The Case of the Proven Closer and the Moneyball A’s by Jeff Sullivan December 3, 2013 Most rumors, of course, are nonsense, or at least things that won’t come true. We all know this to be the case, but a lot of the time, it’s difficult to tell from the outside what’s part of the signal and what’s part of the noise. Then there are the rumors that are just immediately, obviously ridiculous. This is the way I choose to feel about the chatter that the A’s have strong interest in Nelson Cruz — Cruz looks like the opposite of a free-agent bargain, he’s going to cost a draft pick, and the A’s have a full outfield. There’s no part of my rational mind that would link Nelson Cruz to Billy Beane’s ballclub. Not one bit of it seems logical, so the rumor’s dismissed. I had a similar reaction when I first saw word that the A’s were interested in trading for Jim Johnson. Johnson, like Cruz, has his uses, but he’s a Proven Closer due to make eight figures next season. Closers tend to be the most overpaid players on the market, so I didn’t see Beane falling for this, in reality. Then Beane actually traded for Johnson, giving the Orioles Jemile Weeks and a little bit else. The A’s deliberately acquired an eight-figure Proven Closer, and now the more I think about how it happened, the more I see how it makes some sense after all. It’s easy to explain from the Orioles’ perspective. Weeks, probably, won’t turn into anything for them, given his statistical decline and increasing age. And Johnson, for years, has been a pretty good late-inning reliever. But the Orioles aren’t a team that can afford to spend $11 million on a closer, not when there are other holes around the roster of a potential contender. This is a salary dump for the purpose of gaining flexibility, and while the Orioles are said to be looking for a closer replacement, that guy shouldn’t cost as much as Johnson will. There’ll be other money to put in other places. The Orioles will spread that $11 million around, in the hopes of being the better team for it. It’s that simple. The A’s, like the Orioles, operate beneath a tight budget ceiling, so in that sense they shouldn’t want to afford this either. In isolation, the A’s shouldn’t be the team paying $11 million to closer Jim Johnson. But to me, this comes down to two things. One is the principle that there’s no such thing as a bad one-year contract. And the other is that, while the Orioles have some needs to address, the A’s seem complete. After signing Scott Kazmir, all the A’s had left to do was address the bullpen. When people complain about an overpayment, it’s because they think there were better ways to allocate the salary. I’m not going to pretend like the A’s roster is perfect, but when you look at it, it’s hard to find places where they could attempt an uncomplicated upgrade. The outfield is full, adequate, and fairly deep. The infield has too many players. There are multiple candidates to DH. The starting rotation is full and good and young, and the A’s are even in position now to shed Brett Anderson. The bullpen, also, is talented, even after losing Grant Balfour. All that wasn’t there was a clear closer candidate. The A’s could try to do better at any and every position, but they’re already in good shape and attempted upgrades mean bidding wars. The A’s, of all teams, should understand the limited significance of actually having a designated veteran closer, but a good late-inning reliever is valuable no matter the role, and given that the A’s had the money left over to spend, they’re spending it. They’re spending it on an improvement, and they’re spending it easily, without having to get involved in any sweepstakes. Johnson is well-known for his relatively unremarkable strikeout rates, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t effective. This is what he’s done the last four years, while generating a ton of grounders: ERA-: 66 FIP-: 78 xFIP-: 84 For reference, that’s a little bit worse than Joe Nathan, but Johnson’s almost a decade younger, and Nathan is signing with the Tigers for multiple years. The A’s get to make the shortest of commitments on a guy who keeps the ball in the ballpark. In 2014, Johnson might even be the better reliever. The age is important. What Johnson isn’t is obviously and demonstrably better than Balfour. But Balfour’s also older, and seeking multiple years as a free agent. Tellingly, the A’s declined to extend to Balfour a $14.1-million qualifying offer, and that was a month ago, so their limit for this kind of thing is somewhere between Johnson’s projected salary and the value of the QO. But over a month, things have also changed. The A’s got their Nick Punto, and they got their Scott Kazmir. And they don’t have to bid against anyone for Johnson’s services. They don’t even have to negotiate with Johnson on a multi-year deal. They can just pay him for the season and see what happens. The reality now is that the A’s have a good new reliever for a year. They didn’t have to give up any long-term talent, and they didn’t have to make any commitments beyond 2014. This is why people say what they say about one-year contracts. Of course some go better than others, but there’s so little risk, and if the money’s there you might as well use it provided you use it to get a little bit better. The A’s look more or less finished to me, pending the Anderson move. It’s not that it’s a transaction I love. There could be better ways for them to spend that money. Maybe they would’ve been better off holding a lot of it for midseason, should the team need to upgrade. At the end of the day, $11 million is a lot for a non-elite reliever. But this isn’t at all like the Nelson Cruz rumors. Johnson should help right away, and beyond that there’s no commitment. The A’s didn’t lose anything of value but money that would’ve otherwise been difficult to spend. And there’s something to be said for trading for a player you know you’ll have to pay, as opposed to bidding for one. With Johnson, there’s no suspense, no need for Plan B. It’s peace of mind for the winter, and peace of mind for the season. There are worse things.