Teams thinking twice about spending big on closers
When Spring Training began in 2005, Bobby Jenks was a 23-year-old starting pitcher with a high-end arm and a dead-end history. His tools made him a fifth-round pick for the Angels in the '00 First-Year Player Draft, but he lacked control on the mound and away from the field.
The White Sox moved Jenks to the bullpen, and he would be manager Ozzie Guillen's closer in the World Series, nailing down a 1-0 victory in the clinching game of a sweep at Minute Maid Park in Houston. This was an example of closer-on-the-fly thinking that is becoming more prevalent as Major League teams acknowledge what a rarity Mariano Rivera was for the Yankees.
Look at the past nine World Series. The guys getting the decisive outs have rarely been pitchers who started the season as their team's closer.
Koji Uehara, who was so dominant for the Red Sox in October, didn't move into the closer's role until late June, after Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey were sidelined by injuries and Junichi Tazawa didn't pan out as an interim option. Sergio Romo was a midseason replacement for an injured Brian Wilson in 2012, stepping in for the Giants after Santiago Casilla had proven himself better suited as a setup man than a closer.
Ryan Franklin was the incumbent closer on the 2011 Cardinals, but five pitchers earned saves for Tony La Russa in April. None of those was Jason Motte, who would be the ninth-inning guy in the high-wire World Series against the Rangers.
There's a reason that teams rarely treat closers with the same contractual respect as starting pitchers and position players. That is how the Baltimore Orioles could deal Jim Johnson on Monday after he led the American League in saves the past two seasons, with 51 in 2012 and 50 last season.
There are two surprising aspects of the Johnson trade: That it was the cost-conscious Oakland Athletics who took on a closer projected to earn $10 million through salary arbitration, and that they gave up so little to get him.
Second baseman Jemile Weeks, a former first-round pick, was third on Oakland's depth chart after spending almost all of last season at Triple-A. There is a player to be named later in the trade, but the deal has the appearance of a straight salary dump, especially since it came at the deadline to offer players contracts for the 2014 season.
In making this trade, A's general manager Billy Beane is doing what he has done so well to put together contenders in one of baseball's most economically challenged markets. Beane is going against the grain to acquire a piece devalued elsewhere, perhaps because he knows he can get a nice return on left-hander Brett Anderson, who is being made available after Monday's signing of Scott Kazmir.
For all but two months, Johnson has been arguably the best closer in baseball the past two years. He converted 35 consecutive regular-season save opportunities from July 27, 2012, through May 13, 2013. At that point, he had gone 72-for-75 in save chances since manager Buck Showalter put him in the role late in '11.
But Johnson had two bad stretches last season -- one immediately after the Padres ended his save streak, and another in August. He racked up nine blown saves overall, the most in the Majors, which brought back memories of the AL Division Series a year earlier. The six runs off Johnson were largely the difference in the Yankees advancing to the AL Championship Series, not the Orioles.
One other thing about Johnson: He had struggled in just about every role possible in his first five seasons in Baltimore, initially failing to hold onto the closer's job when it was presented to him after George Sherrill was traded in 2009.
Was this a guy the Orioles should sign to a long, expensive extension to keep him from leaving as a free agent after 2014?
Long-term contracts for closers have proven to be a questionable idea. Among the notable failures are current Dodgers setup man Brandon League (three years, $22.5 million), Carlos Marmol (three years, $20 million by the Cubs), Brandon Lyon (three years, $15 million by the Astros), Troy Percival (two years, $12 million by the Tigers) and Mel Rojas (three years, $13.75 million by the Cubs).
Jose Valverde (two years, $14 million with an option for a third year) had a Jekyll and Hyde run with the Tigers. Valverde led the AL in saves in 2011, but he lost his job during the ALCS in '12 and was released in '13.
Even when a closer pitches well, there can be dubious returns for his club. That has been the case for the Phillies and Jonathan Papelbon (four years, $52 million) and the Nationals and Rafael Soriano (two years, $28 million plus an option). It was the case for the Twins when they invested $47 million in four years for Joe Nathan, who couldn't quiet the Yankees when it mattered the most in the 2009 ALDS.
Five teams expected to contend next season currently have major questions about the closer's role -- the Tigers, Rangers, Rays, Indians and Orioles. Yet there's a glut in the free-agent market, as teams explore ways to fill their needs without committing long-term contracts to proven pitchers.
The inventory includes eight closers with triple-figure career saves -- Nathan (341), Kevin Gregg (177), Fernando Rodney (172), Wilson (171), Chris Perez (132), Marmol (117), John Axford (106) and Joel Hanrahan (100). There are also two guys who closed in the ALDS last year, Grant Balfour and Joaquin Benoit, along with Rafael Betancourt, Bailey and Jose Veras.
In recent years, relievers have come off the board early in the offseason. But teams are being more careful in that market this time around.
Meanwhile, the White Sox are being inundated with calls asking about the availability of 24-year-old Addison Reed, who saved 40 games last year, and the Royals are finding lots of interest in 27-year-old closer Greg Holland.
The players could be acquired, but it would take a lot more than Weeks and a player to be named later to get them.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.