Commentary

Market for closers well-stocked

Jonathan Papelbon, Heath Bell and Ryan Madson are among the top-shelf items

Updated: September 9, 2011, 2:03 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Maybe once upon a time, in 1905 or something, there was a generation of general managers who never knew the unique joys of bullpen shopping. But then again, that was also a generation that thought a "cutter" was a kitchen utensil and a "DH" was something you played every Sunday.

So that was a generation that also never knew the singular thrill of handing over $47 million to B.J. Ryan -- and having him blow out his elbow approximately 31 seconds later. Boy, those old-timers had no idea what they were missing, did they?

But today's general managers know, all right. They know they'd rather go used-car shopping, or greeting card shopping, or nightgown shopping with their wives than go bullpen shopping in general -- or closer shopping in particular. But they have no choice.

And especially this winter.

Perhaps you haven't noticed the list of closers, potential closers or guys who still think of themselves as closers who will be sitting on the shelves down there at the big Free-Agent Super Store this offseason. But check out this overstuffed list:

Marquee attractions: Jonathan Papelbon, Heath Bell, Ryan Madson, Francisco Rodriguez.

Fascinating names with contract options: Jose Valverde ($9 million option), Joe Nathan ($12.5 million option), Francisco Cordero ($12 million option), Kyle Farnsworth ($3.3 million option), Brad Lidge ($12.5 million option), Jon Rauch ($3.75 million option), Rafael Soriano ($11 million player option).

Not to mention: Jonathan Broxton, Matt Capps, Frank Francisco.

Other guys who closed once upon a time: Kerry Wood, Octavio Dotel, Mike Gonzalez, Fernando Rodney, Takashi Saito and Ryan Franklin.

That's 20 names, friends. Yeah, 20. Not all of them will be out there. Not all of them are legitimate candidates to pitch the ninth inning at this stage of their lives. But that's not the point.

The point is, this is one seriously glutted market. And as one AL executive put it this week, "I don't remember ever seeing quite that volume" at a position where most years, there never seem to be enough good options.

So what does that mean, and where is it leading us? Here's a look:

Who's shopping?

Think this through logically, now. If that many teams are about to have closers who hit this market, it tells you most of those teams are going to be forced to grab a cart and go shopping in that same store this winter.

So the Phillies will be out there looking. The Red Sox will be involved, even though they seem to have Daniel Bard waiting around to be Papelbon's heir apparent.

The Mets, Dodgers, Blue Jays, Orioles and Cardinals will at least be looking around. The Padres would go bargain-hunting if they lost Bell. The Twins would be shopping if they didn't re-sign Nathan. Ditto with the Reds if they don't keep Cordero.

The Rangers could be in this market if they decide to move Neftali Feliz to the rotation. The Rays could decide to upgrade over Farnsworth. The Angels could hunt for a big arm to complement Jordan Walden.

The Nationals could trade Drew Storen for a center fielder and sign a closer. The Giants could be forced into the market if Brian Wilson's health turns out to be worse than it appears. And we could make a case for several more clubs under the right circumstances.

But a bunch of these teams also have internal options. So they'll be judicious if not downright wary shoppers, hunting for just the right deal.

"There's going to be enough demand that the top tier will all get good deals," one exec said. "But it's not a bad position to be a team that needs a closer and doesn't feel the need to shop at the highest end of this market. I bet there will be great deals to be had on a couple of these guys in late January."

Shed a tier

But now let's look at this another way, from an agent's perspective. And agents out there think folks like us are actually exaggerating how large a crop this really is.

"Everybody's got it wrong," one agent said. "People line up all the names and think this is a huge market. No, it's not. In reality, you've only got four true closers -- Papelbon, Bell, Madson and K-Rod. Everybody else falls into a different category."

And what are those categories? Here goes:

Not going anywhere: Everyone expects the Tigers to pick up Valverde's option. Impossible to believe the Rays won't pick up Farnsworth's option. The Twins are likely to decline Nathan's option, then sign him to a deal for a lesser figure. And there's a 0 percent chance of Soriano opting out at a time like this.

Senior bullpen citizens: Cordero will be out there at age 37, so speculation is that he'll sign a one-year or two-year deal, take a pay cut from the $12 million he's raking in this year and possibly head right back to Cincinnati. And Lidge is 35, hasn't had a healthy season since 2008 and looks like a candidate for a one-year, low-base, incentive-packed contract as a setup man who could close if the stars line up right.

