In the winter of 2009, Tampa Bay Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg famously told reporters that there would be no $7 million closer showing up in Tampa Bay. Less than a week later, the Rays traded Jesse Chavez to the Atlanta Braves for closer Rafael Soriano. Soon after, the Rays and Soriano agreed to one-year deal worth $7.25 million.
Unlike the 2010 version, the current bullpen is rather steady headed into the season. Incumbents Joel Peralta, Kyle Farnsworth, J.P. Howell, Jake McGee, and Brandon Gomes have been joined by the high-upside arm of Josh Lueke and the groundball ability of Burke Badenhop. Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman maintains the team is looking to add another arm or two; however, a high-priced item is not a necessity. On the other hand, should a Soriano-like opportunity arrive, the club could find themselves once again paying a little more to land a reliever they probably figured to have no shot at.
The circumstances that brought Soriano to Tampa Bay are rather uncommon. Soriano was offered salary arbitration by the Atlanta Braves who assumed he would decline and cash in on the open market. After surveying his options, Soriano accepted the Braves offer of arbitration after the team already signed Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito to the backend of their bullpen. The Rays saw their opportunity and gladly helped the Braves with their $7 million problem.
Ryan Madson did not accept the Philadelphia Phillies offer of salary arbitration, but considering where he sits on the current market, perhaps he should have followed Soriano and taken the short-term guarantee. Coming off his first season as a successful closer, Madson figured to be in line for a four-year deal worth an average annual salary of around $10 million. The Phillies signed a closer to a similar deal almost immediately after the season ended; however, the contract was given to Jonathan Papelbon not Madson.
Since the Papelbon signing, Madson has watched the doors close (pun intended) in Texas, Miami, New York (Mets), Minnesota, Toronto, and most recently Boston. He now stands alongside Francisco Cordero – a rumored target of the Rays – as the remaining “established” closers looking for work with limited opportunities left.
One of biggest thrills for Andrew Friedman is acquiring a player for what he perceives to be less than the player’s true value. With a dried up market, there may be an opportunity for Friedman to fulfill that desire with Ryan Madson. Although it is likely he is still looking for a multi-year deal, Madson – and his agent Scott Boras – may find the Rays’ way appealing.
Similar to Kyle Farnsworth, many felt Madson did not have the mentality to close games. While closers are someone unusual creatures, a good reliever is generally going to be a good reliever regardless of role. And in recent seasons Madson has not been just good, but borderline elite.
For his career, the right-hander owns a servicable 3.59 ERA in 630 innings. Madson spent the first few years of his career a nice middle-inning reliever with good control and the ability to keep the ball low to the ground and in the yard. He still has those same attributes today, but is now putting hitters away in dominant fashion. Since 2009, he has struck out 204 batters in 191 innings (9.6 K/9). Over the same time period, he has handed out just 37 unintentional walks (1.74 BB/9). In the past three seasons, he is one of 15 relief pitchers to have pitched at least 180 innings with an ERA below 3.00.
As part of his rise, Madson has increased the use of his devastating changeup. He now throws the off-speed pitch more than 30% of the time, getting a swing and a miss on nearly one-third of the tosses. The offering has also helped him narrow the platoon split which makes him a viable late-inning option against both lefties and righties.
Although this is merely speculation –both on the part of Madson’s demands and the Rays’ potential interest – the unforeseen market crash could push the two unlikely parties into a short-term partnership. Without much competition in next year’s free agent class, Madson could opt for a one-year deal with a base salary for around $8 million – the figure he would have likely made in arbitration – with some incentives thrown in for games finished. It is quite possible the Rays went into the offseason with no intentions of spending that kind of cash on a relief pitcher; however, they probably did not expect Madson to be all dressed up with nowhere to go heading into the New Year.