January 24, 2014
Balfour Got Back
This is the second time this offseason we've covered a Balfour signing. The first came in mid-December, when word surfaced the Orioles and Balfour had agreed on a two-year deal worth $15 million. The words "pending a physical" accompany most signings, and sometimes result in restructuring (either the deal or the deal's language), but they seldom sabotage a reported deal. That's what happened with Balfour and the Orioles, however, as Baltimore doctors were concerned about the Australian native's wrist and knee.
Five hours after Balfour canceled his flight to Baltimore, the Rays were reported as a potential suitor. It was a logical development beyond the obvious connection between the team and player. Not only had Andrew Friedman done his due diligence by contacting Balfour's camp earlier in the offseason, but team physician Koko Eaton came to the reliever's defense after the flunked physical. Fast forward a month, and the Rays spent Thursday afternoon re-introducing Balfour as their closer at a Tampa museum.
It's a sensible move. The deal is short and cheap and won't hamstring the Rays if Balfour succumbs to a bad knee or wrist. Should health prevail, Balfour will lead an underrated bullpen. Yes, the Rays will be without Fernando Rodney, Jamey Wright, and Alex Torres, but the organization retained Joel Peralta and Jake McGee while adding Juan Carlos Oviedo and Heath Bell. Add in the organization's middle-relief depth—including C.J. Riefenhauser and Brad Boxberger—and Joe Maddon should have enough options to bridge the gap between his starters and his closer.
When Maddon does call on Balfour, he'll do so with confidence. It's easy to characterize Balfour as a fastball-throwing, expletive-tossing nimrod, but there's more to his game then that. He deploys two secondary pitches: a slider that he'll use against anyone and a curveball that comes out versus lefties. The mechanics require effort and cause him to issue a few more free passes than the typical manager would like, yet he's generally around the plate and misses enough bats to atone for the walks.
This has been an eventful offseason for Friedman and the Rays, as they've departed from their norm to sign a closer, trade young pitchers, and ink veterans to multi-year deals. Some might say they've lost their edge. If that's true, then Balfour should help restore it. —R.J. Anderson
After finishing inside the top-20 relief pitchers last season, Balfour’s arrow is again pointing up in Tampa. He’ll take over regular closing duties for ex-Ray Fernando Rodney, who collected 85 saves in two seasons under Joe Maddon despite being on shaky ground for most of 2013. In addition to a career-high 38 saves last year, Balfour upped his strikeout rate to 27.5 percent, giving fantasy owners an extra reason to trust the right-hander as a viable end-game option. I don’t think the switch from O.co Coliseum to Tropicana Field will be detrimental to Balfour’s value, but a few additional home runs should be expected. I fully expect another 30 saves, but the ERA and WHIP might need some readjusting outside of Oakland—my expectations are a 3.40 ERA and 1.20 WHIP.
With Rodney no longer in the picture, Bell was looking like “the guy” to own as the Tampa’s most established closer. The addition of Balfour means Bell goes back to being just another dude in the backend of the Rays’ bullpen—the 36-year-old is a closer handcuff in competitive leagues and nothing more than a player to keep tabs on in shallow formats. Regardless, Bell wasn’t going to be handed the job with intriguing options already onboard (Joel Peralta, Jake McGee); Balfour’s signing just makes it a sure thing. With a 4.59 ERA and 1.46 WHIP over the past two seasons, Bell had become a pretty big liability anyway. In holds leagues, I prefer Peralta and McGee—in that order. —Alex Kantecki
R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @r_j_anderson