As expected, the free agent market is starting off slow, with no big deals being announced yet. Some of that is probably due to the lack of a Collective Bargaining Agreement. A bigger reason is something I outlined last week: free agency is traditionally slow throughout the month of November.
We have heard rumors over the past day about Philadelphia Phillies reliever Ryan Madson being close to a four year, $44 M deal to return to the Phillies. Nothing is official yet, but if the deal goes through, it will be just another example of the huge prices that are being paid these days for top relievers.
During the 2011 season we saw several trades take place which saw relief pitchers bring in large returns to their former teams. The San Diego Padres traded set-up man Mike Adams to the Texas Rangers for top 50 prospect Robbie Erlin and right handed pitcher Joe Wieland. The Rangers also sent right handed pitcher Tommy Hunter and first baseman Chris Davis to the Baltimore Orioles for relief pitcher Koji Uehara. This wasn’t just a one year trend, as we all remember the Pirates landing James McDonald and Andrew Lambo for Octavio Dotel in 2010.
The Dotel trade is part of what fueled the discussion on whether the Pirates should have traded Joel Hanrahan this past off-season. You see a lot of people currently taking the approach that the Pirates should have made the move, capitalizing on the favorable values being paid to relievers. As someone who was calling for a Hanrahan trade back in July, when the Pirates were “contenders”, I can tell you that the people who wanted to trade Hanrahan were in the extreme minority.
Hanrahan has two years of arbitration left, including the upcoming season. I’ve got him projected for a similar salary structure as Heath Bell in his final two arbitration years, which would be two years and $11.5 M.
The free agent market isn’t weak this off-season. The current closers on the market include Bell, Madson, Jonathan Papelbon, Francisco Rodriguez, Francisco Cordero and bounce back candidates like Joe Nathan and Jonathan Broxton. If Madson does receive $11 M a year, it would likely set the market for the other top closers who are available. That raises the question as to what kind of trade value Hanrahan has.
For teams with money to spend, the free agent market would be the best option. They could land someone like Bell, Papelbon, or Rodriguez and spend eight figures a year in doing so. But what about the teams that are limited financially? A guy like Hanrahan, who has two years of control remaining, and will likely cost the same in those two years as one year of Madson, would be a very attractive option to a team that is financially limited this off-season.
Hanrahan wouldn’t be the only option on the trade market. Oakland’s Andrew Bailey is also rumored to be on the market. As for teams who could be looking for a closer, the first place to look would be the former teams of the names above. Toronto has been listed as a team looking for closing help. Boston would obviously need a closer if Papelbon left. There’s the usual talk in Texas of Neftali Feliz moving to the rotation, which would create an opening. The Twins would need someone with Joe Nathan and Matt Capps departing.
Whether it would be best to trade Hanrahan now is up for debate. He’s got a lot of value, with two years of control at what looks to be a below market rate, and he’s coming off a strong season. Relievers are never a guarantee from year to year, and Hanrahan’s trade value can totally disappear with a bad month in 2012. On the other hand, there are a lot of options available on the market right now, which could lower Hanrahan’s value. Because relievers aren’t a guarantee, there are bound to be some teams looking for bullpen help at the trade deadline in 2012. Since there aren’t any top free agents available at the deadline, Hanrahan’s value will be much higher at that point, assuming he maintains his production and stays healthy.
It’s too early to tell which teams will be looking for closers, and which of those teams will favor a lower price tag versus saving prospects and going the free agent route. The best thing for the Pirates to do might be to wait it out until the top free agents sign, then see who is left looking for help. That would give a boost to Hanrahan’s value, allowing the Pirates to get the best return possible if they want to deal him.
As for whether the Pirates should deal Hanrahan or not, my opinion hasn’t changed from July. I don’t believe it’s hard to find good closers. I think teams pay out of convenience and comfort, so that they don’t have to go with an unknown player to start the season. Just because teams pay $11 M a year for a guy like Madson doesn’t mean a team like the Pirates should make their top closer untouchable. The Pirates currently have needs at catcher, first base, and shortstop. They have a third baseman who had a horrible season in 2011, and no one really knows what they’re going to get from the young outfielders, Neil Walker, or some of the surprise rotation members of 2011 like Charlie Morton or Jeff Karstens.
With the makeup of the current team, it’s not important to have a dominant closer. The Pirates would be better off dealing Hanrahan – ideally to fill other positions of need – and giving a shot to some of their internal options, like Evan Meek, Chris Leroux, Jason Grilli, Chris Resop, Jose Veras, or even Bryan Morris.