Two press conferences down …
First it was the coronation for Jonathan Papelbon in Philadelphia. That represented the signing of the undisputed big-ticket item when it came to free agent closers. Then Tuesday brought us Joe Nathan donning his new Rangers hat, signaling the first second-tier game-ending reliever to jump out of the market.
This is where it starts to get interesting for the Red Sox, and what could be up to six or seven teams looking for a closer.
"There's a point where the market could shift dramatically," Padres general manager Josh Byrnes said, "where there are four teams left and two guys out there. You don't go to spring training with two closers, typically. Usually there are 30 clubs and 30 closers. They start to come off the board and you see how many are left and how many are looking."
Right now, there still are plenty left, and still plenty of teams looking, certainly more than you'll typically find this time of year in an offseason.
"There's a bunch of closers, tested closers. That's a little unusual, the amount of closers that re on the market right now," explained Twins GM Terry Ryan, an executive widely believed to be one of the best at building bullpens. "That's a little odd. It's plenty deep."
But the signing of Nathan to a contract that will pay the 37-year-old $7 million over the next two seasons (with a $9 million club option for 2014) may have sent a warning shot across the bow of teams like the Red Sox. Guys like Nathan, who won't be asking for the four-plus-year deals like Papelbon reeled in and Ryan Madson is positioning himself for may be getting ready to start flying out of the free agent pool.
According to a source, the Rangers weren't in on Papelbon before the former Sox closer inked his four-year, $50 million deal with the Phillies even though they had every intention on shifting Neftali Feliz to the starting rotation. This is a team that has shown the ability to devote significant dollars to free agent fixers and would certainly fall into the class of teams who might go after one of the high-priced relievers. (Explained Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopolous regarding the pursuit of high-end closers: "I think it's pretty clear that you look at some of the elite closers that have been paid a significant amount of money, for the most part they've come from the large-market clubs with significant payrolls and the percentage of payroll isn't as great.")
But the Rangers chose the more economical path, one which the Red Sox are thought to be leaning toward if no other reason as a hesitancy to commit more than a couple of years. It suggests the Sox are going to have maybe more company than anticipated when looking for the best bargain.
Here is what we do know regarding the chase for Papelbon's replacement.
FRANCISCO CORDERO MIGHT NOT BE THE GUY
Even though the Red Sox have talked to the representatives for Cordero, the Nathan signing raised a red flag when it came to assuming the Sox would be major bidders for the former Reds closer. A major league source told WEEI.com's Alex Speier that one of the reasons the Red Sox didn't make an offer to Nathan was that they didn't feel comfortable giving a multiple-year contract to a closer the age of Nathan, who is just six months older than Cordero.
One difference to consider is the durability of Cordero -- who, like the other relievers on the market, will not cost a draft pick to sign him under the new CB. The righty saved 37 games for Cincinnati in '11, totaling a 2.45 ERA in 68 games. It marked the ninth straight season he has appeared in at least 65 games.
"I think he actually probably pitched better this year than he did last year," said Reds general manager Walt Jocketty at the GM meetings.
Jocketty added that he believes Cordero is a good bet to remain durable, explaining why -- after declining his $12 million option for 2012 -- the Reds had begun talking with the right-hander about the possibility of a multi-year extension. That being the case, it could make it difficult for the Sox to acquire Cordero if they stick to a one-year offer.
HEATH BELL CERTAINLY HAS HIS SUPPORTERS
Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington said he was not willing to go four years with Papelbon at this point in the offseason. That approach would seemingly hold up for the other two big-name closers left in free agency, Madson and Bell. But while the 31-year-old Madson, a Scott Boras client, almost certainly won't settle for something in the other direction of the four-year deal supposedly broached by the Phillies, Bell may settle into a more palatable place for the Sox -- in terms of years, anyway.
And, if nothing else, the 34-year-old has a wave of support from those familiar with life as a Red Sox. There's Adrian Gonzalez, who not only played with Bell in San Diego, but vacations with him during the offseason. And, of course, some front office types who can effectively weigh how the righty's skill-set would translate in the American League East.
"He's done it for several years. He has the makeup, embraces the role, has replaced Trevor Hoffman," said Byrnes, a former assistant GM with the Rd Sox. "I think in the NL West the lineups may not be as tough as the AL East, but you play a lot of 3-2, 4-3 games and closers become a big part of winning. It takes a physical toll for six months, and he's used to it. Being a closer in the NL West is not like the AL East because you're not facing the lineups, but for sixth months every night is a low-scoring, close game."
