Yesterday, it was reported that Billy Wagner signed a one-year, $7M deal with the Atlanta Braves by Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports. The deal also includes a club option worth $6.5M for 2011 that vests if Wagner finishes 50 games, a relative possibility given that he'll likely be the closer all season if healthy.
After offering arbitration to relievers Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez, signing Wagner to this kind of deal seems fairly questionable. This hardly has to do with any issues with Wagner, he showed in Boston that he's still capable of shutting down hitters, but rather the fairly excessive price that the Braves paid.
As most of you know, the value of a closer is very limited by the number of innings that he'll pitch, and while you can give them some extra points for pitching in high-stress situations, you simply can't ignore the clear limitations of a reliever. With Wagner, those limitations are more than evident. He's pitched just 62 innings in the past two seasons due to injury, and according to FanGraphs' valuations, he's been worth the $7M that Atlanta guaranteed him in just two of the eight seasons evaluated.
So right off the bat, you can see that spending $7M guaranteed on a closer is a pretty huge risk, even if that closer is Billy Wagner, arguably the best left-handed reliever ever. Certainly, giving Wagner a one-year, $7M deal is tolerable, albeit a bit costly. What makes the Wagner signing seriously questionable is that Wagner is a Type A free agent, and in order to sign him the Braves will have to give the Red Sox their first round pick, Number 20.
According to research done by Victor Wang at The Hardball Times, a free agent first round compensation pick (#16-30) is worth approximately $5.5M of value on the open market. Adding that kind of value to the $7M that the Braves gave Wagner, and adding a closer ended up costing Atlanta around $12.5M in value, at least in statistical vacuum.
Considering that Atlanta offered arbitration to Soriano and Gonzalez, they'll have the opportunity to recoup draft picks there, but why not just resign one of those guys and keep the draft pick? Or even better, what about building a bullpen on the cheap, signing multiple guys to fill the spots? Certainly, Gonzalez and Soriano are capable of matching Wagner's performance, regardless of Wagner's impressive reputation. They would have required a longer term presumably, two or three years guaranteed, but Soriano is an elite reliever when healthy and Gonzalez is among the best as well, and considering that both have had injury problems as well, their asking prices probably would have been relatively low, around three years, $21M or so, I would guess.
It seems pretty clear that the Braves prefer Wagner to the guys they're letting go, and that they're very confident that Soriano and Gonzalez will sign elsewhere, giving Atlanta back the draft picks that they lost with the Wagner signing. I'm just not sure that this was the best route for Atlanta, compared to signing multiple guys to give them options, guys like Takashi Saito, Kiko Calero, Joe Beimel, Brandon Lyon, Kevin Gregg, Octavio Dotel, Kelvim Escobar, and others. I'm just not a big fan of spending significant money on a closer when you have some serious issues in your lineup and you could still use some additional bullpen depth.