Are we sure they can close? Francisco, Rauch and Capps have taken turns losing the closer jobs for the teams that currently employ them. Broxton (elbow) hasn't thrown a big league pitch since May 3 and had a 5.68 ERA before he went down. And closing time for guys like Wood, Gonzalez, Dotel and Saito is now, officially, in the rearview mirror. In essence, then, almost all of these men are no better than side dishes for the back burner.

So where does this group register on the Bullpen Market Richter Scale? It's likely, said the same agent, that not one of these names will "make any significant impact on the market." And if that's true, it leaves only …

The Big Four

What will become of Papelbon, Bell, Madson and K-Rod? Here's the buzz:

Papelbon: It's far from impossible that he winds up back in Boston. But is it likely? Think again. Remember, the Red Sox have never made any real attempt to sign him to a multi-year contract of ANY length during his entire tenure in Boston. So Papelbon has been eyeing his shot to hit the free-agent Super Lotto for years. And with Bard as an attractive Plan B, it's hard to envision the Red Sox being willing to hand him the four-year, $50-plus mllion package it would seem to take to reel in a guy who has been the most dependable big-game, swing-and-miss, 35-save machine alive who isn't named Mariano. So who MIGHT give him that sort of deal? All sorts of possibilities. Phillies, Mets, Dodgers, Angels, Blue Jays. Wouldn't even shock some folks in the game if the Yankees had some interest, just to thank the Red Sox for driving up the price on Rivera last winter.

Bell: In retrospect, the Padres should have traded him in July, because they've now dealt themselves into a game in which Bell holds almost all the cards. He's already announced he wants to stick around, and that he'll accept arbitration if they offer it. So the first big question is whether the Padres offer it -- and risk getting stuck paying their closer Papelbon money, even on a one-year deal. It's their only hope of getting compensation if he signs elsewhere, so they probably have no choice. And they can always trade him next July. But it will be fascinating to watch this play out. Padres GM Jed Hoyer "is a creative guy," one exec said. "So I'm sure he has some ideas. But he'll need them."

Madson: Here's another interesting case to ponder. On one hand, Madson has had a great year (28 saves in 30 opportunities, a 2.79 ERA, with 53 strikeouts in 51 2/3 innings) for a team heading for October. And he's coming off three previous years of dominating setup work. On the other hand, not only is this is his first year doing any sustained closing, but as recently as spring training, his own team initially passed him over and gave the job to Jose Contreras after Lidge got hurt. If he weren't a Scott Boras client, you'd expect him to stay in Philadelphia. But the Phillies won't wait around all winter for Boras to stoke that bidding war. So "he'll wind up going wherever the dollars are the highest," one AL executive said. "And we may not know where that is until the end of the offseason." We've heard officials from two clubs predict he'll wind up with a "Valverde-type deal" (i.e., two years, $14 million -- or three years, $23 million if you count the option).

K-Rod: One thing's for sure: He'll definitely be taking a pay cut from the $11.5 million he's collecting this season. But K-Rod has complicated the rest of his situation by (A) switching agents in midseason and hiring Boras, and (B) spending the second half closing in Milwaukee. We've also heard multiple teams express concerns about his "off-the-field baggage." So while there would still seem to be a closer's role out there for him someplace, "it might not be with an upper-echelon team," said one of the execs quoted earlier. "But you know what? I could also see him getting a decent deal to pitch as a setup guy for a contender. Or if this turns out to be about maximizing earnings, which it always is with Boras, it wouldn't shock me if he looks at this market and finds a one-year deal, then goes back into the market at 30 next winter, when it's less crowded."

One final question that will hang over all of this: How high will the paychecks go? Remember now, other than the great Mariano, no closer has signed a multiyear contract worth eight figures a year since the 2008-09 offseason. But Papelbon is almost a lock to reverse that trend.

"I think the days of the five-year closer deal are gone," one exec said. "And I don't think he gets Mariano money, because Mariano is just a special case. But I'm sure there's going to be a really good deal for him somewhere out there. What I'm still not sure about is how high it goes."

Well, guess what? We're about to find out -- thanks to one of the wildest, most heavily populated bullpen markets ever.

Ready to Rumble

Astros

• Sources say MLB officials summoned prospective Astros owner Jim Crane to a meeting recently, for the specific purpose of strongly "encouraging" him to allow them to move the Astros franchise to the American League. And Rumblings has been told that while baseball has other concerns about his ownership credentials, the delay in approving his purchase has nearly everything to do with applying leverage on Crane to change leagues.

Remember, the 29 current owners all have veto power over moving -- even to another division in the same league. So the Astros are the only franchise that can be pressured to do anything.

