Once again the Rays headed into the off-season without a closer as previous closer Fernando Rodney hit free agency. The Rays could’ve made an effort to resign him but chose to look elsewhere. They ended up signing Grant Balfour to a 2-year deal worth 12 million. Balfour’s stats suggest he is a better pitcher than Rodney and a surer bet to perform well in the closer role in 2014. Now that the Seattle Mariners have signed Rodney to a 2-year deal worth 14 million one might be surprised. Did the Rays improve at closer this off-season while spending less money than they would have if they had resigned Rodney? Let’s take a closer look.
Grant Balfour has been one of the most consistent relief pitchers in baseball over the past few seasons. Since 2010 he has never posted an earned run average higher than 2.59 and has never thrown fewer than 55 innings. His FIP has fluctuated over time but has never been over 3.77 since his first stint with the Rays in 2008. His BABIP has been fairly low over the years especially in 2011 when it was .201. This is likely due to the fact he pitched in the spacious Oakland Coliseum but he could continue posting a very low BABIP due to the fact that Tropicana Field is also favorable to pitchers and he will have a very solid defense behind him. Balfour has been striking out hitters at a very solid rate over the past few seasons as well and his K/9 had a slight improvement from 8.68 to 10.34 in 2013 while his BB/9 rate hasn’t been above 2.95 in the last three seasons. His average fastball velocity ranges from the mid to lower 90s and nothing suggests that his velocity will be much different in 2014 as well.
Fernando Rodney’s 2012 season will go down as one of the best seasons for a reliever in baseball history. In 74.2 innings pitched he compiled a 0.60 earned run average with 48 saves with a K/9 rate of 9.16 and a BB/9 rate of 1.81. What made this season even more improbable was that he had been a total train wreck before. He was due for some regression in 2013 and pitched in 66.2 innings compiling an earned run average of 3.38 (2.84 FIP). His K/9 rate actually increased to 11.07 but his BB/9 rate ballooned to 4.86. Throughout his career control has always been the main reason Rodney had never reached his potential and it was the main reason for his regression in 2013. Rodney’s fastball velocity has always been in the upper 90s and even though he will be 37 on opening day that shouldn’t change.
Overall both pitchers have been very solid over the last two seasons. Fernando Rodney had the best season of any relief pitcher in 2012 but Balfour probably had a better 2013 season. If you look further back than 2012 there’s no question that Balfour has been the more superior reliever over time. While Rodney gave the Rays two very good years in the closer role, including one where he was the best in the game, the decision to go with the more proven track record shouldn’t come as a shock. Factor in that the Rays essentially saved 2 million dollars over the next two years by signing Balfour and it appears that the Rays got better in the 9th inning and saved money in the process. This is just another example of why the Rays’ front office is as good as they come.