"This is how you squeeze a pitch Miguel, but you have a much bigger version of this ball squeezer called a catcher's mitt"
It may be indicative of the times when closers are a pretty fungible asset–even though the elusive “established closer” is highly overvalued–but Brandon League was a pretty good closer last year, and he doesn’t seem to be nearly as valuable as he’s performed. He doesn’t post traditionally high strikeout rates, but an elite-level groundball rate has helped League post 3.52 and 3.09 xFIPs over the past two seasons with the Mariners.
League’s trade value took a major hit this year, as the new collective bargaining agreement made it essentially impossible for a team that trades for League to receive any draft pick compensation if League leaves in the offseason. So where good closers have had some value in the past, League’s low K/9 and low supplementary value make him a far less attractive trade candidate going into this season than may have been expected when the Mariners traded Brandon Morrow for League and Johermyn Chavez.
So now the Mariners are stuck in a strange spot. In December the A’s traded Andrew Bailey to the Red Sox for a really ugly package. Bailey has three years of team control left, and his high strikeout rate match up with the traditional paradigm of a closer. It’s hard to find any positive in the trade for Bailey for the A’s except for the about $5.7 million in salary relief they received, while getting worse competitively.
League will likely be viewed as a lesser-closer than Bailey. While the Mariners may be trading from a better position of strength at the trade deadline, League’s $5 million salary, and whatever is remaining of it when he’s traded, will have to factor into his trade value.
But what will the market for League be like this offseason? The market for sub-elite closers was fairly slow to develop this offseason. Jonathan Papelbon and Heath Bell signed monster deals early, but Ryan Madson—the next best closer on the market—had to settle for a one year deal for $8.5 million. Both Paplebon and Madson averaged more than a strikeout per inning, while Bell was coming off a down year but has averaged more than 10 K/9 in two seasons prior to 2011.
Closers aren’t always paid using intellectual measure. Saves often define the price of closers, and though the save may be the least predictive stat not called a run-batted-in, another driving factor to price and position of a pitcher is strikeout rate.
There were nine relievers who had comparable 2011 seasons in terms of strikeout rates to League’s 6.5 K/9 during his time with the Mariners that were free agents this offseason. Five of those pitchers will be younger than 35 years old next season. Here is how all those pitchers did in free agency:
John Grabow: 33 years old, 5.49 K/9, minor league deal
Todd Coffey: 31 years old, 6.9 K/9, one year, $1.3 million
Dan Wheeler: 34 years old, 7.11 K/9, minor league deal
Fernando Rodney: 34 years old, 7.31 K/9, one-year, $2 million
Chad Durbin: 34 years old, 7.8 K/9, one-year, $800K
Of all those pitchers, only Rodney has recent extended closer experience. He was coming off a season with strikeout rates in the low-sevens but had two seasons prior to that where he struck out more than a batter per inning. It’s noteworthy that Brandon League will be only 29 when the season is over, so presumably he’ll be more valuable than the other guys on the list. It’s also worth noting that he is an extreme groundball pitcher who has been very effective using non-traditional means in high-leverage situations.
That said, one of the major things that statistical analysis has taught us is that market value and actual value are quite different. League’s actual value is far higher than his market value. So while conventional wisdom says that a non-contending Mariners team should look to trade League, or extend him, their best bet is probably to do neither of those things.
The Mariners can probably only get a bad prospect in a trade involving League, and maybe partial salary relief. When the season is over, if the Mariners have traded League, the chances of him returning are probably greatly diminished. If they let him test free agency though, there’s a good chance he won’t like what he finds, and will eventually return to Seattle at a price tag that is equal to his market value, but significantly below his actual value. Even if League isn’t the team’s future closer, an arm like his is a welcome addition to any bullpen. In order to maximize League’s value to the team, they may just have to let free agency run his course.
If the Mariners could sign League to a deal somewhere in the range of two-years, $7 million, they’d be almost guaranteed to get their money’s worth.