MLB Free Agents 2012: Closer Market Still Stacked after Papelbon Signing

Scott GyurinaCorrespondent INovember 19, 2011

MLB Free Agents 2012: Closer Market Still Stacked after Papelbon Signing

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    This offseason, the free-agent market is thin at multiple positions, but closer is not one of them.

    Even after Jonathan Papelbon, the highest-profile closer available was signed to a record contract by the Philadelphia Phillies, the depth of talent still available is significant.

    Numerous teams across the league still have a void at the end of their bullpen and various others remain less-than-fully committed to their incumbent closer.

    Though there is a deep pool of accomplished pitchers to choose from, teams have to be slightly distressed by the market that Papelbon's contract set, as he signed a four-year deal with the Phillies for $50 million, which is a record for guaranteed money for a reliever.

    Various teams remain in the hunt, however, with the Red Sox, Mets, Blue Jays, Rangers, Twins, Dodgers and Marlins exploring their options, along with numerous others.

    It will be interesting to see if any of the remaining closers available benefit from Papelbon's deal, or if he was a special case that stood out above the others. 

    The leverage would appear to be on the side of the teams, as there are numerous options available to choose from in order to fill the closing role.

    Here are the top nine closers currently available on the free-agent market.

Jonathan Broxton

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    The youngest member of the group, 27-year-old Jonathan Broxton enters free agency amidst great uncertainty following an injury-plagued 2011 season.

    He only pitched 12.2 innings last year, in which he owned a 5.68 ERA and a 1.895 WHIP. An elbow injury ended his season in May, and he had arthroscopic surgery in September to remove loose bodies from the joint.

    From 2006-09, Broxton was one of the most dominant relievers in baseball, posting an ERA+ of 154, with a 1.127 WHIP, while striking out 398 in 303.1 innings.

    Broxton's performance slipped in 2010, following his breakout year in 2009, in which he emerged as the Dodgers' regular closer. During the 2010 season, he became strangely hittable, allowing 9.2 hits per nine innings—a significant increase of four hits per nine from the previous year.

    His walk rate also rose, while his strikeout rate fell, and his ERA+ plummeted from 154 to 96 from 2009 to 2010.

    He's currently rehabbing his elbow and is preparing to begin a throwing program, which should give interested teams an indication of whether he can approach the flame-throwing reliever he was a few short years ago.

    The right-handed closer candidate will likely draw significant interest due to his dominant past and potential upside due to his age relative to other closers available.

    Jerry Crasnick of reported late last week that several teams, including the Blue Jays, have asked to review his medical records in order to ascertain the true nature of his health status.

Frank Francisco

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    Frank Francisco has long tantalized as a hard-throwing, potential relief ace, but he has yet to reach the level that some have expected of him. Unfortunately, various injuries and lackluster performances in a closing capacity have waylaid his career at times.

    Now 32, he was notable in 2011 for being the player traded to Toronto to bring postseason hero Mike Napoli to the Texas Rangers.

    Francisco did save 17 games in 21 opportunities last season, for an 81 percent success rate, as well as 25-of-29 for an 86 percent rate in 2009. Last season, he split the save opportunities Toronto with Jon Rauch.

    Overall, in the last four years, he has been a solid reliever in various capacities for Toronto and Texas. From 2008-11, he has pitched 216 innings, striking out 253 with a 126 ERA+ and a 1.21 WHIP.

    Reports have indicated that the Mets held a meeting this week with Francisco to determine the level of mutual interest.

    He has the potential to close, as well as past history in the role, but Francisco may be best-suited for a late-inning role leading up to the closer.  

Matt Capps

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    Though Matt Capps has never been an elite closer, nor does he possess the dominant stuff of other premier relievers, he has nevertheless been fairly successful saving ballgames over the last several years.

    In five seasons with the Pirates, one half season with the Nationals and one-and-a-half in Minnesota, Capps has saved 124 of his 161 opportunities for a 77 percent conversion rate.

