NASHVILLE -- Rafael Soriano opted out of a contract with the New York Yankees earlier this offseason and the $14 million he was due. Players don't opt out of contracts unless they know more money awaits them -- see J.D. Drew, Alex Rodriguez, CC Sabathia, etc. But the winter meetings have come and gone and Soriano's name hardly merited a mention. This is a cold winter for closers, who have hit a pay ceiling relative to their importance and supply.
Soriano and his agent, Scott Boras, could not have been blamed if they thought Tigers owner Mike Ilitch would be their bailout king, just as he was for Prince Fielder and Boras late last winter. But Tigers president and GM Dave Dombrowski said the team will give an opportunity to rookie Bruce Rondon, who started last season in A ball, to win the job. Rondon throws 100 miles an hour and, Dombrowski made sure to point out, is saving games in the pressurized environment of the Venezuelan winter league. Dombrowski added that he has Joaquin Benoit, Phil Coke and Octavio Dotel to provide ninth inning insurance in the event that Rondon is not quite ready.
The Detroit plan seems cribbed from how the San Francisco Giants won the World Series after closer Brian Wilson blew out his elbow last April. They didn't trade for a closer to replace him; they essentially repurposed the relievers on hand, with Sergio Romo ultimately stepping into the role. Indeed, three teams lost big-money closers before the first month of the season was finished: San Francisco, the Yankees (Mariano Rivera) and Cincinnati (Ryan Madson) -- and all of them won their division.
In fact, of the 10 teams to reach the postseason, six of them ended the year with a different closer than how they began, including Detroit, which in October ditched its big-money closer, Jose Valverde, for Coke. Valverde has heard crickets on the free agent market this year.
So while position players Shane Victorino and Mike Napoli are quickly enriched with deals from the Red Sox, Soriano, Valverde and Wilson play the waiting game.
Boras told reporters, "We're seeing mid-level players make $13 million a year. The value of a closer, you would have to argue, has historically been more valuable than what you see in mid-level players."
Boras was right, but that valuation no longer is true. The contract for Jonathan Papelbon last year (four years, $50 million) underscored the wasted dollars when closer money gets that high. Papelbon had a nice year -- for a .500 Phillies team. He saved 38 games, but 25 of them involved holding a lead of two runs or more, the kind of situations just about any decent reliever converts well more than 90 percent of the time. With a $12.5 million average annual value, Papelbon recorded only 13 saves when he had to protect one run.
Isn't an everyday player who hits near the top or in the middle of the lineup more valuable than a pampered closer who has to wait for useful situations to develop? Angels GM Jerry DiPoto, for instance, explained he did not see the value in paying top money for a closer, so he dropped just $3.5 million on Madson, who is returning from Tommy John surgery.
With expensive closers now seen as luxury items, teams are willing to invest more in hybrid relievers -- guys who can work as setup men or can close if needed. The hybrid reliever category is exploding. Jeremy Affeldt, Jonathan Broxton, Brandon League and Randy Choate all signed three-year deals -- already double the total number of deals last year for free agent relief pitchers covering more than two years (Papelbon and Heath Bell, an unmitigated disaster of a big-money closer for Miami).
There is a saying closers like to promote that "not just anybody can close." That may be true -- some guys prefer lower leverage spots. But many pitchers can close. Over the past 10 seasons, 91 different players have posted 25 saves in a season. Ninety-one! It's not an especially rare commodity. The clubs are finding that out. And Soriano is finding out that a market correction is occurring. To get his big money, Soriano will have to re-set that market.
The Mets are making little progress in getting Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey signed to a two-year extension and the trade market for a young impact player hasn't materialized. They may be getting used to the idea of keeping him for another year at $5 million.
It seems the Mets are valuing Dickey as a number one pitcher on the trade market but as something less than that when it comes to an extension. A $20 million extension, for instance, would give Dickey $25 million over three years -- or just $4 million more than what the Reds are paying Broxton, a hybrid reliever, over the next three years.
What the Mets should do is send Dickey to Toronto for catcher J.P. Arencibia and outfielder Anthony Gose, which would net them two young, major-league-ready everyday players. The Blue Jays aren't enamored with the basic math of the deal: one year of Dickey for 10 years of control of two young players.
But here's why the Jays should do it: Both Arencibia and Gose are reserves right now and are blocked by young players who should be in Toronto for at least two years. Those "10 years of control" are not all years of full-time duty.
More than that, Toronto made a blockbuster move with Miami to rejuvenate baseball in the city. Manager John Gibbons said the goal is to get the franchise into the postseason for the first time in 20 years. If so, you need to go all in -- just as the Nationals are doing by trading a front-of-the-rotation prospect (Alex Meyer) to get a centerfielder (Denard Span) and by paying their fourth starter $13 million despite coming off a down year (Dan Haren).
The Blue Jays are not all in if they regard years of control for bench players above the chance to get a Cy Young Award winner. Think Toronto would have a better shot at the postseason with Dickey making 32 starts instead of J.A. Happ making 32 starts? Of course. But Toronto is hedging its bets.
Let's face it, the Winter Meetings were a dud. Baseball has done whatever it could to speed up the pace of the offseason market, such as moving up the non-tender date to before the meetings and getting rid of that two-week hands-off period for free agents after the World Series. And still many top free agents, including Josh Hamilton, Zack Greinke and Michael Bourn, are unsigned, and only four trades occurred in four days.
The game has become too big for deals to happen quickly. The one-man gunslinger of a GM is a dinosaur, replaced by a battalion of assistants with spreadsheets, laptops, scouting reports, financial data, background checks, etc. The baseball agent now works as part of a large agency with many partners and assistants, and the quicker an agent gets a player signed the less opportunity he has to promote himself in his high season. The media horde has grown, and is reporting every conversation, real or imagined, with breathless wonder and speculation. So when the overwrought buzz doesn't produce a payoff within the allotted four days, the artificial buildup leaves a residue of disappointment.
The meetings are the watched pot that doesn't boil. They no longer are the swap meet we expect them to be. The reality is that the best action actually comes after they end. The activity is only just beginning -- just without the branding and the hotel bars. Last year, for instance, players traded or signed after the Winter Meetings included Jed Lowrie, Mat Latos, Gio Gonzalez, Sean Marshall, Andrew Bailey, Carlos Quentin, Carlos Zambrano, Anthony Rizzo, Marco Scutaro, Michael Pineda, Jeremy Guthrie, A.J. Burnett, Rafael Furcal, Aramis Ramirez, Michael Cuddyer, Fielder, etc. So maybe the problem isn't the meetings themselves; maybe the problem is they come too soon. Next year the meetings do arrive a bit later on the calendar: Dec. 9-12 in Orlando.