Free Agent spending is at an all-time high in Major League Baseball, as MLB teams are likely to surpass $2 Billion in spending this offseason, which would eclipse the previous high of $1.75 Billion in 2006. Despite this exorbitant amount of spending, the price for experienced closers is quickly declining. Charlie Wilmoth of MLB Trade Rumors wrote about this shift in the closer’s market when he wrote about the lesser deals that closers have received this year when compared to last offseason. While two closers from 2012 signed for 3 years last offseason, none have done so this offseason. While two big closers remain on the open market, it is unlikely that either closer will receive 3 years.
In the 2011-2012 offseason, the Philadelphia Phillies signed Jonathon Papelbon to a 4-year, $50 Million deal. This signing was immediately criticized and has not fared well through the first two years, as the Phillies are already trying to trade him. Papelbon was the first closer to sign a 4-year contract since 2007 and will likely be the last one to sign such a long deal. But why has the price for closers diminished so much? The main reason is that teams have realized that many good relievers can succeed as the closer. You do not need special grooming or experience to take the ball in the ninth inning. Teams have now signed cheaper relievers and placed them in the closers role and in most cases they have succeeded. Recent examples of inexpensive free-agent closers include Kyle Farnsworth (2011), Jason Grilli (2013), Fernando Rodney (2012-2013), Koji Uehara (2013), and Jose Veras (2013), among others.
Another factor in the diminishing value of closers is the increasing rate with which teams are producing hard-throwing relievers. These young pitchers fit the mold of a prototypical closer, as they throw hard and often have a dominant breaking-ball to turn to for strikeouts. The best quality of these pitchers is that they are under team control at a low price for their first six years in the Majors. More and more teams are turning to inexperienced pitchers to be their closers and often with impressive results. The Braves have baseball’s best closer in Craig Kimbrel and pay him near the MLB minimum. Other young, inexpensive closers include Trevor Rosenthal, Rex Brothers, Addison Reed, Greg Holland, Danny Farquhar, Steve Cishek, Kenley Jansen, and Jim Henderson. All 9 of those pitchers were pre-arbitration last year and the closer of their respective team at the end of the season.
Another issue with guaranteeing more than two years to a high-priced reliever, or any reliever for that matter, is the high rate of injury and failure among these pitchers. According to research by Stan Conte, director of medical research for the Los Angeles Dodgers, 34% of relievers will go on the disabled list during a particular season. Jason Motte, Joel Hanrahan, Ryan Madson, Heath Bell, Brian Wilson, John Axford and Jose Valverde are all among closers who have either suffered a major injury or experienced a significant decrease in performance recently. This is not necessarily new information. Teams are now choosing to invest in less expensive pitchers, who are easier to replace if they experience a decrease in performance or become injured.
Despite the growing revenue in the game, closing pitchers are seeing their contracts diminish in years and money. Teams have realized that it is not necessary to pay extra for an experienced closer, as a pitcher’s ability is more important. As teams continue to develop more hard-throwing relievers, free agent closers will increasingly be paid more like regular relievers than closers.