With good but not overwhelming numbers in the NL Central, it never seemed particularly likely that ex-Yankee prospect Mark Melancon (pronounced, mel-AN-son) would be the Red Sox closer next season. Which meant that there were essentially three options for the role. With all due respect to Alex Wilson, it wasn’t likely that the immediate replacement was in the minor league system, so the Red Sox were most likely to trade for a closer, sign a free agent or slide Bard into the role.
Signing Ryan Madson might in other years have been a good option for both parties, but with the Sox up against the luxury tax threshold and dollars at a premium, even a make-good Beltre-style one year deal probably wasn’t the best employment of our remaining resources. Why would you devote your remaining dollars to a reliever who’s going to throw maybe 80 innings with at least one and maybe two holes in the starting rotation? Or did you think it’d be worth Sox paying the “proven closer” premium for a Cordero and his declining peripherals?
In the wake of the Benoit and Soriano deals last offseason and Papelbon’s haul with the Phillies this, it’s been apparent that the market is overvaluing relievers relative to their actual, expected performance. Witness Tampa, who every year builds a Top 3 bullpen with castoffs like Farnsworth. Which is another way of saying that it was almost certainly going to be a.) trade or b.) Bard, and probably in that order.
Given that the Sox apparently believe that Bard can be a starter, then – a notion I am personally skeptical of – the most logical solution to our pitching needs was to trade for a closer. And with a front office highly focused on valuation – buying low and selling high – most likely a trade for a closer whose value was depressed by performance, health or both.
Hence, Bailey, a reliever limited to 41 innings last year and 49 the year before.
As has been well documented, Bailey is a not quite elite closer with significant health issues and problematic home/road peripheral numbers. We’re taking a flyer, in other words, on a kid who may or may not remain healthy but is likely to pitch adequately if he is. And the acquisition cost, while non-trivial – both Alcantara and Head are high ceiling, boom or bust type prospects, while Reddick is probably destined to be a fourth outfielder – is acceptable. In Keith Law’s words, the Sox are “giving up nothing they’re likely to miss,” at least in the short term. The short term that should be our focus, having missed the playoffs three straight years. Oakland, meanwhile, is right to pay the most attention to the long term, because their outlook this season is, well, bleak, having traded away Cahill, Gonzalez and now Bailey.
The net of this deal, then, is that we give up some high risk/high reward long term value for a short term gain while minimizing our present day dollar costs and thereby preserving financial flexibility. The focus on the dollar cost may or may not be appropriate in light of the post-CBA marketplace which is likely to shift resource allocation priorities away from the draft, but for right now, this deal makes sense for both clubs. Probably the A’s get more for him at the deadline if they held – the cost of reliever acquisitions goes up in season – but the risk that he’d get hurt prior clearly offset that marginally higher expected return.
Having avoided high dollar spending in the bullpen reconstruction, meanwhile, Cherington is now free to redirect his remaining dollars to where they are both most needed and where the valuations are not quite as absurd: starting pitching. Yes, the costs are high, but as starters can generally be expected to throw at least twice as many innings as a reliever, it’s at least bearable. Whether the starter is Kuroda, Oswalt, my pick Jackson or even Maholm, Saunders or Harden, isn’t really the issue: Cherington can let the market, to some extent, come to him. Which again, should keep the cost down.
In the meantime, we’re looking at a bullpen that will see two talented young controllable arms added for less than a third of what Papelbon will be paid by the Phillies. While I might argue with some of the valuations – Lowrie, in particular, seems to be have been sold low – that’s not too bad.
Maybe Cherington, in spite of having gone to Amherst, isn’t so dumb.