Two years and $12 million–that was the price that the Tampa Bay Rays paid to bring back Grant Balfour. Considering Joe Nathan received two years and $20 million from the Detroit Tigers as a slightly superior pitcher three years older than Balfour, it seemed like a good deal. But for the Rays, there were two clear red flags that they chose to ignore. The first was how they got Balfour–his deal with the Baltimore Orioles was annulled after he failed a physical. Other doctors saw Balfour and claimed he was fine, but injury questions cannot be ignored for any pitcher. Secondly, the Rays were taking a type of risk with a reliever that they had not taken in years.
In Balfour and Heath Bell, the Rays were paying two different relievers at least $4.5 million after not paying a single pitcher more than $3.5 million in a season since Danys Baez in 2005. Balfour (and Bell) had the ability to be worth the money from an objective standpoint, but we are talking about a Rays team that had been finding bargain relievers for years. Why would the Rays ever need a $6 million-per-year closer?
Of all the teams in baseball, the Rays may be the best at recognizing the variability associated with relievers and finding reclamation projects with that in mind. When they signed Balfour, however, they were tempting the same variability that they had used to their advantage so many times. If Balfour delivered his fifth straight season with an ERA under 2.60, the signing would be a success, but even then, it would be closer to breaking even than a major win. Then, if Balfour collapsed–which has a higher probability of occurring to any reliever than you would think–the Rays would be suffering both in terms of his performance and its financial impact. What were the chances of Balfour having a season like this? Was the probability significantly lower than a cheaper reliever? If it was, at least the Rays have an excuse for the way things have turned out.
The Rays have already paid around $3 million of Balfour’s $4 million base salary this season (in addition to a $1 million signing bonus), and he will make $7 million next season. Sunk cost or not, however, Balfour has significantly affected the Rays in a negative sense for 2015. For this season, Balfour’s financial impact does not mean much. The Rays bullpen lacked a clear closer prior to his signing, but it was otherwise set. Mark Lowe or Brad Boxberger would have cracked the Opening Day relief corps and they would have had closer-by-commitee from Day One. And while the Rays’ offense remains far from ideal, is there really an impact player who they would have signed with that money? For the 2014 season, Balfour is at fault for a few of the Rays’ losses and $5 million wasted, but it is not as though the Rays really would have done much had they not signed him. For next season, though, starting with $7 million lost dollars right out of the gate is a pivotal blow.
Even before the Grant Balfour signing, we heard that the Rays’ franchise-record payroll was unsustainable. For this coming season, they may have several million dollars less to work with. David Price and his projected salary of more than $20 million are gone, but players like Jake McGee and Matt Joyce will be receiving arbitration raises, Evan Longoria will start making real money, and Alex Cobb, Desmond Jennings, and Drew Smyly are all eligible for arbitration for the first time. Price may be in a Detroit Tigers uniform, but any salary relief they are getting from his departure will be easily offset. Everyone in baseball knows that the Tampa Bay Rays can do more with $7 million than anyone, and now they will have that much less to spend.
The Rays will certainly find a way to go on. They have the talent to rebound from this rough season, and prospects like Nate Karns, Matt Andriese, and Alex Colome at Triple-A inspire hope that their team could improve itself without spending much this offseason. But here’s the thing: even if Colome and Mike Montgomery help make up for Balfour’s costs by being excellent relievers playing for the league-minimum salary, we’ll still have to ask why the Rays didn’t simply trust the players they had in their organization. Why did they sign Grant Balfour when they had the internal options to succeed at a fraction of the cost, just like before? We can come up with a variety of reasons, but we can all agree that the Rays disregarded the strategy that had made them one of the best teams in baseball by signing Grant Balfour, and received a harsh warning about how much they have to lose if they do so again.