When Jonathan Papelbon signed a four-year, $50 million contract with the Phillies, the move was roundly criticized by those who habitually undervalue closers. However, because of his unique track record of excellence, I suggested Papelbon was the worth the premium. After seeing some of the contracts recently handed out to much lesser closers, that assessment appears to have been accurate.
In one of the first real surprises of the offseason, the Marlins, whose payroll has average $54 million over the last three years, agreed to pay Heath Bell $9 million per season until 2014. Even though he has consistently ranked among the National League saves leaders since being installed as a closer in 2009, Bell doesn’t even come close to matching the peripheral performance of Papelbon, who is three years younger to boot. So, at face value, it seems as if the Marlins are guilty of excess as they plunge back into the free agent market after a long absence (and, if rumors are to be believed, Jeffrey Loria’s wallet could come out a few more times this winter).
Before the Marlins splurged on Bell, the Rangers signed Joe Nathan to a two-year deal worth $14.5 million. Once thought of as an elite closer, Nathan is now in the midst of battling back from Tommy John surgery. If he regains his form, the Rangers could have a bargain, but considering he will be 37 in 2012, it seems as if Texas has taken an expensive gamble.
What makes the robust market for closers a little perplexing is the glut of relievers currently available on the market. Francisco Rodriguez, Francisco Cordero, Matt Capps and Ryan Madson, who combined for over 100 saves last season, will all be looking for a job this winter, meaning there are plenty more seats in this offseason’s game of musical closers.
Although it’s hard for some sabermetricians to accept, supply and demand, not WAR, drive players’ salaries. However, as we’ve seen so far with the contracts handed out to closers, not even an overabundance has kept prices down, which can only mean one thing. Major League Baseball is awash with cash. No wonder the bankrupt Dodgers are reportedly set to fetch a price well in excess of $1 billion.
In addition to the contracts handed out to Papelbon, Bell, and Nathan, a myriad of long-term guaranteed deals given to middle infielders and backup catchers have also presaged a monetary deluge. And, with bigger names like C.J. Wilson, Aramis Ramirez, Jose Reyes, Prince Fielder, and Albert Pujols still fielding offers, we haven’t even seen the tip of the financial iceberg. As history has shown, when owners have a lot of money, they like to spend it, which makes it a good time to be a free agent.
Anyone familiar with the steadily increasing revenues reported by MLB shouldn’t be surprised by the spending spree that seems about ready to take place. So, when the next big contract comes along, don’t go scurrying off to compare salaries to wins above replacement. Just follow the money and you’ll understand why so much of it is being given out.