This winter, the Oakland Athletics have practiced their annual tradition of watching their top free agents depart to less-green (and gold) pastures. In this case, they decided to move forward without starting pitcher Bartolo Colon and closer Grant Balfour, who also happened to be the team's two All-Star representatives in 2013. It seemed like a no-brainer move to seasoned A's fans; both pitchers are quite old, and their best years are probably behind them. Billy Beane doesn't pay for past performance, but rather for future promise, so it made sense to let Colon and Balfour walk and find cheaper, younger replacements.
Things went differently this time, though. Oakland elected to fill Colon's spot in the rotation with a similar reclamation project, Scott Kazmir; they will pay him $22 million over two seasons for his services. They acquired Jim Johnson to replace Balfour in the ninth inning; the one-year rental will cost them nearly $11 million this season. At the time, these moves made all the sense in the world...because I, for one, thought that Colon and Balfour would far exceed those commitments, in both dollars and years.
Well, now we're a lot closer to knowing all of the facts. Colon was signed by the New York Mets for two years and $20 million, which is actually a smaller contract than Kazmir received from Oakland. Not only that, but Colon is a terrible fit for the Mets; they're an NL team, so he'll have to hit every time he plays, and they're not a contender, making Colon an odd choice as a short-term, win-now player. It seems likely that, if Colon signed with the Mets, he did so for the absolute highest offer that he received.
Meanwhile, Balfour is being courted by the Baltimore Orioles. The current offer on the table is in the neighborhood of three years at $7-8 million per season, and the only sticking point seems to be Balfour's insistence on an option for a fourth year.
Getting Kazmir and Johnson made sense to me when I thought that they were the cheap, safe options. When I thought that Colon would get three years and $30-36 million from, say, the Angels. When I thought that Balfour would sign a deal similar to Joe Nathan's, earning $10 million per year for two or three seasons. That no longer seems to be the case.
The A's paid more for Kazmir than Colon got from the Mets, for the same number of years. Balfour will get more years on his contract, but for much less annual money than Johnson is getting from Oakland. What gives?
Kazmir is basically Colon two years ago -- a talented but broken pitcher trying to make a comeback. Granted, he is 10 years younger and left-handed, but he was never as good as Colon was in their respective primes. Colon posted seven seasons of at least 4 bWAR from 1998-2005, and won a Cy Young (albeit undeserved, since Johan Santana should have won that year). Kazmir capped out at 3.8 bWAR in 2007, and never even got a single Cy Young vote. (Note: Fangraphs valued his 2007 at 5.1 fWAR, but the point still stands; Colon-in-his-prime had seven seasons with a higher fWAR than Kazmir's next-best mark.) I am fully aware of the risks of counting on Colon as he inches toward 41 years of age, but he also has much more recent success on his resume. Kazmir carries lots of risk as well, but he hasn't yet put up that season that says, "Hey, this guy is back." Why pay more for the player who hasn't yet fulfilled his promise?
What about the closers? Johnson and Balfour are very different pitchers, but when you look at their big-picture stats (run-prevention, K:BB ratio), their results are virtually identical. Relievers are votalite by nature, so there is a lot of value to having Johnson on a one-year deal rather than committing to three or four seasons of Balfour. However, Balfour is coming at what amounts to a bargain price for a Proven Closer. Johnson will make far more in 2014, and, while Sean Doolittle may offer an inexpensive closing option after that, Beane has not been shy to add pricey relievers in recent years (Balfour, Brian Fuentes, Johnson, Luke Gregerson). The names may change, but someone in the bullpen will likely be making $5-7 million every season, regardless of role. Why not make it Balfour? Sure, he's six years older than Johnson, but Balfour will still be in his thirties when his next contract expires and other top relievers have been maintaining their effectiveness that late in their careers in recent years.
Kazmir is more expensive than Colon. Johnson is more expensive than Balfour. In my mind, the replacements were supposed to be cheaper than the incumbents, which partially negated the question of whether or not they would actually be better on the field. Now the replacements are more expensive. Will they be better? Did Billy Beane know something about Colon and/or Balfour of which we are not aware, and decide that they were particularly bad bets moving forward? Did he simply misread the market and jump on what he believed were "cheap" replacements too soon? Did the former All-Star A's simply not want to return to town? That last question seems hard to believe.
Colon could implode in 2014, but so could Kazmir. Balfour could blow a bunch of saves with walks and homers, but so could Johnson with a bunch of dinky BABIP hits. The team has not gotten cheaper. So, have they gotten better? What do you think of these changes now that we know how much money everyone will make?