The Orioles Don't Need Billy Wagner
Word is that the Orioles are looking for a closer on the free agent market for next year, with Jim Johnson having struggled (not really) in that role after the trade of George Sherrill last season. The name I’ve heard featured most prominently in the discussion is Billy Wagner. Seeing as how when Wagner was traded from the Mets to the Red Sox last season part of the deal involved Boston agreeing to not pick up an $8 M team option, allowing Wagner to become a free agent, it might be fair to assume that he’s looking for either a multi-year contract or a salary of over $8 M. At 39 years old, I have a very hard time imagining some team committing to 2+ years. And since he’s Type-A free agent, any team signing Wagner would have to give up a draft-pick to the Red Sox as compensation – also depressing his value.
None of this is to say that Wagner is no longer a good pitcher. In limited time last year, he posted a 1.72 ERA in 15.2 IP, with 26 K’s to 8 walks. Even if you assume that Wagner would give you 50 innings of his usual high quality production (career 2.79 FIP), that would still only make him about a 1.8 WAR player (pitching in higher leverage situations). At that point, you’re talking about 1 year, $8 M as a fair offer based on talent, but then when you add in the value of the draft-pick (a second-rounder for the O’s, worth in the neighborhood of $1-2 M - a first-rounder would take off more like $4 M) the team probably shouldn’t be going over $6 M. I don’t expect Wagner to actually get much more than that from another team – which is why forcing the Red Sox to turn down paying him $8 M seemed like kind of a strange decision – so if the market is weaker than expected I wouldn’t mind the O’s picking him up on a bargain. A quality closer on a last place team isn’t exactly that useful, but I’d be pretty happy at $3-4 M with the hopes that Wagner could start out the year well and be spun off at the deadline for good value. Paying top dollar for a guy to pitch 50 innings a little bit (or even a lot) better than JJ or Kam The Almighty (or whoever) doesn’t make a lot of sense given where the team is at.
If you’re feeling an itch about improving the bullpen through a Proven Closer – “those blown saves kill the team/demoralize the fans/stunt the development of the young starters/assorted other hooey” – just remember that exactly one closer (guy with at least 5 saves) from 2009 - who was out of his arbitration years - was worth his salary (according to FanGaphs’ WAR). That one man was Cardinals closer Ryan Franklin, who made $2.5 M and was worth $4.1 M for his 0.9 WAR on the back of a tremendously flukey 0.3 HR/9 rate due to a unsustainably low 3.2% HR/FB rate. Number of closers on 2009 playoff teams that were signed as free agents? Two. Franklin, and Angels closer Brian Fuentes (who was only the 4th or so best pitcher in the LA pen; they would have gotten along just fine without him, and possibly even better if they had used his $8.5 M salary to upgrade elsewhere). As Billy Beane wrote in Moneyball; “closers are overrated and can be developed at will and then discarded/traded if they become too expensive… and walks are all that matter and I hate scouts.”
[Edit: This was all written before the Braves signed Wagner to a $7 M deal. Since they had to give up a first-round draft-pick, that means they should have only spent $3-4 M. Not a good deal, I would say, but at least it keeps the O's from potentially overspending on him.]