Ryan Madson had a great year -- his best year -- closing for the best team in the National League last year, Philadelphia, and still could do no better than a one-year contract with Cincinnati for $8.5 million. Spare the spin about how he's the next Adrian Beltre who will parlay a one-year deal to a windfall in the next free agent market. Beltre was coming off a down year when he took the showcase gig in Boston. Madson hit free agency with a career year -- 32 saves, 2.37 ERA -- and still couldn't cash in (according to reports, he was on the verge of re-signing with the Phillies for $44 million for four years in November before talks fell apart).
Madson may well find a better deal someday, but the next time on the market he will be 32, and before he gets there he risks losing value because of injury or ineffectiveness. At least Madson has a job. Francisco Cordero, who has the most saves over the past five years, does not.
What happened? The industry simply doesn't value closers as much as closers do themselves. Paying a guy more than $10 million to pitch 60 innings -- many of which are not high leverage -- is a luxury most teams cannot afford.
Consider Madson himself. There is no doubt he is an elite closer who should age well because of his frame and a devastating out pitch, the changeup, that does not rely on velocity, a skill that diminishes with age. But the job has its limits. Madson threw only 60 2/3 innings last year in 62 games -- and only 22 times did he enter a one-run or tied game.
The problem with closers is that Mariano Rivera was so great closing games for the Yankees' dynasty that he made people believe you couldn't win without an elite closer. But advanced metrics and a better understanding of the cost:benefit ratio have convinced teams otherwise. Closers fall off figurative trees. Six of the eight playoff teams last year spent no more than $4.5 million on a closer: Kyle Farnsworth of Tampa Bay, Jason Motte of St. Louis, John Axford of Milwaukee, J.J. Putz of Arizona, Neftali Feliz of Texas and even Madson himself (who was a replacement for the replacement for the replacement for the closer).
Madson's agent, Scott Boras, adheres to the popular thinking of the über closer. Boras told ESPN that the game "has shown many times that teams need" a closer who makes at least 60 appearances and converts at least 85 percent of his save chances. It sounds right, but it's the Rivera Effect at work, skewing reality. Three playoff teams in 2011, including both World Series participants, didn't have such a closer. And check out how many of the past 11 world champions really "needed" such a closer to win it all:
That's only two of the past 11 World Series winners that used an elite closer by Boras' standards.
So what happens when teams do plow huge sums of money into a closer? Not much. The contract Papelbon signed with Philadelphia ($50 million for four years) was the 10th to pay a closer more than $10 million in average annual value. Measured by playoff impact -- not just World Series titles -- the return on those investments has been awful. Here are the most expensive closers and how many postseason saves they provided during the contract:
The 25 most expensive seasons for a closer have returned a total of just 16 postseason saves -- half of them by the Exception to Every Rule, Rivera.
The Phillies spent too much money on Papelbon (though unless it costs them a Cole Hamels extension, they are one of the few teams that can afford the luxury of a highly paid closer) and the Marlins spent too much money on Heath Bell ($27 million for three years). But most teams have figured out that such money is better spent toward starting pitching or position players, while they can find a young power arm to do the closing job cheaply (Motte, Axford, Feliz, Craig Kimbrel, Sergio Santos, Javy Guerra, Drew Storen, Joel Hanrahan, Brandon League, Chris Perez, Andrew Bailey, etc.).
I thought since last year that Prince Fielder was headed to Washington, and now the pieces could be falling into place. The Dodgers did loom as a longshot, but only if a new local television deal and imminent buyer were quickly put in place. That became impossible in the past two weeks. The Cubs, undergoing a tear-down remodel under president Theo Epstein, never were a serious possibility. The Mariners, who play in a graveyard of a ballpark for sluggers and are buried by the money of the Angels and Rangers, would have to come up with Pujols-plus money. The Rangers are busy trying to sign Yu Darvish. The Marlins virtually took out ads at the winter meetings saying they were not chasing Fielder.
The Nationals always did make sense. Jayson Werth was signed last offseason as part of a plan to cast him as a complementary player, not a franchise one. The return of Stephen Strasburg and the rise of Bryce Harper open a window to contend for championships -- just as Davey Johnson, their manager, once saw it with Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry with the Mets. Fielder, akin to Gary Carter, is the big piece to finish off the building phase.
Boras, who has a terrific relationship with Nats' owner Ted Lerner, the way he did with Tom Hicks in Texas and Mike Illitch in Detroit, can get a deal done on the ownership level because this is bigger than just a baseball deal. It's about positioning the Nationals to become the big market team they should be.
The Nationals still have put down no footprint in Washington. Their TV ratings are the worst in baseball other than those for the Dodgers and Angels. They can't draw even two million people to their ballpark, ranking 14th out of 16 teams in the National League. The have no national identity; no, the Teddy Roosevelt mascot doesn't count.
Fielder, who plays hard, plays every day and swings as hard as any man alive, gives them an identity and also puts them into contention. What is that worth? Washington hasn't seen a real pennant race since 1945 (when the Senators, then of the AL, drew 652,660 people). Even this late, and with possibilities narrowing, Fielder will get somewhere around Mark Teixeira money ($180 million for eight years). "Scott is used to pulling rabbits out of his hat, like the way he did for [Matt] Holliday," one executive said.
But will Fielder mean the end of Ryan Zimmerman in Washington? No. Zimmerman is signed through 2013, when he will be 29 and in line to eclipse Beltre ($80 million for five years signed at 31) as the highest-paid third baseman in history this side of Alex Rodriguez. Can the Nationals really afford to pay Fielder, Werth and Zimmerman more than $60 million per year starting in 2014? The team spent $68 million on is entire payroll last year.
The answer most likely is yes. Where is the money coming from? The same answer that's out there for the Angels, Rangers and soon the Dodgers: TV. The Nationals can "reset" the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN) contract according to market value this year -- and the market has exploded since the deal, in which they get about $29 million, was put in place five years ago. Moreover, baseball's national TV deals, which expire with the 2013 season, will begin to be negotiated this year and figure to boost the central fund handout of about $30 million to every club. Increases in local and national TV contracts could cover Fielder money before gate increases are even considered.
Spring training camps open in five weeks and we still don't know how many teams will qualify for the playoffs this year. The official position from MLB is that it has until March 1 to determine whether a second wild card will be added in each league, as well as a one-game wild card knockout to determine which wild card will advance to the Division Series. If not, the format will begin in 2013.
Unofficially, such strong support and momentum is in place to get the system up and running this year that teams are operating as if two more postseason spots will be up for grabs this season. "Nobody is against it," said one high-ranking official, "so I'm going to assume it will get done. And I'm sure it won't be long before somebody complains about losing a one-game playoff to a team that won 15 fewer games. But there's an answer to that [complaint]: win your division and stay out of that game."
Commissioner Bud Selig has indicated the answer will come before March 1. What MLB needs to figure out is who gets the broadcast rights to the knockout games (TBS owns the rights to any tiebreaker games and the Division Series) and how can at least one more day be squeezed into the postseason calendar and still have the World Series start on a Wednesday, as Fox wants, to maximum the viewing audience over a seven-game series.