NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland – Chicago Cubs free agent pitcher Aroldis Chapman is believed to be looking for a $100 million contract this offseason, stirring the pot that sits atop baseball’s hot stove.
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Forget about Chapman’s individual merit for a second. Is any closer worth $100 million?
In the past, general managers have resoundingly answered “no” to that question. Entering this offseason, the record contract for a reliever belonged to Jonathan Papelbon, who signed with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2011 for four years and $50 million.
That changed on Day One of the MLB Winter Meetings here Monday, with Washington Nationals closer Mark Melancon agreeing to a four-year, $62 million deal with the San Francisco Giants. That figure is sure to be surpassed at least once more with Chapman and Los Angeles Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen still on the market.
The numbers closers put up in the 2016 season would indicate they are less valuable than Chapman’s asking price.
The 30 pitchers found in ESPN’s “Closer Report” made a total of $154.24 million in 2016. They accounted for 896 saves and 33.2 wins above replacement (WAR), according to Fangraphs. This would indicate that teams on average paid $170,000 per save from their closers and $4.65 million per WAR.
Jansen posted the best WAR in the group, with 3.2, and was second in the majors with 47 saves. The Dodgers paid him $10.65 million to do so, the fifth-most among all closers. Judging by what teams paid for each win above replacement this year, he was worth almost $15 million in terms of WAR, suggesting he was a bargain.
Closers, however, can be unpredictable one year to the next. Injuries can arise, velocity might drop or control might falter. Besides that, there’s a certain mentality that often comes with the position that separates closers from other relievers.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said there’s “absolutely” a difference between closers and the other men in the bullpen.
“It’s not only the skill set, it’s the mentality and the ability to not scare off, not be afraid to fail,” he said. “And if you do, to be able to bounce back and post the next day.”
St. Louis Cardinals skipper and former big league catcher Mike Matheny also said there’s some common traits found in closers. He cautiously added that as soon as that’s said, it’s possible another closer shows up that’s “wired completely different than the next guy.”
After the Cardinals’ Trevor Rosenthal posted consecutive seasons with 45-plus saves, Matheny had to remove him from the role after he faltered early this season. Rookie Seung-hwan Oh, a 33-year-old from South Korea, took over and posted 19 saves with a 1.92 ERA.
“You look at Trevor Rosenthal, you look at Seung-hwan Oh … and they’re typically quick to take the blame, quick to forget about it, and ready to take the ball the next day,” Matheny said. “And I think those are great qualities. There is an inherent toughness that comes with that.
“There’s also an ability to want that pressure, and to want that position and to want to be the guy your team is relying on in those situations. You come across those style players, and they’re special.”
That requisite mentality of the closer can be inexplicably fleeting.
Some pitchers who were successful at the position wake up one day and simply aren’t confident doing the job anymore. Due to the volatile nature of the role, closers don’t receive the long-term contracts that starting pitchers or position players might receive.
With teams understanding those risks, they’ve often steered clear of long-term contracts for closers. Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said the team tried to re-sign Melancon, but were priced out.
“We gave him an offer we felt was market value and what we were comfortable giving him,” Rizzo said. “It was just at the end of the day, the Giants offered him more and he took the deal.”
Melancon signed for $62 million over four years, while Spotrac estimates the Jansen’s market value to be about $53 million over the same time frame. Chapman is valued at four years, $56 million, according to the same site. Jansen and Chapman are now certain to blow past the money Melancon received.
But if a closer suddenly falls apart, he can become one of the least valuable assets in baseball.
Papelbon was owed $11 million this season. He registered 19 saves, generated 0.3 wins above replacement and had an ERA of 4.37.
The Nationals decided to improve on their closer position by trading for Melancon at the deadline in late July. Papelbon asked for and was granted his release a couple weeks later, after underperforming his contract by between $7 million and $10 million, depending on the metric used.
Huston Street picked up 40 saves last year for the Angels, but converted only nine of 12 chances this year and was worth -0.3 wins before being shut down in August for knee surgery. The team paid him $8 million, a league-high overpay of $10.8 million in terms of WAR value.
Meanwhile, Roberto Osuna of the Toronto Blue Jays earned 36 saves with a WAR of 1.8 while making a little more than $500,000. The 21-year-old created a surplus value of $7.85 million for Toronto, the best in the league.
There were plenty of low-cost closing weapons in the league in 2016, and they had about as much success as the big-name closers.
Osuna is a perfect counter to Melancon, equal in WAR created but separated by more than $9 million in pay. For $11 million men like Craig Kimbrel of the Red Sox and David Robertson of the White Sox, there are pitchers like Alex Colome of the Rays and Jeremy Jeffress of the Brewers doing the job about as well for just over league-minimum salary.
Those are all extreme examples, but the market evens out to pay closers at a fair rate in terms of the values of saves and wins above replacement.
GMs handed out $154.24 million to the 30 closers listed in ESPN’s report. By the value of a save, they were worth $152.23 million and by WAR, they were worth $154.38 million.
If a team isn’t looking to break the bank on Jansen or Chapman, it might be better suited signing Red Sox reliever Brad Ziegler. The submariner closed for the Diamondbacks before he was traded to Boston last July to help with the late innings before Kimbrel takes the mound. Ziegler earned $5.5 million while making 22 saves, and was worth $6.05 million the whole year by WAR.
Some teams in baseball showed in 2016 that sometimes the most valuable option at closer could be the one who has yet to receive his big payday. Giants manager Bruce Bochy, however, doesn’t think those fat contracts for relievers are going away anytime soon.
“I think you look at the last three outs as being the three toughest outs,” Bochy said. “It takes a special guy. It’s a tough spot that you put closers in because your team’s playing so hard and so well for eight innings, and you’re putting them all on him for the last three outs. That guy’s gotta be mentally tough as anybody on the club. Some guys thrive on it and are better in that situation, under pressure.”
With the recent World Series title by the bullpen-heavy Kansas City Royals and the pennant run by the Cleveland Indians this year, teams are noticing the value of relievers and closers in particular.
“I think more and more we’re realizing how important a closer is,” Bochy said. “They stabilize your season, because when you lose games late, it’s a blow. It’s a shock to the chin, and if you take enough of them, it can wear your team out. That’s why the closer is so important to your club. I think they’re getting more and more attention on how important they are.”