The Blue Jays and the Mets led the way in a flurry of free-agent reliever signings, but will those deals lead to buyer's remorse?
Given his age and accomplishment, B.J. Ryan was widely regarded as the most desirable closer available in this winter's thin free-agent market. But the five-year, $47 million contract that Ryan signed with the Blue Jays on Nov. 28--by far the largest in general manager J.P. Ricciardi's four-year tenure with the club and the most lucrative ever given to a relief pitcher--ensured that the deal would be received mostly with incredulity, if not disdain. After all, though Ryan had 36 saves in 41 opportunities with the Orioles in 2005, it was his first full season as a closer.
"These guys are getting money that only Mariano Rivera used to get [four years, $40 million from the Yankees in 2001]," Brewers G.M. Doug Melvin says of Ryan and Billy Wagner, the former Phillies closer whom the Mets signed for four years, $43 million one day after Ryan came to terms. "This makes the price of relievers go up for everybody." The scarcity of dependable bullpen arms, combined with the Yanks' need for setup men--New York locked up former Braves righty Kyle Farnsworth for three years, $17 million last Friday--and a marketplace flooded with cash distorted prices across the industry. Graying righthander Tom Gordon got $18 million from Philadelphia to replace Wagner, while the Cubs lavished $23 million combined on setup men Scott Eyre and Bobby Howry. Toronto, however, felt that Ryan's skill set at a crucial position justified the cost. "If people were criticizing the deal because he's a bad player, I could say they've got something to hang their hats on," Ricciardi says. "But I don't think we signed a bad player."
Confident in their assessment that Ryan was their best option, and equally confident that they had no acceptable fallback option, the Blue Jays decided to move aggressively and, in so doing, set the market. Toronto most likes Ryan's age (he turns 30 on Dec. 28, and at the end of his deal he'll be the same age that Wagner, 34, is now), the fact that he throws lefthanded in a division stocked with lefty sluggers (David Ortiz, Hideki Matsui, Jason Giambi, Carl Crawford, Jay Gibbons) and his high strikeout rate (12.8 per nine innings last season, second among closers to the Astros' Brad Lidge, and 11.0 for his career).
Baseball Prospectus's PECOTA, perhaps the game's most accurate prediction model (it evaluates a player's past performance as well as his historical comparables and returns a range of probable outcomes), agrees with the Jays' optimistic view of Ryan, who it anticipates will justify his contractual outlay (chart, below). PECOTA is less sanguine about Wagner, whom the Mets targeted, as they have several other high-priced free agents under G.M. Omar Minaya, because Wagner was the highest-profile, most established talent at his position. The lefthander throws hard and has saved an average of 35 games over the last five seasons; his age and injury history (including a strained left rotator cuff that sidelined him for six weeks in 2004), however, give pause, and PECOTA predicts that age will take its toll during the span of his new contract. Concurs one AL executive, "Wagner's contract is probably very good for a year and a half, two years, and then you deal with the last half of it when you have to."
An estimate of what this winter's highest-priced free-agent reliever signees should be paid, based on Baseball Prospectus's PECOTA projections.