With the recent trade of Jim Johnson by the Orioles, and the amount of closers still on the market, the question in the title has merit. It seems in recent years the big name, big salaried, 9th inning shutdown closer has been devalued to the point where one can be acquired for a third-string second baseman. The question is, why??
If you look at the last few World Champions, it may offer a clue as to why. The pitcher that got the last out for the Red Sox in 2013 was our old friend Koji Uehara, who didn’t move into that role until late June, after the Sox has already gone through Joel Hanrahan, Andrew Bailey (and lost both due to injury) and Junichi Tazawa, who couldn’t handle the role and went back to set up duty. Before Koji there was the Giants’ Sergio Romo, who replaced an injured Brian Wilson in midseason, after a failed audition by Santiago Casilla. The Cardinals had incumbent closer Ryan Franklin going into the 2011 season, but Jason Motte got the last important outs in October for Tony LaRussa that year.
The thinking in baseball has changed. Gone are the days of Jonathan Papelbon getting four years at $52 million from the Phillies (he was so important to their success last season they were rumored to be ready to deal him before the trade deadline). And, apparently, also gone are the days of an arbitration-eligible closer with consecutive seasons of 50 or more saves in Baltimore. Personal feeling about the trade aside, I have a hard time imagining paying Johnson $10 million to close games this season, which could have happened if he had won his arbitration case.
Call this new era what you will, but I choose “The Mariano Effect.” The recently retired (THANK GOD!!!) Mariano Rivera is messing things up for everybody, even in retirement. Teams are starting to realize that if you don’t have someone like Rivera – which no team ever will again (the closest thing in the game today is probably Craig Kimbrell of the Braves) – you might as well look in house. Or, if nothing on your roster seems a fit, there will be plenty out on the market coming off of one or two year deals.
This year alone the list includes: Fernando Rodney, Brian Wilson (possibly back to the Dodgers), Chris Perez, Carlos Marmol, John Axford, Grant Balfour, Hanrahan, Bailey, and Kevin Gregg (remember him?). I probably missed a few, but I think you get the point.
The Jim Johnson trade does not mean the Orioles are “giving up” on the 2014 season. It means that their, and the rest of baseball’s, thinking has begun to change.