• In the big picture, what does this hang-up in the Astros' sale tell us? In fact, the plot line here has very little to do with the Astros' future, because at some point, Drayton McLane will make sure this sale does get approved.

What this really tells us is that behind the scenes, baseball is finally building momentum toward realigning the sport into two 15-team leagues and six divisions of five teams each. Increasingly, it appears that the players won't sign off on expanding the postseason to include an extra wild card unless the owners agree to realignment and a more equitable schedule. And the Astros' situation is the first tip-off that negotiations are now moving in that direction.

Cubs

• We've heard a lot of talk about the Cubs pursuing a bunch of marquee names to be their next GM. But the planets don't appear to be lining up quite the way they had in mind.

Andrew Friedman? People within the sport who know him well say he's so close to Rays owner Stuart Sternberg and team president Matt Silverman, they have a hard time imagining he'd leave Tampa Bay unless he found nearly the perfect situation. There has been speculation elsewhere, in fact, that Sternberg could offer him a small ownership stake.

Theo Epstein? May be fascinated by the possibilities, but he's under contract through next season, with no indication that the Red Sox would allow him to leave. Epstein also seems unlikely to uproot his family at this stage of his (and their) life. Baseball men who are friendly with him say he may look for a new challenge a few years down the road, but the timing doesn't appear to work now.

Brian Cashman? An official of another club says that despite what's been written about him, Cashman wants to stick around and, in fact, has "an understanding" with the Yankees that he isn't going anywhere.

Billy Beane? Friends say he has legitimate interest. But even those who believe he's tempted say, in the next breath, that he has tremendous freedom in Oakland to juggle team-building with all his other passions, and remind themselves that he also owns a piece of the team in Oakland.

So one longtime friend of team chairman Tom Ricketts predicts that, in the end, he'll hire a young, creative, sabermetrically inclined executive willing to try a whole new approach to curse-busting.

Nationals

• The skeptics might have noticed that the Nationals had a better record under Jim Riggleman (38-37) this year than they've had under Davey Johnson (25-38). But GM Mike Rizzo raves about the job Johnson has done in his 63 games in charge, saying: "Davey's not only a terrific tactician, but he's even a better teacher before games. He's been a great fit, on and off the field."

Nevertheless, Rizzo said he still plans to interview other managerial candidates this offseason before determining whether Johnson will return as the manager or in some other role. Either way, the GM said, "Davey and I will sit down, and it will be a decision we make together."

• Meanwhile, people who have concluded that the Nationals won't have any interest in someone like Albert Pujols this winter, just because of the emergence of Mike Morse and the second guaranteed year of Adam LaRoche's contract, may be underestimating Rizzo's drive to build something great.

Without discussing either of the two monster free-agent first basemen (Pujols and Prince Fielder) by name, Rizzo says first base wouldn't be at the top of his team's list of places to spend its ample resources -- "but you never want to say never. You never know."

Dodgers

• If you're still waiting for details to emerge on that $1.2 billion offer to buy the Dodgers, you might be waiting a while. Let's just say there's some massive skepticism within the sport that there's a real offer on Frank McCourt's table, funded by real investors in China. But if there really is a $1.2 billion bid out there, you can bet the bankruptcy court and Jamie McCourt's legal team will be looking forward to seeing it.

• Add another name to the list of managers who have made a U-turn in their opinion of expanding replay. The Braves' Fredi Gonzalez told Rumblings this week: "I wasn't in favor, but now I am in favor." In favor of what, you ask? "I'm in favor of getting the play right," he said.

Gonzalez isn't pushing any specific system. But if replay does expand -- which is likely for fair/foul and trap/catch calls next season -- he has one concern. He wants baseball to provide specific guidance for umpires on where to place baserunners if calls such as trap-or-catch are overturned.

"They're going to have to come up with something definite, not a gray area," he said. "Something black and white that says if you reverse this call, that baserunner gets one base. Or whatever. Here's one example: Say there's a man on second, there's a sinking liner, and he calls the guy out. Now they go back and replay it and they see a trap. Do you score the runner? I want them to spell it out."

Good idea. And now this irony alert: About three hours later, Gonzalez would get ejected from the game he was about to manage -- after umpires (correctly) reversed a trap/catch call from out to safe. Think he'd have gotten gonged if they'd at least looked at a replay first?

