Why Ryan Madson has had a wonderful off-season

Ryan Madson is entering the final year of his three-year, $12 million contract. (Michael Bryant/Staff File Photo)

The Yankees will reportedly sign former Tampa Bay closer Rafael Soriano to a three-year, $35 million deal. But wait, you say, don't the Yankees already have the greatest closer in baseball history? Why yes, they do. Soriano will be paid the fifth highest average annual salary for a reliever ever -- to be a setup man.

It's an interesting decision by the Yankees, attempting to offset one inequity (their starting rotation) by stocking another (their bullpen). Sounds like a team that isn't worrying about its right fielder because it has four aces.

Anyways, when Soriano signs his deal, he will be the 14th reliever to ink a multi-year deal this off-season. And now there are reports that Oakland and righthander Grant Balfour are nearing a multi-year deal. He will be No. 15.

Fifteen! That's more than in any of the last five off-seasons. I'll let Yahoo! baseball columnist Jeff Passan explain the ridiculousness of this situation:

Relievers received 11 multiyear contracts in 2006, totaling 28 seasons, at a combined price of $97.3 million. In 14 of those seasons, the pitchers finished with zero Wins Above Replacement (as measured by Baseball-Reference.com) or fewer, meaning their performance was as bad as that of some schlub toiling in Triple-A. Eight of the 11 were either released, traded or suffered season-ending injuries sometime during their contracts.

Outlier? Hardly. Last season, four of the nine relief pitchers who signed multiyear contracts finished the year with a negative WAR, which means not only did the GMs commit arson on the boss’ money, they would’ve been better off letting those pitchers stay at home nightly.

The moral of this story: Relief pitching is fungible. Because it is an asset, however, managers beg their GMs for a reliever for Christmas, and GMs believe there’s no way their reliever will be one of the bad ones, and blunders ice a gaffe cake.

So, a list of those lucky 15 from this off-season:

Grant Balfour
Joaquin Benoit
Randy Choate
Jose Contreras
Jesse Crain
Scott Downs
Pedro Feliciano
Matt Guerrier
D.J. Carrasco
Bobby Jenks
Will Ohman
J.J. Putz
Mariano Rivera
Rafael Soriano
Hisanori Takahashi

That number could even be higher by the time spring training begins. Brian Fuentes and Jon Rauch are still on the market.

Now, what does this all have to do with the Phillies? Well, the Phillies have one reliever under contract for the 2012 season: Jose Contreras. Brad Lidge has a $12.5 million club option with a $1.5 million buyout. It is very possible the Phillies decline that option and allow Lidge to become a free agent. They could also agree on a new deal with a smaller salary. Depends on how Lidge's 2011 season goes.

Then there's Ryan Madson, whose three-year, $12 million deal expires after this season. Who is Ryan Madson's agent? Scott Boras. Who just negotiated a $35 million deal for a pitcher who could be a closer on most teams but will instead be a setup man? Scott Boras.

Madson has had an incredibly profitable off-season. Of course, we knew all along that Madson's impending free agency would be an interesting case regardless. He is unquestionably one of the game's best setup men, but has had limited chances to close. And when he has, they haven't gone exceptionally well.

Of those 17 pitchers listed above, five have a greater Wins Above Replacement than Madson since 2007 (Rivera, Downs, Jenks, Soriano, Putz). Madson's WAR is 5.5, which ranks 27th in all of baseball since 2007. All five of those pitchers have been closers during that period, which obviously adds to their value. Madson, one would argue, could have been a closer on many teams over the past few seasons. That argument will almost certainly be made by Madson's agent.

Those five pitchers signed deals this off-season with an average annual value of $8.5 million. Madson will make $4.5 million in 2011. Is it unreasonable to think he could command that $8.5 million on the open market?

Here's the other intriguing factor: Next off-season's market could be absolutely loaded with closer types. Heath Bell, Jonathan Broxton, Matt Capps, Ryan Franklin, Joe Nathan, Jonathan Papelbon and Francisco Rodriguez are all possible free agents. Throw in Lidge and Madson and there will absolutely be a lot of demand (with plenty of supply).

And even if a team wants to sign Madson as a setup man, which Boras set the precedent for with Soriano, it will still be costly. We've seen how expensive setup relief can be: Joaquin Benoit signed a three-year, $16.5 million deal after a terrific 2010 season. But he did not pitch at all in 2009. And in 2008, he had a 5.00 ERA. So that deal might only be Madson's floor.

It's way too far away to even speculate, but the Phillies will face a really interesting decision. You figure they spend closer's money on just one pitcher and both Lidge and Madson could command closer's money with good 2011 seasons. So is it Lidge? Or do you spend the money on Madson, who has yet to be a full-time closer? What about pursuing the many free agent options that will exist?

All something to remember this season when evaluating the Phillies' late-inning relief.

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