"He’s got huge guts. I think that’s the most important thing with a closer," said Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer, who also served as an assistant GM in Boston. "He never shied away. He can pitch four and five days in a row and maintain his velocity. I have no doubt he would transition very well. He never had any problems in interleague. He never had any problems on the road if you look at his home/road splits. That’s not something I worry about."
"To me, it’s really here," said Arizona (and former Padres) GM Kevin Towers, pointing to his to head. "The more I’ve watched great closers, the ones that are tough mentally, want to be out there, you can’t tell, they’re not breathing hard. Hoffman was like [Greg] Maddux as a starter. Or Mo Rivera. You can’t tell if it’s bases loaded, no one out. That’s a gift. That’s an incredible gift.
"Now, he’s been in a couple All-Star games. He pitched in New York for a while. He was young then and probably learned a lot pitching in a big market at a young age. I’m sure he’s comfortable at Petco [Park] and it’s a great park to pitch in, but he’s pitched in a lot of tough ballparks around baseball and been effective. I don’t think he would have any problem pitching with a large market club where there may be added pressure. Who knows? Once you get the big contract, people might react differently. He’s never had the big, big contract, but my sense is that he’d be fine."
MATT CAPPS' DEMAND MIGHT HAVE JUST AMPED UP
Like Nathan, Capps represented an affordable, back end of the bullpen option that might be worth committing a couple of years to. His age (28) is certainly a separator in the group of available relievers, and prior to experiencing a hiccup with the Twins in '11 had been extremely reliable late in games throughout his first six big league seasons.
He is perhaps the perfect fit for a team like the Red Sox, who wouldn't necessarily have to anoint Capps as the closer thanks to the presence of Daniel Bard, but would at least be getting an ultra-valuable late-inning guy (along the lines of what they invested in with Bobby Jenks prior to '11).
The problem for the Sox is, other teams might value Capps a bit more. Teams such as, say, the Twins. Ryan had said at the GM meetings that his hope was to bring back either Nathan or Capps. Well, one's gone and while the Minnesota payroll won't be on the high-end, Ryan has always believed that a bullpen should be anchored by a solid investment at closer, with lower-priced strike-throwers behind him.
"I've got a strategy lined up, but I can't say all my strategies go according to plan," Ryan explained. "Obviously, I think a bullpen is huge for any success for a team. A closer usually stabilizes a bullpen. It would be nice to have a guy back there who has that history and cans close out games."
DANIEL BARD HAS THE RED SOX POSITIONED WELL
Conceivably, the Red Sox could make a run at Madson or Francisco Rodriguez (whom Mets GM Sandy Alderson talked about at the GM Meetings, saying, "He's not the 95 mph, blow-it-by-them-with-a-fastball closer that he used to be, but he's adjsuted his game and was effective for us and was effective in his role for Milwaukee. I met him for the first time last spring training, but he was a good teammate and a good citizen for us.") But the reason they don't have to go down that route, even with the loss of Papelbon, is due to Bard.
Bard has shown enough that he would be a viable candidate to become a big league closer, and with the potential presence of a healthy Bobby Jenks and Alfredo Aceves behind him there is no need for the Red Sox to ooze desperation.
Unlike many teams looking for a closer, this dynamic can allow the Sox to sift through the candidates as the offseason evolves. Frank Francisco, for example, might not be the kind of guy a team feels super comfortable holding a "here's are new closer" press conference for, but if that sort of uncertainty pushes enough teams away, he might be just the kind of guy the Sox are looking for.
"I think he pitched great," said Anthopolous of Francisco's second half of '11, when the 32-year-old turned in a 1.37 ERA in 25 appearances. "I think he pitched very, very well. I think he was up to 98 mph at the end of the year. Once he took hold of the job the last two months he did a great job. I think he really came into his own."
THEN THERE IS A TRADE
The internet was all a buzz Tuesday about a report by SI.com stating that the Red Sox were one of multiple teams interested in trading for Colorado closer Huston Street. This we know: he wouldn't come cheap.
Street is still just 28 years old, is in the final season of a three-year, $22.5 million contract that has a $9 million mutual option for '13. After some physical issues, the righty bounced back to save 29 games while making 62 appearances, totaling a 3.86 ERA while striking out 55 and walking just nine.
If the price is right, there would certainly be a use for Street in the Red Sox' bullpen, no matter what the role. But to allocate too much in terms of players for a pitcher that doesn't appear to be any sort of dramatic upgrade to Bard -- especially when trade chips might be better used to secure starting pitching -- might not be the preferred move.