Mariners Replace Good Closer with Good Closer

The Mariners lost Tom Wilhelmsen last year, not to injury, but to whatever it is that capriciously claims the effectiveness of relievers with otherwise quality stuff. In stepped Danny Farquhar, one of two guys the Mariners got for Ichiro in a deal interpreted as nothing other than a dump and a favor. At the time, the Mariners said they liked Farquhar’s new cutter he’d shown in the minors. He proved to be, you could say, up to the task. There were 125 relievers last year who threw at least 50 innings. Farquhar ranked sixth in strikeout rate, between Kenley Jansen and Trevor Rosenthal. He ranked fourth in FIP-, between Mark Melancon and Craig Kimbrel. He ranked sixth in xFIP-, between Aroldis Chapman and Rosenthal. As closer he had a 2.38 ERA. In no time, Farquhar established himself as perhaps one of the better relievers in the major leagues.

On Thursday the Mariners replaced Farquhar with free-agent Fernando Rodney. It had been rumored for months that the Mariners were interested in a veteran closer, and they got the last good one for two years and $14 million, with another possible million in incentives. The Orioles were a possibility, but it seems they’ll stay internal. For the Mariners, on the surface, it’s a strange move. Below the surface, it’s a perfectly reasonable move, that fits within the current market.

The first thing to understand is that Rodney doesn’t really actually “replace” Farquhar — he just moves him up an inning. Closers, on average, throw the highest-leverage innings, but setup guys have their own high-leverage innings, and each bullpen needs several effective arms over the course of six or seven months. Farquhar’s still there, he still projects just the same, he helps as insurance, and down the road he could be cheaper as a result of not racking up saves in 2014.

This was a bullpen in considerable need. Maybe not of a closer, but of help. Outside of Farquhar and Charlie Furbush, the Mariners had a bunch of question marks, made worse by Stephen Pryor coming off an unusual surgery. No one has any idea what to expect from Wilhelmsen, and Yoervis Medina is not unlike Rodney on his worse days. The goal for any contender ought to be to improve, and the Mariners intend to contend, and Rodney makes them an incrementally more talented team. For the sake of reference, adding Rodney to the depth chart increased the Mariners’ bullpen WAR by about 0.9. It’s pretty easy to see this as the Mariners paying about market rate for about another win.

This deal has the terms everyone basically should have been expecting. Some other free-agent contracts:

And Balfour originally signed for two years and $15 million before the Orioles called things off after looking at the results of his physical. Rodney’s getting paid about what he should get paid, and while he obviously runs into trouble every so often with walks, there’s more to the story and he projects well, even at 37.

No one will ever be able to forget what Fernando Rodney once was. Even three years ago, he was a disaster with the Angels, ending up with more walks than strikeouts. The next year he went to Tampa Bay and set a new ERA record, in the good way. Last year’s numbers were worse, but they were still good, with a 75 FIP- and a 79 xFIP-. A few factors are correlated with Rodney’s improvement with the Rays. His fastball velocity picked up. His changeup frequency picked up. He pitched a lot to Jose Molina. He shifted over on the mound. Two years in a row, Rodney allowed contact rates of about 70%, and while he’s never been easy to hit, there aren’t clear signs of aging.

Maybe you raise your eyebrows over the Molina bit. Throwing to Molina, Rodney wound up with 28 walks and 81 strikeouts. Throwing to Jose Lobaton and Chris Gimenez, he wound up with 23 walks and 77 strikeouts. With the Rays, Rodney had far greater success than ever before getting pitches in the zone called strikes, so maybe there was a framing benefit, but it doesn’t seem to have been enormous, and Mike Zunino’s early indicators are positive.

The Mariners are in a weird position, where they want to go for it, but they’re not a leading title contender, and there’s not a lot to spend on. Rodney isn’t a splash, but he ought to be a modest improvement, at a corresponding cost that makes this move neither outstandingly good nor regrettably bad. Just looking at the depth charts, there’s a good chance Rodney is a bigger improvement than Nelson Cruz would be, and Cruz would presumably cost more money along with a draft pick. That’s also another move the Mariners are thinking about making, so it’s not like they opted for Rodney instead, but consider this when Cruz’s signing somewhere draws headlines. Cruz seems like an impact player, but Rodney’s impact, at least in Seattle, might be greater.

And so the AL West has gotten all the more tight. The Mariners didn’t need a closer, but they did need better arms, and if they aren’t quite finished spending, that division could turn into a four-team race. Or, you know, maybe not. All we have now are probabilities. No one cares about probabilities when the games are being played, but then, when the games are being played, there are games, and that’s nice, so probabilities just have to get us to that point. It’s not really that much further.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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8 years ago

oh god why can’t it be any closer. thank god they put spring training, what would normally be stupid and meaningless, when we are at our most desperate for anything resembling baseball, transforming it into the most exciting thing ever.