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Free Agent Profile: Jose Valverde

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I recently read these two posts on Sabernomics by JC Bradbury about free agency. They got me thinking about how the Astros crop of free agents fits into the market, what kinds of deals comparable players got last season and what we could expect the (former) hometown boys to get this winter. Thus, another mini-series of posts on free agency.

[Sidenote 1: It's also worth noting that our first profile, Valverde, plays a position where the number of players doesn't necessarily correspond to openings on teams. Relievers can market themselves as closers without having vacated that position, thus making for a possibly over-glutted market where some guys will have to sign for significantly less as setup men]

Just the other day, I argued that the Astros should not offer Jose Valverde arbitration. My thinking was that Houston would be on the hook for way too much money, since Valverde would most likely accept the arbitration offer to get a big payday (albeit a one-year payday).

This may or may not be a popular opinion around these parts, so I thought we could look at the 2008 offseason to see what kind of contracts closer got. I ran down the biggies, the Type A's and a few other contracts that are similar to Valverde's numbers. For reference, El Papa Grande earned 8 million in 2009 and pitched 54 1/3 innings, striking out 56 and walking 21. Valverde converted 25 of 29 save opportunities and gave up five home runs. FanGraphs puts his value at a solid 3 million.

[Sidenote 2: I am skeptical of how WAR rates relievers, but after combing through some of this data, it looks like it comes close to nailing down closers, at least. Take that for what it's worth in the rest of this article]

The Comparables

Francisco Rodriguez, RHP, New York Mets

Contract Details: 3 years, 37 million (2m bonus, 09-8.5m, 10-11.5m, 11, 11.5m, 12-17.5m option)

Notes: K-Rod was not worth his contract last season, earning a value of just 1.5 million. Though relievers are typically devalued in WAR, I found that this wasn't necessarily the case with closers. Plenty of the contemporaries on this list had good, valuable seasons in the past. For instance, K-Rod was worth 17 million from 2007 to 2008. Unfortunately, he picked the wrong year to get injured. This contract would appear to be the upper range of Valverde's money.

Kerry Wood, RHP, Cleveland Indians

Contract Details: 2 years, 20.5 million (09-10m, 10-10.5m, 11-11m option)

Notes: Wood was worth 1.9 million in 2009 after totaling 10 million in value the previous season. His contract seemed to be in line with that, though his performance didn't suggest it would continue. It should be noted that only one reliever got a three-year deal. The rest had to settle for two-year deals or one-year fliers.

Brian Fuentes, LHP, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Contract Details: 2 years, 17.5 million (09-8.5m, 10-9m, 11-9m option)

Notes: This would appear to be the kind of deal that makes sense for Valverde. Fuentes marked one of the few Type A closers that was both offered arbitration and signed with a team in the offseason. We'll get to a couple other examples in a minute, but for now, let's say Fuentes did much better n 2008 than Valverde did last season, but still couldn't land a deal longer than two years. His almost 9 million average is just above what Valverde earned in 2009, and would certainly be a starting place for any arbitration discussion.

The Other Type A's

Trevor Hoffman, RHP, Milwaukee Brewers

Contract Details: 1 year, 6 million (re-signed for 1 year, 8 million with an '11 option of 7 million)

Notes: Hoffman shows the other side of the coin for Valverde. The Padres did not offer Hoffman arbitration heading into last offseason, meaning a team would not have to give up draft picks to sign him. Despite coming off an injury-plagued season, the Brewers gave Hoffman a 6 million dollar tryout in 2009. The venerable saves champ was worth 6.7 million last season, so he performed to the contract and was rewarded with another one year deal.

Juan Cruz, RHP, Kansas City Royals

Contract Details: 2 years, 6 million (09-2.25m, 10-3.25m, 11-4m option)

Notes: Cruz was a surprise sign as a Type A free agent, since he had the heaviest cost, yet wasn't  a closer. Of course, he was not good at all in 50 relief innings for the Royals this season, but this is Dayton Moore we're talking about. He'll do anything. As the quirkiest signing of last winter, Cruz fits right in. How much his situation will impact Valverde's is less clear. Cruz wasn't used the same way and didn't have the same relative value. Still, he got a contract in line with many middle relievers that will form the base of the reliever market.

The Outlier

Kyle Farnsworth, RHP, Kansas City Royals

Contract Details: 2 years, 9.5 million (09-4.25m, 10-4.5m, 11-5.25m option)

Notes: What did I say about Moore? He gave a 9.5 million dollar contract to Kyle Farnsworth, he of the ever-straight 150 MPH fastball. Of course, Trey Hillman felt obliged to use him in bizarre situations, confounding guys like Rob Neyer and Joe Posnanski. Farnsworth probably earned more money last season than he should have, but he was still worth 3 million, according to FanGraphs. That's also what Valverde was worth, as a point of reference.

Non-Free Agents of Note

Ryan Franklin, RHP, St. Louis Cardinals

Contract Details: 2 years, 6.5 million (signed Sept. 1, 2009)

Notes: Franklin saved 38 games for the Cardinals in 2009, but will be heading into his Age 37 season. The Cardinals wisely locked him up for a reasonable 6.5 million over two seasons. That significantly lowers the salary precedent for a guy like Valverde, though, as his agent will have to work off a contract like Soria's to get comparable numbers.

 

Heath Bell, RHP, San Diego Padres

Contract Details: 1 year, 1.25 million (2008)

Notes: Bell will be due a big raise in 2010, since he led the NL with 42 saves in 2009. Heading into another year of arbitration, the Padres may decide a closer is not a luxury they're willing to splurge on, making Bell tradeable. I'd expect him to fetch anywhere between 4-6 million in arbitration, so that's the number a team's looking at if they go and get Bell. That also means Bell would be that much cheaper than a guy like Valverde on the open market.

 

Forecast for Valverde

El Papa Grande is one of nine different pitchers who could market themselves as closers this offseason, including Billy Wagner, J.J. Putz, Fernando Rodney and Brandon Lyons. Now, most people would argue that Valverde is the best of the crop, but that also carries a price. We can surmise from last year's market that even Valverde will not get more than a three year deal, and that his ceiling is probably around 10 million. Coming off an injury plagued season, though, means his market will be compressed slightly. Add to that the more reasonable deals signed by Joakim Soria (3 years, 8.75 million) and Franklin, and Valverde will be lucky to get 8m per season. In arbitration, though? The Astros risk paying him anywhere from 3 million to 11 million next season if they offer arb. and he accepts. Given that Wade will have around 15-17 million to work with, is it worth eating up that much of the budget for a closer?

My assumption is the Astros will decline to offer him arbitration and he will sign a two year deal for somewhere around 18 million, with a possible third year option for 10 million. I won't guess who'd give him that contract, but looking at both the market and last year's offseason, those numbers seem right.