• A longtime scout who just spent time covering the Mariners reports he was almost saddened by the decline of the great Ichiro Suzuki: "It's about over," he said. "He used to be electrifying. Now he's just a guy who hits at the top of the order and doesn't get on base a whole lot. When Ichiro used to come up, there used to be a certain sense in the air. Now when he comes up, people don't care if they see his at-bat or go get a beer. He just doesn't carry that aura. It's too bad." And the saddest indictment of all: "Now, if you paint the outer third with whatever you have, he's pretty easy to pitch to."

• If you listen to Charlie Manuel talk, it's impossible to believe he plans to start Vance Worley over Roy Oswalt in October, even if Worley is 11-1, 2.85, while Oswalt has scuffled through back issues to go 7-8, 3.72. Manuel says he's seen enough and knows enough of Oswalt to predict that the urgency of October baseball will energize Oswalt to rediscover the zip that's been missing off his fastball virtually all season.

Remember, as a No. 4 starter, Oswalt would have to pitch just once in each series. And that, said one scout, "is perfect for where he is right now and where he is in his career, stuff-wise. He'll compete in that arena. I have no doubt about that. I'll never forget Game 6 in St. Louis [in 2005]. And he's still got that look and the same competitive fire, even if he doesn't have quite the same stuff."

• Finally, one baseball man says the first thing he thought of, as word began to circulate about the Astros' potential move to the American League, was Carlos Lee. Why? "Because," he quipped, "at least they know they already have a DH."

Five Astounding Facts (Friday edition)

Tim Wakefield
Wakefield

1. Now that Tim Wakefield has made it through seven straight fruitless attempts at his 200th win, it's time for this important alert, courtesy of loyal reader Aaron Byrd-Leitner: If Wakefield doesn't figure out a way to win a game over the next three weeks, 2011 will become the first season since (ready?) 1879 in which NO active pitcher had 200 wins. The active leader at the end of that 1879 season: 43-game winner Tommy Bond, who finished that year with 195.

2. Two months after running off a streak of 34 consecutive shutout innings, Cliff Lee has spun another 29 2/3 innings worth of zeroes. If he gets through at least the first inning unscathed Saturday, it appears he'll be the first pitcher to rip off two streaks of 30-plus in 73 years. SABR pitching-streak historian Brian Rash reports, via loyal streak guru Trent McCotter, that the last known pitcher to do it was Bill (Don't Call Me Spaceman) Lee in 1938 (38 1/3 and 35). And the only two other known instances were both authored by Walter Johnson -- in 1913 (55 2/3 and 37) and 1915 (38 1/3 and 35). Wow.

3. The good news for Nationals pitcher Tom Milone is, he homered Saturday in the first at-bat of his career. The bad news was, he didn't make it through the fifth inning, so he didn't get a win out of it. Last pitcher to homer in the first trip of his career but not win that day: Dave Eiland, whose homer came off Bobby Ojeda on April 10, 1992, but whose start also didn't last five innings.

Ian Kinsler
Kinsler

4. Rangers leadoff whiz Ian Kinsler just erupted for his FIFTH multihomer game of the year -- out of the leadoff hole. If he sneaks in one more, he'll become the first leadoff man in the live-ball era to put up six games like that in one season. You might be surprised to learn that only three other players in history have had five multihomer games from the leadoff spot in the same year. You might be more surprised to know that none of them are named Rickey Henderson. The other three, according to baseball-reference.com: Brady Anderson in 1996, Chris Young in 2007 and Grady Sizemore in 2008.

5. Why We Love Baseball, Reason No. 86,942: Until last month, it had been 25 years since any team won 12 straight games started by any rookie pitcher. And now, naturally, it's happened twice in the last 2½ weeks -- first with the Phillies and Vance Worley, then with the Yankees and Ivan Nova. It's a beautiful sport, friends.

Tweets of the Week

We wanted to alert you that the Twitterverse powers that be, whoever they are, recently imposed upon Nyjer Morgan's fictitious alter ego, @Tony_Plush, to switch his Twitter handle to @Not_Tony_Plush. We'll let Not_Tony himself explain:

• Plush did this to appease the overlords. They were concerned the fictional exploits of a made-up persona may confuse some people.

• Even if the Man (or Men) who attempted to quash him never reveal themselves, Plush knows the Plushdamental Army is strong.

• In the meantime, Plush will take his four-for-sixes, and continue to lead his team to a vertiginous lead in the NL Central.

Got all that? Cool. Have a vertiginously great weekend.

Headliner of the Week

Finally, this just in from the witticists at Realfakesports.com:

CAUTIOUS NATIONALS TO PUT STEPHEN STRASBURG ON PITCH COUNT OF ONE

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is now available in a new paperback edition, in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

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Senior Writer, ESPN.com