Grant Balfour, Fernando Rodney and the Closer Standstill


Grant Balfour is coming off an outstanding season as the closer for the Oakland Athletics and has not had an ERA higher than 2.60 since 2009. Fernando Rodney had a solid year for the Tampa Bay Rays, finishing extremely strong in the second half, and he is just two years removed from the best season by any closer in history. Closers are always available on the free agent market, but rarely do we see two closers as talented as Balfour and Rodney still available in January with no end in sight. Why does this situation continue to persist?

There are two very good closers left, and there are still four suitors in the market for a pitcher of their caliber: the New York Yankees, the Seattle Mariners, the Baltimore Orioles, and the Tampa Bay Rays. Just with these two pitchers, there are a few variables to account for. The Orioles will not sign Balfour after seeing something in his right shoulder in his physical, something that multiple doctors believed should not have been issue. Rodney may take less money to return to the Rays, and Balfour also has a comfort level after pitching there before. But where these two pitchers end up will have a lot to do with the level of need each team has and how much money they have left to spend.

With the Yankees and Mariners, one factor that is much more important than it would seem is Masahiro Tanaka. The Mariners are reportedly at their payroll limit, and while that hasn’t stopped them from pursuing Tanaka, it is unlikely that they could sign Tanaka and a relatively high-priced closer. The Yankees, meanwhile, may have more funds (especially after the Alex Rodriguez suspension), but it is clear that they are working on signing a starter before they worry about relief, and Tanaka is their top target. If the Rays sign Tanaka, they could move three of Michael Pineda, David Phelps, Adam Warren, and Vidal Nuno to their bullpen and that may be enough. If the Mariners or another team sign Tanaka, presumably the Yankees could use the money they would have spent to sign say Matt Garza and either Balfour or Rodney. Would the Mariners do the same if the Yankees or a different team signed Tanaka?

The Yankees have quite a few options with which to fill out their 2014 relief corps. But there is a difference between having depth and having quality pitchers, leading us to a critical question: how confident are the Yankees that David Robertson will be their closer? If they are not confident, then clearly they should sign Balfour or Rodney, but assuming they do expect him to close, things get interesting. Three offseasons ago, the Yankees signed Rafael Soriano despite the presence of Mariano Rivera. Would the Yankees be willing to give another closer the money he wants to pitch in a setup role?

The Orioles are in a different spending stratosphere, but the basic idea is the same as the Yankees and Mariners. The Orioles don’t have a great closer option after the trade of Jim Johnson, with Darren O’Day, Tommy Hunter, and Ryan Webb all having their flaws, but they have needs elsewhere on the field. They could use a starting pitcher, a bat for either left field or DH, and more depth at second and third base with Manny Machado‘s status in question. The Orioles would have loved to get Balfour at two years and $15 million, but that is out of the question right now and it sounds like Rodney wants more. The Orioles have to be interested in Rodney nevertheless, but couldn’t the money they would spend on him be better used at another spot?

The Rays are in a funny position because they seemingly have an advantage with both pitchers thanks to their familiarity with the organization but they also have the least need. The Rays have Heath Bell, Joel Peralta, Jake McGee, and Alex Torres all as possibilities to close, and they have plenty of depth to fill out the rest of their bullpen. The only reason they would possibly bring back Balfour or Rodney would be if they saw an opportunity for a bargain. The Rays will be sitting back to see what happens knowing that any move they make would be only a luxury.

Grant Balfour and Fernando Rodney should expect to keep waiting. The interest of the Yankees, the Mariners, and even the Orioles will depend on what happens with other moves. There is a real chance that both could remained unsigned until Masahiro Tanaka picks a team, meaning that them being free agents into February is a real possibility. From there, we will see how motivated New York, Seattle, and Baltimore are to sign them–and the longer they remain on the market, the more attractive a return for Tampa Bay could become. Tanaka signing will cause the rest of the starting pitching market to fall into place, and the same could be true of the market for Grant Balfour and Fernando Rodney. Wait a few weeks and the rumors should start ramping up again.