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Tampa Bay Rays sign Grant Balfour, fill out bullpen

Is Grant Balfour a great value for Tampa Bay, or is he just another "proven closer" about to enter the decline phase of his career?


After the Baltimore Orioles opted against signing Grant Balfour to a two-year, $15 million deal due to some concerns over his medical, the Tampa Bay Rays swooped in and signed the 36-year-old veteran on a two-year, $12 million pact.

The situation with the Orioles backing out has been beaten to death, so let's just get some of the details out of the way. Obviously, Balfour is headed to a division rival. There's a good chance he'll pitch in a decent handful of games against the Orioles over the next two years. And those games will indeed be interesting, especially given Balfour's fiery emotions. Simple enough.

Now, let's get to the interesting stuff.

First, bear in mind that there's no perfect metric to measure anyone, whether we're talking about a reliever, starter or hitter. If we take a few primary stats, we'll see where Balfour stands among the 213 qualified relievers since 2010.

MLB Rank 65th 74th 28th 26th 9th

It's a mixed bag of results. FIP- and xFIP- do Balfour little justice. ERA- paints a better picture, as do fWAR and especially RA9-WAR. Perhaps the table slightly changes the perception that Balfour is a huge bargain, and of course, that depends on how much weight you prefer to put in FIP- and xFIP-. And to be brutally honest, even ERA- and fWAR say he hasn't been super-duper great.

The thing is, Balfour's contract hardly requires him to be super-duper great. He'll make $5 million in 2014 and $7 million in 2015. Which, with the price of a win being about $6 million, means that Balfour will have to produce roughly one win in 2014 and a bit more than one win in 2015 to justify the Rays' investment, assuming there's some inflation on the price of a win next offseason.

Let's not jump ahead of ourselves, though. Yes, the one-win allotment is easily attainable for Balfour. Since he started logging big innings (50+) in 2008, he's mustered an fWAR north of one three times, and he's been worth at least 0.5 wins in all six seasons. It wouldn't be an abnormality to see him meet and surpass the targeted one-win threshold.

But ... there is a catch. And it's a big one: Steamer forecasts a pretty sharp decline for Balfour in 2014, in the form of a near 0.4 fWAR drop off -- 0.6 to 0.2.

For some perspective, a 0.2 fWAR (in 2013) would've put him in some, well, "meh," not so proven closer-ish company:

  • Burke Badenhop
  • Anthony Varvaro
  • Juan Gutierrez
  • Drew Storen

Again, we generally label Balfour as one of those "proven" closers -- if you like that kind of stuff. You know, the guys making the big bucks, piling up saves. But Steamer's 2014 projection for Balfour hardly paints such a cozy picture.

So, what's with the decline? A couple of things, and if we take a quick glance at Balfour's 2013 stats next to his projected 2014 stats, those things should pop out.

2013 2.59 3.49 84.4 27.5 10.3 0.6
2014 Proj. 3.31 3.71 77.7 24.2 9.6 0.2

Right off the bat, the LOB% column pops out, due to a near 7% differential. That's pretty big, but we can see the reasoning behind it. Balfour's career LOB% is 76.8, and he's eclipsed the 80% plateau three times since 2008. I wouldn't call anything more than 80% a "true" outlier, but Steamer sees Balfour settling in the mid 70's, which is a more conservative bet.

Additionally, you'll notice a decent decline in K%. And, well, connect the dots: fewer strikeouts leads to more contact, and more contact can lead to more baserunners. Jams are harder to work out of too. Hence the lower LOB%.

And finally, the 17-point increase in the BABIP column caps the notables. Balfour's career mark is .263, so .280 does indeed pop out. But with fewer strikeouts, a similar rate of walks and ultimately more baserunners, it all works in tandem. And, really, the big takeaways are those three things: fewer strikeouts, about the same number of free passes and thus, more baserunners. Even more down to the point: Balfour is projected to regress quite a bit.

Now, Steamer projections tend to be on the conservative side. That's not to say that we should pretend that everything went in one ear and came out the other, because Balfour is getting old. He turned 36 on December 30. A regression is probably on the horizon. It's something that happens to almost every pitcher.

But the good news is that his velocity shot up by nearly a mile-per-hour in 2013, and he's inducing a greater rate of grounders -- a good combination. Plus, Balfour tends to out-pitch his peripherals (FIP, xFIP), and since FIP and xFIP are stats heavily used in projections, you can see some of the potential flaws.

As for what this means to the Rays, well, let's simply call signing Balfour a move they had to make, even if the projections don't obviously justify it.

Think about it like this: Tampa Bay's three-best relievers from 2013 (in terms of fWAR) are good as gone. Those three, in order, are Alex Torres, Fernando Rodney and Jamey Wright. Slice and dice the situation however you please, but there's no dancing around the fact that the Rays needed to add to their ‘pen.

And they did. By simply glancing at their projected bullpen on MLB Depth Charts, there are three additions: Heath Bell, Brad Boxberger and Balfour. Now, sure, FanGraphs' depth charts still have them pegged as a bottom-10 bullpen, but that ranking could've been worse. Much worse.

So, to recap: Balfour's projections for 2014 aren't very favorable, but, they don't completely ruin in the positives of this deal. The Rays needed a closer, and Balfour fits that bill perfectly. Really, that's what this boils down to.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference

Jake Dal Porto is a writer at Beyond The Box Score and Golden Gate Sports. You can follow him on Twitter @TheJakeMan24.