By Jay Cohen
AP Sports Writer
MESA, Ariz. — Mark Melancon got a big free-agent contract from the San Francisco Giants. Aroldis Chapman returned to the New York Yankees for a record-breaking deal. Kenley Jansen stayed with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Wade Davis was traded to the Chicago Cubs, and the Washington Nationals looked outside before looking internally for an answer.
Five of baseball’s marquee teams. A series of high-stakes decisions. A closer look at the value of closers.
“There’s no magic formula. Filling that role is not different than any other role,” Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. “But I think you recognize that the relief pitching in general, guys kind of come out of nowhere and surprise you and then, with some notable exceptions, it’s not always the longest, most consistent run for these guys.
“So (we) try to be creative in how we fill those roles rather than just go out and give a free agent a huge long-term deal.”
Epstein and the Cubs parted with a pricey package of prospects to get Chapman from the Yankees last summer, and the hard-throwing left-hander helped Chicago to its first World Series title since 1908. But the Cubs got Davis from Kansas City a couple of weeks before Chapman finalized an $86 million, five-year contract with New York — the richest deal ever for a relief pitcher.
Davis will make $10 million this season in the final year of his contract. Asked if there was a disparity around the game in how teams look at the role, Epstein demurred.
“I think everyone would rather look in-house first, but if you don’t have the candidates ready and you’re a team that expects to win the World Series, then you look outside,” he said.
San Francisco and Los Angeles lost to Chicago in the NL playoffs, and what happened in each series followed the teams into the offseason.
Five San Francisco relievers combined to throw away a 5-2 lead in the ninth inning of its season-ending loss to the Cubs in Game 4 of the division series. The Giants blew 32 saves last season, including nine in September.
Enter Melancon, who finalized a $62 million, four-year contract with San Francisco in December.
“It seems when you have a guy that is a lockdown guy it just shortens the game so much,” Giants catcher Buster Posey said. “You’re able to do some things a little bit differently and also, of course, the other team knows if they go into that last inning without the lead, they’re kind of up against it. Other than what he can just do on the mound, it just gives us a little bit of an edge overall.”
Jansen was practically unhittable in the NL Championship Series against Chicago, striking out 10 while throwing 6.1 scoreless innings. The Dodgers, who were eliminated by the Cubs in six games, then gave Jansen a blockbuster $80 million, five-year contract to remain in Los Angeles.
When the dust settled for the marquee closers, Washington was left with a giant question mark at the back end of its bullpen. The NL East champions made a play for Melancon, who finished last season with the Nationals, but were outbid by the Giants, according to Washington general manager Mike Rizzo. The Nationals also tried for Jansen before he re-signed with the Dodgers.
Washington could try a closer-by-committee setup — a concept that seemed to be gaining steam in the sport for a while before dying down a bit — but it is hoping someone seizes the job. Shawn Kelley, Blake Treinen, Koda Glover and Joe Nathan are in the mix for the spot this spring.
“There’s a very small handful of established, ninth-inning closers that are in the elite category,” Rizzo said. “We don’t have any of them. But I like the fact that we have pitchers with the ability, the skill set, the makeup and the aptitude to be a back-end-of-the-bullpen type of guy.
“From Mariano Rivera, all the way down, they were all ‘first-year closers’ at some point in their career.”
The Nationals still could trade for a closer, with David Robertson from the rebuilding White Sox making a lot of sense for each side. For his part, White Sox general manager Rick Hahn doesn’t see a lot of variance in how teams value closers, but he is anticipating a change in how they are employed after the Indians went to Andrew Miller at various different points during playoff games last year, one of a couple teams to try that strategy in the 2016 postseason.
“I think whatever discrepancy you see may not necessarily be just from the notion that anyone can do it versus you need to have the guy, which I think has been decreased in recent years, that was bigger, more prevalent 12, 13 years ago, but how the closers are being used,” Hahn said. “That’s where the change has come, where you see Andrew Miller coming into a ballgame in the sixth inning because even though he may be your best reliever, the game’s on the line given the leverage of that situation.
“That’s where I think you see the differentiation, not necessarily from saying ‘Well, I don’t need to spend on that guy.’ Those premium-type guys are going to still get paid. The question is, are they going to be just saved for the ninth or are you going to bring them in in the sixth, seventh or eighth?”