In hindsight, last offseason might have been the time to sign a reliever or two with the hope of avoiding the current do-or-die scenario that might face the Phillies.
For the annual salary that the Phillies are reportedly thinking about bestowing upon Ryan Madson, they could have signed J.J. Putz and Scott Downs, or Joaquin Benoit and Jason Frasor. They would even have some money to spare. Last offseason turned out to be a surprisingly cost-effective one for teams adding bullpen arms. Unlike 2011, there weren't three dominant back-of-the-bullpen arms available. But there were a slew of veteran relievers with good strikeout rates who ended up signing modest deals. Joaquin Benoit was coming off one healthy season, so a lot of people raised their eyebrows when the Tigers gave him a three-year, $16.5 million deal. But he ended up giving them the type of production that is comparable to what the Phillies and other teams could be paying double-digit AAVs for guys like Madson, Jonathan Papelbon or even Francisco Rodriguez: 61 innings, a 2.95 ERA, 63 strikeouts, 17 walks, five home runs and 29 holds with only two blown saves.
Scott Downs: 53.2 IP, 1.34 ERA, 5.9 K/9, 2.5 BB/9, 0.5 HR/9, .483 OPS vs. LHB
Jesse Crain: 65.1 IP, 2.62 ERA, 9.6 K/9, 4.3 BB/9, 1.0 HR/9
J.J. Putz: 58.0 IP, 2.17 ERA, 9.5 K/9, 1.9 BB/9, 0.6 HR/9, 45 saves
Grant Balfour: 62.0 IP, 2.47 ERA, 8.6 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, 1.2 HR/9
Jason Frasor: 42.1 IP, 2.98 ERA, 8.6 K/9, 3.9 BB/9, 1.1 HR/9
Kyle Farnsworth: 57.2 IP, 2.18 ERA, 8.0 K/9, 1.9 BB/9, 0.8 HR/9, 25 saves
None of the above six relievers signed for more than $15 million total or $5.25 million per season. Granted, we are only talking about the first year of a contract for those who signed multi-year deals (everybody except Farnsworth). But most of them only need to give you another half a season of similar results before their production is on par with the numbers you would hope for out of the guys who could be getting paid $11 million per year this offseason.
There were some busts. The Red Sox took a chance on Bobby Jenks and he went down with another injury. Pedro Feliciano never pitched for the Yankees after signing a two-year, $8 million deal, but his workload was a big concern for the teams who shied away.
All in all, it turned out to be a good year for teams looking to add solid arms without breaking the bank.
This year? I'm not sure there are many options beyond Madson and Papelbon. Rodriguez's successful but incident-marred tenure in New York will make teams think twice, while Heath Bell seems intent on staying in San Diego.
Sure, there are plenty of recognizeable names out there. But most of them are recognizeable because of their save totals. And the save is not a very accurate barometer of a pitcher's actual (and potential future) performance.
Here is a look at the so-called "closers" on the market:
See anything that excites you? All you really need to do is look at the strikeout rates. If a guy is going to be a first or second option in your bullpen, he better have swing-and-miss stuff.
At the right price, Joe Nathan, Matt Capps and Francisco Cordero are the three guys you would probably be most comfortable with. But all three have enough holes that you would be taking a huge gamble entering the season relying on them in the eighth or ninth.
Nathan is a name that has been mentioned a lot, and there is some upside there. He struggled early in the season after coming back from Tommy John surgery. But after a month-long stint on the disabled list, he posted a 3.38 ERA with 28 strikeouts and five walks in 29 1/3 innings in his final 31 appearances of the season. While FanGraphs will tell you that his velocity dropped significantly, he was hitting 93 consistently and touching 94 in three games that I looked at later in the season.
But Nathan only pitched on back-to-back days three times during that 31-game stretch to end the season, and he pitched on three straight days once. As you can see in the chart above, he has a worse groundball rate than any other pitcher on the list besides Jon Rauch. And, of course, he will be 37 years old next season. He'd be a great arm to add to the mix, but I don't know that I would be comfortable heading into the season with him and Antonio Bastardo as my clear-cut 1-2 in the eighth and ninth.
Cordero doesn't have the fastball he used to, so he doesn't get guys to swing and miss like he used to. But he is a veteran who has had consistent success. Capps' performance ebbs and flows with his slider command. Last year it ebbed, which is probably the reason he did not get the strikeouts he usually does.
The problem is, there is a good chance that with enough teams looking for cut-rate closers, the cut-rate for these guys will make them inefficient additions to the payroll.
Qualls doesn't have swing-and-miss stuff, plus he posted a 5.05 ERA away from the spacious Petco Park last season. Cross Mike MacDougal off your list: the last thing you want in the back of your bullpen is a guy who walks a ton of batters and can't compensate by striking them out at a high rate, regardless of his ERA and groundball rate.
So let's look at the next tier....
Cruz's ERA looks OK, but he rarely pitched in meaningful situations, plus he walked a lot of guys and gave up a lot of fly balls. Igarashi was a bust during his two seasons in New York. Rodney has missed too much time due to injury in his career to be counted on, plus he lost his command and his manager's trust after returning from a month-and-a-half stint on the DL with a back strain. Wheeler was a very reliable reliever during his career with the Rays, but the fact that the Red Sox did not pick up his option should tell you something. Good organizations usually know their own players the best. He also had an issue with a forearm strain. The once-dominant Wuertz was released by the A's after two subpar seasons in which he could never seem to get over hand/wrist injuries. Dotel and Mota just keep on ticking, but they aren't going to keep fire-balling until they are 50. Dotel especially would be a solid option to have. But it all depends on the price.
As for Coffey, lefties have always hit him hard. Luis Ayala is a guy I did not add to the list, but who had a solid bounce-back campaign in the front of the Yankees bullpen. But again, those are front-of-the-bullpen guys.
Which brings us back to Madson. Yesterday, the Phillies were reported to be nearing a four-year, $44 million deal. But that is a huge price to pay for a player who will pitch less than 80 innings most season. As we wrote in the paper last week, RAJ and Scott Boras are going toe-to-toe right now. The Phillies could look at Papelbon as a back-up plan, but I'd be a lot more scared of giving him a huge multi-year deal because he relies so much on his fastball and he gives up a lot of fly balls. That's not a good scenario if he starts losing velo.
Madson looks like the pitcher who will age better. Even if he loses some heat on his fastball, he has one of the best change-ups in the game, plus he throws a cutter. Papelbon is 75 percent fastball and the rest splitter.
I never thought I'd say this, because I think spending huge money on a reliever is terribly inefficient, but the Phillies don't really have any other options other than taking a flier on several guys and hoping that Contreras returns healthy, Bastardo remains dominant, and Stutes pitches like he did in the first half of last season.
What's a bigger waste of money: $11 million on a 70 very good innings or $5 million on a couple of guys who end up going bust? It is not an enviable situation, but at least Madson is as known a quantity as you are going to find on the market.