The offseason is still young, but already we are getting some mixed signals from the Tampa Bay Rays’ front office. Most notable among them is that Andrew Friedman said that the Rays don’t necessarily need to find a proven closer this offseason, yet the Rays have interest in Grant Balfour according to Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle. Those aren’t mutually exclusive statements–Balfour could be one of the few proven closers the Rays are looking into–but it seems strange that the Rays would be tied to a player also set to be pursued by the New York Yankees and Detroit Tigers. You can also count the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the Colorado Rockies among the players for Balfour according to Slusser, simply making the situation even more complicated. How do we explain the Rays’ interest in Balfour this offseason when it seems to make so little sense given the budgetary restraints?
Simply put, Grant Balfour has been excellent for four consecutive years now. It was not until August of 2012 that he became a closer to stay, but the last four years, Balfour’s ERA has never gotten up to 2.60. Other things have varied for Balfour. His strikeouts per 9 innings have ranged from 8.6 to 10.3, his BB/9 from 2.8 to 3.9, and his HR/9 from 0.5 to 1.2, but at the end of the day, the result has been yet antoher impressive season. Balfour’s 2013 was particularly interesting, with his 10.3 K/9 emerging as his highest since 2008, his 3.9 BB/9 being his highest since 2009, and his 1.0 HR/9 being his highest since 2011 and just his second season at 1.0 or above since 2003. More interesting, though, may be the pitch usage that played a large part in those results.
According to Brooks Baseball, Balfour has increased his slider usage the last three years until he got up to 24.50% in 2013, and his fastball frequency has gone done the last three years while his curveball usage has gone up over the same span. Balfour will be 36 next month, and his aging has come with a shift towards throwing his secondary pitches more often. That sounds like a pretty common trend, but for Balfour it seems strange because his 93.99 MPH average fastball velocity in 2013 was actually his highest since 2009. His average fastball velocity has also never gone below 93.37 in a season as he has basically stayed in the same range the last four years, yet he continues to favor his slider more often. Doing so has led to mixed results. Balfour’s career-high strikeout rate in 2013 was a nice touch, and throwing more sliders and curveballs were a major reason it occurred because Balfour has always been able to force more whiffs off those two pitches than his fastball. But Balfour has also never done a great job locating his breaking balls consistently for strikes and does occasionally hang them, which would help explain his increased walk and homer rates as well. Your knee-jerk reaction would have to be that Balfour should switch up his approach to throw more fastballs, but he nevertheless managed a lower whiff rate on his fastball compared to his career average while allowing a higher proportion of home runs than his career average as well. None of this takes away from the fact that Grant Balfour has been dominant the last four years. But when teams are looking at signing a pitcher to a multi-year deal, seeing them trending downwards is not a good sign.
Further complicated the picture is Balfour’s salary situation. Balfour made just $4.5 million in 2013 and he will be looking for a notable raise. A soon-to-be 36 year old with declining skills is hoping to secure a multi-year deal with a marked salary increase? Jose Veras and Edward Mujica are also looking for major raises, but both are at least three years younger than Balfour. That leaves simply Balfour and Fernando Rodney as older closers looking for major jumps in salary, but you can put Balfour in a group by himself because Rodney has nowhere to go but up after making just $2.5 million in 2013. There is always to be a point with free agents where you’re paying for past performance instead of future results, but especially when you’re dealing with a reliever on the decline, that can be a scary thought. Is a team really willing to double the annual salary of a decling reliever on a multi-year deal?
A return to Tampa Bay has to be an attractive thought to Grant Balfour if the price is right. The Rays had faith in him when the Brewers had all but given up and his three-and-half years in a Rays uniform changed the entire course of his career. Balfour may even be willing to give the Rays a slight discount to facilitate a deal, and that may be especially the case if a couple months pass and Balfour’s fate remains uncertain. Balfour is an excellent pitcher, and he is going to get a lucrative multi-year contract this offseason, but the Rays expressed interest to let him know that if his free agency does not go quite as planned, they are willing and able to act as a safety net. If Balfour gets the two years and $18 million that Steve Adams of MLB Trade Rumors predicted, the Rays will be blown out of the water. However, if all the variables surrounding Balfour make teams more uncertain and lower the price, the Rays will swoop in with a deal worth $12-$14 million over two years, and given Balfour’s history with the organization, that may be enough. That would be higher than the Rays would usually pay a reliever, but if the opportunity to acquire an elite reliever at a bargain price fell right into their laps, could they really decline?