It seems like we go through this every year. Teams that have no good options for a closer decide to cheap out and go with what they have or pick some retread off the scrap heap and as so often happens it blows up in their face. Look at the performance some of these teams have gotten from their ramshackle bullpens
|Indians||John Axford||Lost his job after his ERA balooned to five, Indians currently in a closer by committee|
|White Sox||Nate Jones||Had a horrible Spring and forced the White Sox to use a combination of Matt Lindstrom and Ronald Belisario in the ninth|
|Orioles||Tommy Hunter||ERA shot past six lost his job to a committee of Darren O`Day and Zach Britton|
|Astros||Josh Fields/Anthony Bass||The committee struggled hard enough that the Astros had to bust out the most feared sentence in the English language: "Closer Chad Qualls"|
|Rangers||Neftali Feliz||Has yet to make it out of the minors this season, even on an injury decimated Rangers staff|
The lesson here is obvious, without a proven closer the most likely scenario is that you will be left scrambling for a late inning solution in the middle of the season, and your desire for bargains could dig your team in too deep of a hole to recover from.
The stuff up there is obnoxious satire, but it does speak some truth about how we talk about reliever signings. The basic saber orthodoxy is that the ninth inning is just like any other. Any pen arm1 who is effective in other parts of the game can be moved to the ninth and rack up saves. The lesson that should be taken from this is "saves aren't a great indicator of how good a reliever is" but too many take this to mean "anyone can be a good closer, so don't bother signing one".
This article by Dave Cameron is a perfect example of this thinking. He takes teams to task for acquiring guys like Joe Nathan, Grant Balfour and Jim Johnson this off season, but doesn't offer any alternatives. If Grant Balfour weren't on the Rays, Joel Peralta who has been pretty bad himself would be closer. If the Tigers hadn't signed Nathan, they would have had to use Joba Chamberlain in the ninth2, and if the A's hadn't acquired Johnson, well, they'd still have four awesome relievers, but they could have had five!
Relievers as a whole are volatile and have short shelf lives. If we're removing Nathan from the list of proven closers there are only four guys3 with enough service time to reach free agency that can be considered ninth inning types year after year. This leaves you with a very shallow free agent pool for pen arms. The lack of good options means the ideal solution is you throw live arms from your system into the closer role until someone sticks, he's dominant for a couple years, then you repeat the process when he goes down the tubes.
There are a lot of teams that aren't in this ideal scenario though, and they can't just sit there and hope the problem solves itself. If you want to throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks, you have to actually have the stuff to throw in the first place. The Rays and Tigers didn't have any obvious choices to step in and fill out the bullpen so they went to the free agent market, got two of the most reliable relievers over the last few years, and they didn't spend much money to do it. Guys who received similar money this off season like Justin Morneau, Marlon Byrd and Juan Uribe were also considered questionable signings so it's not like there was some obvious other place for the cash to go4
On top of this, there's huge irony in calling out the Tigers for bringing in a proven closer, since just last year their plan was to take a guy with zero experience in the bigs, Bruce Rondon, and let him handle save situations. Rondon basically lost the job in spring training, and because the Tigers had no real backup plan they ended up pulling Jose Valverde out of forced retirement to take over the role for a couple months. Nathan hasn't looked much better, but you can't fault them for not wanting to repeat that experience.
Rondon also reminds us how hindsight-based these reliever signings are. We remember when a team pulls a Jason Grilli or Koji Uehara off the scrap heap and use that as an example of why you shouldn't spend money on the market. That kind of analysis ignores the much more likely scenario is one the Dodgers are seeing with Chris Perez where the guy was a bargain signing for a reason. The other problem is those guys started in the back end of the bullpen while their team had other options in the ninth, giving the team time to see what they had in those arms. A team that needs a closer now doesn't have that luxury.
There are a lot of bad relief signings, usually involving giving a guy too many years and too much money despite not actually being one of the few consistent relievers available. However, for teams that don't have the luxury of a Craig Kimbrel or Kenley Jansen going out and buying a reliever is something they simply have to do. The alternative is that they'll end up like the teams up above. Just like every other position, there are times when spending money on a closer is totally appropriate, and teams shouldn't be called out on it if it doesn't work.
1. Except LaTroy Hawkins↩
2. Joba has been awesome this year, but anyone who claims Dave Dombrowski wouldn't have gotten egged on the street if he said "we plan to use Joba Chamberlain in the ninth" is operating with massive hindsight..↩