The Case of the Proven Closer and the Moneyball A’s

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.





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.

newest oldest most voted
DrBGiantsfan
Guest

I get it. When Brian Sabean overpays, it’s bad. When Billy Beane does it, it’s good. Great principle to remember for future analysis.

Lens of Truth
Guest
Lens of Truth

Think you need to remove that “r” from your username.

I don't care what anyone
Guest
I don't care what anyone

and insert an “A”

Pitnick
Guest
Pitnick

Database Administrator?

Sixto Lezcano
Guest
Sixto Lezcano

Big difference between overpaying for 5 years for Hunter Pence…or overpaying for Tim Lincecum where production isn’t even there to begin the argument…and overpaying for one year of a productive reliever. Of course, Giants fans aren’t really very good an understanding rational arguments (see their blind support of Barry Bonds).

obsessivegiantscompulsive
Member

People living in glass houses shouldn’t throw rocks.

If it’s that bad to be using steroids, then I’ll believe you aren’t a hypocrite when you disavow the 1989 World Championship that the A’s has because of Canseco and McGwire, and recommend that the A’s don’t recognize that championship.

And not all of us blindly support Bonds.

Just like not all of us believe that steroids actually helps a major league hitter get more hits and homers: http://steroids-and-baseball.com/

RMD
Guest
RMD
LOL
Guest
LOL

The amount of things wrong with the website you posted is astonishing beyond comprehension. I literally laughed at the steroids help upper-body strength more part.

BaseballSplits (Twitter)
Guest
BaseballSplits (Twitter)

Yes, hitting a baseball is difficult, and you have to be a pretty darn good player in the first place to hit 50+ HR. But anyone who thinks (or implies) that steroids didn’t help Barry Bonds’ on-field performance is absolutely delusional…

crapshoot
Guest
crapshoot

“Giants fans aren’t good an (sic) understanding rational arguments.”

How about we leave this level of discourse over at the ESPN message boards where it belongs.

John Elway
Guest

NEIGHHHH!!!!

Petruchio
Guest
Petruchio

Beane overpaying is unusual, and therefore worth more detailed scrutiny. Sabean overpaying is about as uninteresting as it is habitual.

DBaGiantsFan
Guest

How much does Romo cost?

Bip
Guest
Bip

Romo was drafted – not at all comparable.

Ballfan
Guest
Ballfan

Romo NOT DRAFTED

free agent signing by the Boys’

‘Not selected in the 2003 NFL Draft, Romo signed as a free agent with the Dallas Cowboys.’

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_Romo

just sayin’

Cidron
Member
Cidron

please. Context clues would indicate Sergio Romo, SF Giants reliever/closer.

Tim
Guest
Tim

He was clearly making a joke haha

Rick
Guest
Rick

Don’t see how trading for an arby player is anything like signing a free agent when you bid against only yourself; and then spend not just more $/year, but more years on said player as well.

Reignman
Guest
Reignman

You can’t really compare Beane’s decision logic to Sabean’s. Beane operates from limited resources, kind of like a high tech startup. Sabean operates from a position of large resources, kind of like a cash-rich fortune 500 firm. Google acquired YouTube for $1B, which was an overpay, but nobody questions the decision. Startups who go on acquisition sprees usually fail.

Ironically, the logic that Sullivan uses to justify Beane’s acquisition of Johnson is the logic Sabean (which really means the entire Giants brass since it’s not a one-man show over there) uses all the time to overpay for the likes of Pence and Lincecum. An overpay is an overpay- it’s just a difference of years and dollars.

The Giants also make decisions based on marketing, which in turn increases the fan base which in turn increases the revenue available to acquire talent. Sometimes this backfires obviously, but the Giants having a large revenue base compared to the A’s is probably not coincidence (their stadiums are 20 min apart). Building a nice stadium, marketing Bonds, and keeping popular players around has allowed the Giants to overpay today and has paid dividends in other ways (e.g.- Hudson choosing the Giants over the A’s because of the fan base).

Patrick
Guest
Patrick

Seems to me that Dave made his point clear about 1 year contracts. Overpaying for one year for a contending team does not hurt anyone.

However, I see this acquisition differently. There is always a high profile team looking for a closer midseason. I will be very surprised if the A’s don’t get significant talent from the Yankees, Tigers, etc. before the trade deadline in exchange for Johnson.

Heck, I would be mildly surprised if they even start the season with him. Beane has been known to acquire a player just so he can flip him in another deal for the player he actually wanted.

Park Chan Ho's Beard
Guest
Park Chan Ho's Beard

This is another interesting angle to look at the deal from. Billy Beane’s a genius!

Scott
Guest
Scott

Example(s)?

channelclemente
Guest
channelclemente

DrBG, never insult a local hero on his own turf. It’s a tribal thing.

nickolai
Guest
nickolai

yes jeff clearly hates the giants. what an a$$hole.

Forrest Gumption
Member
Forrest Gumption

Go on…

Bobby Melody
Guest
Bobby Melody

Recent article in the NY Post ranks Sabean in 8th place behind:
1. Andrew Friedman, Tampa Bay
2. Billy Beane, Oakland
3.Jon Daniels, Texas
4. Dave Dombrowski, Detroit
5. John Mozeliak, St. Louis
6. Brian Cashman, Yankees
7. Theo Epstein, Cubs

Bones
Guest
Bones

Epstein is GM?

Bobby Melody
Guest
Bobby Melody

President, Baseball Operations Theo Epstein Executive Vice President, General Manager Jed Hoyer

The article from the NY Post listed him with the GMs, I assume because he performs like one.