    His performance dipped last year, however, as he only saved 15 of his 24 chances, while his ERA ballooned from 2.47 in 2010 to 4.25, with an adjusted ERA+ of only 95. Capps saw his strikeout rate fall considerably to only 4.7 per nine innings, down from 7.3 the previous year between both the Nationals and Twins. He also allowed 10 home runs.

    It appears as if the American League may have figured him out after his successful cameo in 2010.

    At only 28, he's the second-youngest of this crop, so he likely has several peak years ahead of him. He is likely to be better suited for the National League and perhaps for a set-up/situational role due to propensity for inducing ground balls. 

Joe Nathan

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    Joe Nathan was once one of the few closers in the game to be mentioned in the same breath as Mariano Rivera.

    That was before he tore an elbow ligament at the end of the 2009 season which necessitated Tommy John surgery that would ultimately cost him the entire 2010 campaign.

    From 2004-09, Nathan was utterly dominant, saving 246 games at a 91 percent success rate. He had a 0.93 WHIP with a 237 ERA+, 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings and allowed only 271 hits in 418.2 innings.

    He then missed the entire 2010 season following his surgery and portions of the 2011 season as he recovered. Last year, he worked his way back to full strength but wasn't the same pitcher, as his ERA jumped to 4.84.

    Nathan is hoping to return to being a full-time closer, now that he feels fully recovered from his injury. His agent stated last week that he's seeking a closer job, rather than a set-up role.

    Next week, Nathan will turn 37, so his time may be running short, but if he's healthy, it's possible that he could be a significant value for someone short on closing help. His experience could also be highly valuable to a young bullpen. 

    Reportedly, Nathan met with the Mets earlier this week.

Brad Lidge?

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    Once one of the elite closers in baseball, Brad Lidge has endured consistent battles with injuries over the last several seasons.

    In 2011, he began the year on the 60-day DL, rehabbing from a partially torn rotator cuff before running into elbow problems. The combined ailments cost him dearly, as he lost the closer's job to Ryan Madson and only pitched 19.1 innings throughout the course of the season.

    Lidge pitched well in 2010, saving 27 games in 32 opportunities for an 84 percent success rate. His 1.23 WHIP, 2.96 ERA and 10.2 strikeouts per nine innings offered glimpses of the old Lidge following his disastrous 2009 campaign.

    Despite his various travails in recent years, Lidge has saved 223 games in his career, with a conversion rate of 84 percent and owns a highly impressive strikeout rate of 12 per nine innings.

    He likely won't pitch for a serious contender in 2012, but on an incentive-laden deal, Brad Lidge could provide a team with some value at the back end of their bullpen, health permitting of course.

Francisco Cordero

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    Francisco Cordero is reportedly drawing significant interest on the free-agent market. Jon Morosi of FOX Sports reported a few days ago that the Red Sox, Angels, Marlins, Dodgers, Blue Jays, Mets and Reds have contacted his representatives.

    The 36-year-old Cordero just completed four successful seasons in Cincinnati in which he saved 150 games in 174 chances for an 86 percent success rate. Over that time, he has a 1.30 WHIP and an ERA+ of 141.

    Though he has been successful at converting saves, his walk rate is generally high (4.1 per nine innings) during that span, and his strikeout rate has declined in every year since 2007. It was a career high of 12.2 in 2007 and dropped all the way to 5.4 in 2011.

    He saved 37-of-43 games last year, posting a 2.45 ERA with a stellar 1.02 WHIP and a 160 ERA+. It was his best year in a few seasons, raising the possibility of a contract-year bump that may scare off some potential suitors.

    On a deal for a year or two, Cordero could be a solid option, but beyond that, I would be extremely reluctant, especially considering the depth of the closer market this offseason.

Francisco Rodriguez

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    Once one of the most-dominant closers in the game, Francisco Rodriguez's reputation has taken a hit in recent seasons. 

    Following his departure from the Angels, and his subsequent signing with the Mets prior to the 2009 season, K-rod has had a turbulent last few years. He struggled during his debut season with New York and had a much-publicized 2010 incident in which he was charged with assaulting his ex-father-in-law, for which he was arrested and then suspended by the Mets.

