The Atlanta Braves have wasted no time in setting the market for relief pitching. The signing of Billy Wagner to a one-year deal worth seven million dollars should give teams a barometer for other available closers. I'm not saying Wagner has set the bar, but it's something to compare nonetheless. Atlanta also made their move in the setup man market with the signing of Takashi Saito. The Braves guaranteed him $3.2 million dollars to be Wagner's wingman. Both former Red Sox are a bit long in the tooth and have some injury questions, but are good pitchers; in Wagner's case great when 100%.
Meanwhile in Tampa Bay we are still waiting for relief of our own. After Frank Wren and John Coppolella dashed many dreams of Wagner in a Rays uniform, hopefully reality has set it for those who still remain optimistic that the Rays will land a big money closer. If Wagner received $7 million, expect Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano to make the same if not more. As we've said multiple times, the Rays will undoubtledly add a reliever (or 10), but it will be of the Kiko Calero variety. And really that's fine because the Rays already have their Wagner and Saito in house.
Like James Shields, Grant Balfour and J.P. Howell are slightly lower on the talent todem pole than some of their well known peers. Also like Shields, they are providing something that their peers aren't; great value. If the payroll allowed for it, I would have no problem with the Rays shelling out the money for top notch relief pitching, but since the funds aren't readily available, I prefer to have them allocated elsewhere like extensions of our younger talent.
Over the past two seasons, Saito and Balfour have posted similar numbers. In 2008, Saito posted a phenominal 2.00 FIP as the part-time closer for the Los Angeles Dodgers spearheaded by his dazzling 11.49 K/9 and his impressive 0.19 HR/9 over 47 innings. Not to be completely out done, as many of you remember Balfour spend most of his 2008 campaign telling opposing batters to STFD. Arguably a top three reliever in the American League, Balfour posted an FIP of 2.22 in 58.1 innings of ball in the highly competitive AL East. His 12.65 K/9 lead the league and his 0.46 HR/9 wasn't too shabby either.
In 2009, both relievers took a step back from their nearly unrepeatable 2008's. Even the step back, both were still above average firemen. Saito found like in the AL East a bit more difficult as his FIP doubled and then some. However, he still finished with a respectable 4.25 moving from Dodgers closer to Johnathan Papelbon's caddy in Boston. Despite pitching a few more innings than the previous season, Saito finished with less K's overall and saw his K/9 drop from 11.49 to 8.41. He also saw that miniscule 0.19 HR/9 rise to 0.97, but I'll chalk that up to regression of his HR/FB rate from 2.3 to 7.3 (career 5.7).
Like Saito, Balfour saw some struggles in 2009. However, it was not nearly as bad as his 4.81 ERA suggest or the numerous BALFOUR MUST GO comments we heard from fans. It's true, Balfour gets a little loose with the free pass often, but that's what he's expected to do. Balfour has lived up to his surname nearly five times per nine innings in his career and did so nearly 4.5 times last season. It's far from ideal, but when you strike out over a batter per inning, certain privileges are granted. With the added walks, Balfour saw a decrease in strikeouts of over three per nine innings. Despite the large drop off, Balfour still struckout a batter per nine and ended the season with a K/9 of 9.22. Like his counterpart, he experienced a slight regression in HR/FB rate, but the Aussie still managed to keep the ball in the part at a decent 0.80 clip. More walks, less strikeouts and more home runs are never a good thing, but nonetheless, Balfour's FIP was nearly a half run lower than Saito's despite carrying and ERA of 2.5 runs higher. A near 25% difference in LOB% will do that sometimes.
We know Saito will make a guaranteed $3.2 million dollars. There are also incentives based on games finished, but the Braves hope that a healthy Wagner will take care of that. There is another $500k in non game finishing incentives. That means there is a decent chance Saito could make ~$4 million dollars in 2010. Even at that price, he should still a value especially with the league change.
Balfour, on the other hand, made $1.4 million dollars in 2009 as an arbitration (2) eligible player. His eyesore ERA should keep him from getting true value in his third round of arbitration which I ballpark around $3.2 million dollars. More likely than not, Balfour will get a raise putting him over $2 million, but a bit shy of $3.2 million.
No, this will not satisfy the pitchforked crowd that view Balfour as an uncontrollable wild man, but this wasn't my intention. However, for the group of us that can look past the walks and the bloated ERA, I think this reinforces the fact that while we can all agree the need for help in the bullpen is needed, some of that help is already here.
A look at the left handed closer side of these duos next week.