declined). In one sense, Foulke delivered spectacularly on his deal, having been, along with David Ortiz, one of the two most important contributors to the Sox’ first World Series title in 86 years.
On the other hand, he also offered a cautionary tale, since he was injured and/or terrible for most of the final two years of his deal. Foulke missed the second half of 2005, then lost his closing job to Papelbon at the start of 2006.
Undoubtedly, the Sox would like Papelbon back at the right price. The start of his career has been historically great. He has been dominant for most of his six years as a closer, and he even took the Mariano Cape for a few seasons worth of test flights (most notably from 2006-08). In 2011, he featured overpowering stuff for most of the year.
But because of the nature of his occupation, any deal with him represented a risk going forward, and the likelihood is that his next deal will represent an even bigger than expected risk (in years and/or dollars) in the aftermath of Madson’s expected contract.
If Papelbon wants to dig in for a contract that clears the bar set by Madson, the likelihood that he has thrown his last pitch with the Red Sox will increase significantly.
Welcome to the offseason.