The Phillies are on the verge of inking Ryan Madson to a four-year deal worth $44 million, with an option for a fifth year at $13 million. While there have been rumbles that this deal isn't as close as it was presented to be yesterday, indications are still that this is happening.
This is a longer deal than expected for Madson, who has been great the last few years, but doesn't have the kind of closer background that you normally see as a prerequisite to a team going crazy on a dollars for a reliever. What it might mean for some closers with far more experience -- and better track records -- is even larger deals than they were anticipating. That "might" is important, though, as with the Phillies out of the closer race (and the Yankees already sitting on both Mariano Rivera and Rafael Soriano), the number of teams who can afford the kind of contract that, say, Jonathan Papelbon might now be expecting in a post-Madson world, is limited.
A look at the clubs who recently lost closers tells the story. The Twins Joe Nathan is a free agent, but they are planning to cut payroll down to $100 million this season, and will already have spent upwards of $80 million this year on the 12 players they have under contract or are arb-eligible. They also look to be rebuilding, and therefore, a closer who might want something like a four-year, $56-60 million deal would hold no interest for them. The Padres plan to offer Heath Bell arbitration, and, failing that, they aren't about to shell out for Papelbon. The Dodgers' Jonathan Broxton is a free agent, but they are in the middle of a sale, and famously out of money thanks to owner Frank McCourt, who needs the team to sell for $1.2 billion just to break even on the transaction.
The Blue Jays have the money, but whether they have the will to spend huge on a closer right now, when they aren't expected to be able to pass the Rays, Yankees, or Sox in the standings, is more of a question. This would be my bet for a Joe Nathan landing -- a deal with incentives, in the hopes he stabilizes the bullpen on the cheap. Texas acquired Mike Adams at the trade deadline in 2011, so even if the plan to move Neftali Feliz to the rotation goes through, they might want to spend their money somewhere else. The Tigers need help in the bullpen, but already picked up their option on Jose Valverde; Papelbon isn't going to be offered a long-term, big money deal to set-up, and he is going to want to close, anyway.
That's not every team by any means, but it's a look at many of the ones with openings and some money. Each of those clubs put a closer on the market (except for Detroit), as did the Reds (declined Francisco Cordero's option) and the Brewers (set-up man for them, but closer to everyone else Francisco Rodriguez is also available). There are more closers than there are teams capable of paying them big money.
Papelbon and his agent -- and really, every closer and their agent -- have every right to be excited about Madson's potential contract, and while it might mean a few more dollars than expected, the chances are just as good that it won't have a major impact. It's not like these pitchers are all going to take a stand if Madson's deal is labeled an aberration of a recklessly spending Philly team -- Ryan Howard's extension didn't get Adrian Gonzalez $30M-plus a year, and if Albert Pujols were paid appropriately relative to Howard's mega-deal, he would be getting paid more than the entire Padres team Gonzalez left behind.
The question here, though, is if Madson's deal does throw the market into a spending frenzy. What do the Red Sox do then? Boston is lucky, in a sense, as they are not bereft of reliever options, even if they are lacking in elite ones. Dan Wheeler and Boston both appeared interested in working out a contract where he returns to the team, but even without that, the pen already has Daniel Bard, Matt Albers, Alfredo Aceves, Felix Doubront, Franklin Morales, Kyle Weiland if they choose to put him there, Bobby Jenks if he's physically capable of it, Junichi Tazawa in the same situation as Weiland, Scott Atchison still on the 40-man -- those guys aren't going to replicate Papelbon's production by any means, but the Sox can put together a cost-effective and effective pen together simply by looking in-house, avoiding the potential madness of this winter's reliever crop.
Papelbon has been fantastic in his Red Sox career, and is likely worth the money in the sense that the market has dictated "This is what a reliever is worth." The Red Sox do not often sign relievers to long-term deals, though, so chances are good they would rather bow out than overpay Papelbon if they feel he is too much of a risk based on what the market has decided he is worth (let it be said that all indications are that they would love to have Papelbon, though -- but the price matters). While they might miss Papelbon's elite production, what they won't be missing is whatever the money saved on letting Papelbon walk signs -- how do you feel about a Carlos Beltran in right field, or the ability to retain David Ortiz while also trading for a quality starting pitcher under contract? This whole winter is connected, and if the Red Sox have to lose Papelbon's production thanks to the Phillies, they will be able to make it up elsewhere on the field -- unlike whoever ties up their budget in a single reliever for the next four-to-five years.