Chad Cordero retires, and are the Rangers on the verge of making a really bad mistake?

Former Washington Nationals' closer Chad Cordero has announced his retirement.  A first round pick in the 2003 draft, Cordero got to the majors quickly, looked really good early on, finished 5th in the Cy Young balloting in 2005, and then succumbed to injuries and ineffectiveness.

What does this have to do with the Rangers?

Well, this spring, when the decision was made to put Neftali Feliz back into the bullpen, one of the things that was reportedly widely by the media, and that Nolan Ryan came out and said publicly, was that they were doing so because the team didn't have a "proven closer" to replace Feliz.*  The Rangers' plan, based on what was said this spring, is to go out and get a "proven closer" in the free agent market this offseason, and thus move Feliz to the rotation.

*  Nevermind that the Rangers went to the World Series last season with an unproven rookie closing for them.

I'm hard-pressed to think of a worse use of the Rangers' newfound financial largesse than to give a big free agent contract to a closer, for a couple of reasons.

First...when was the last time a team went out into the free agent market and signed a big dollar closer, and had that deal work out well?

The Mets signed Francisco Rodriguez after the 2008 season, and that deal has been a bust for the Mets.  Francisco Cordero got a 4 year, $46 million deal from the Cincinnati Reds, and has given Cincy an fWAR of 3.1.  Brian Fuentes signed a 2 year, $10.5 million deal with the Angels to replace K-Rod and wasn't good.  Rafael Soriano signed a big contract with the Yankees this offseason and has been a disaster.  B.J. Ryan was a disaster for the Blue Jays.

Relievers have a high variability from year to year, and relievers who sign multi-year free agent contracts seem to work out much less frequently than other players anyway.  With closers, who not only have the high variability, but also get paid a premium because they're used in the 9th in three run games rather than in the 7th or 8th inning of a tie game, you've simply got a free agent bust waiting to happen.

Second, though...why do you need to sign an expensive, big-time closer on the free agent market?  The Rangers' last four closers have all come from within.  One was a well-regarded minor league pitcher who was always a reliever, one was a fringey prospect who emerged in 2004 as a terrific reliever, one was a 4th 5th round draft pick in the 2001 draft who emerged as a quality lefthanded reliever (and then a terrific starting pitcher), and one was a heralded pitching prospect who fell into the closer job when the "proven closer" stumbled.

The rest of the A.L. West is similar...you have a couple of guys who came up through the system without a lot of hype, and a reclamation project.  Boston has a failed starter who is in his second straight disappointing season and who may be burning out as a closer anyway.  Tampa is using a journeyman who has flamed out in other opportunities.  Atlanta is using a product of their farm system.  The Giants won the World Series with a former 24th round draft choice who came up through their system.  Heath Bell, the Padres closer that everyone wants to trade for or sign after the season, was an amateur free agent signed by the Mets in 1999, who wasn't good in their bullpen, and who got shipped to the Padres with Royce Ring for Jon Adkins and Ben Johnson.

Look at the list of saves leaders this year...you have names like John Axford, Leo Nunez, Joel Hanrahan.  Closers aren't pitchers with a magical ability to pitch better in the 9th than anyone else...they are usually failed starters, or journeymen who bounced around for a while, who put it together while pitching in relief and happened to be pitching well when their team needed someone to fill the closer role.

Third...these guys generally have short shelf-lives.  Look at Chad Cordero.  Look at Frankie Francisco.  Look at Eric Gagne.  Look at B.J. Ryan.  For every Mariano Rivera or Lee Smith, you have a half-dozen of these other guys, who have a few good seasons then flame out. 

I am hoping this is media speculation, or words being thrown out in the spring that will be set aside this offseason.  Spending big money on a free agent closer this offseason, or trading significant assets because you believe a contending club must have a "proven closer," would be sheer foolishness.

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