    His 2010 season ended prematurely when it was discovered that he had torn a thumb ligament during the altercation, and he was placed on the inactive list by the franchise.

    Unfortunately, that incident had occurred in the midst of a fantastic rebound season for Rodriguez, and his 2011 half-season with the Mets would represent another step back for the closer in New York. He was pitching solidly, but his 1.4 WHIP and 118 ERA+ weren't up to his previous standards.

    In order to save a little on his contract, the Mets traded him along with cash to Milwaukee on July 12 for two players to be named later. 

    Initially, K-Rod had stated that he was unwilling to pitch in a set-up role, but he dropped his complaints and performed his duties as required by his new club, setting up for incumbent closer John Axford.

    The demonstrative reliever thrived in his new role down the stretch, pitching 29 innings, striking out 33, with a 1.14 WHIP and a ERA+ of 212.

    His resume is impressive, as he has converted 291-of-342 save opportunities for an 85 percent success rate. Rodriguez owns a career ERA+ of 172, a 1.16 WHIP and 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings.

    Despite his successful track record, there has been little discussion of the soon-to-be-30 Rodriguez thus far in the offseason, likely due to the availability of numerous quality closing options.

Heath Bell

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    Heath Bell, long-rumored as a trade target over the last few seasons, has finally reached free agency.

    Toiling in San Diego for the last several seasons, many had expected the Padres to cash in on the valuable trade chip, rather than retain a top-flight closer on a team that is likely a few years from contention.

    The Padres surprised everyone when they held onto Bell until his contract ran out, opting to offer him arbitration, while hoping he'd stay for another couple years. If not, they'd receive the compensatory draft pick for the type-A free agent if he signed elsewhere.

    Over the last three seasons, the 34-year-old Bell has been one of the premier closers in baseball, saving 132 of his 146 opportunities for a 90 percent rate. He has a 1.16 WHIP, a 157 ERA+ and opponents have only amassed a .580 OPS against him since 2009.

    San Diego is interested in keeping Bell, but reports indicate that they're reluctant to go beyond a two-year commitment, and they know he'll likely command more long-term offers.

    Bell himself is reportedly looking for a three-year commitment for his own sense of security and stability.

    The San Diego Union Tribune reported a few days ago that the Red Sox are interested in Bell after losing Papelbon to the Phillies, as well as other unnamed teams on the east coast.

    Signing Bell to a three-year deal could potentially allow the Red Sox to continue with Daniel Bard in a set-up role as they continue to groom him to eventually close. The expectation was that he would take over immediately following Papelbon's departure, but they're as of yet unsure about the young flame-thrower's readiness to assume the role.

    He had stated that he would prefer to stay on the west coast if possible, with either the Padres, Angels or Dodgers, but was also interested in Boston and Philly(prior to the Papelbon signing).

Ryan Madson

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    Ryan Madson was reported to have already had a four-year, $44 million deal in place to remain as the closer for the Philadelphia Phillies prior to Jonathan Papelbon assuming that role.

    The incumbent in Philly was displaced once Papelbon signed his massive contract for four years and $50 million last week.

    After transitioning from a set-up role and into the spot vacated by the injured Brad Lidge, Madson thrived.

    Madson, a 31-year-old right-hander, saved 94 percent of his 34 opportunities, only blowing two. He posted a 2.37 ERA in 60.2 innings, striking out 62 and only walking 16. The relief ace struck out 9.2 per nine innings and had a 1.15 WHIP last year.

    Since becoming a full-time reliever in 2007, Madson has been one of the most consistent relief artists in baseball, averaging 66 innings per year, with a 1.19 WHIP and a 147 ERA+. He has been at his absolute best in 2009-10, posting a 2.45 ERA with a 1.10 WHIP and 10 strikeouts per nine innings during those two years.

    Danny Knobler of reported that the Red Sox are interested though the Boston Herald recently quoted Madson's agent, Scott Boras, as saying that he "has not spoken with the Red Sox yet about Madson."

    Jon Heyman of Sports Illustrated reported that the Miami Marlins had also made a contract offer to Madson, hoping he'll join their new project.