On Monday the two time defending AL champion Texas Rangers signed closer Joe Nathan to a two year $7 million dollar a year contract. The last post I made about Jonathon Papelbon reiterated the fact that I think closers are an overpaid commodity, and even the best should never make over $7 million. Nathan used to be great, accumulating a WAR of 16.2 over the 2003-09 seasons (or about 2.3 WAR per season). However, after missing all of 2010, due to Tommy John surgery, Nathan only had 14 saves last season with a FIP of 4.28, good for a WAR of 0.0. If the Rangers get the Nathan of old he would easily be worth the $7million being paid to him, but if the 2011 Nathan returns, he’ll be worth none of it. The signing of Nathan also moves their 2011 closer Nefalti Feliz to the starting rotation, who was a starter in the minors. This signing tells me many things: the Rangers believe Nathan still has it, they do not trust Feliz to be a closer, and they are not willing to sign CJ Wilson, unless Alexi Ogando is moved back to the bullpen (this is highly unlikely).
First, is Joe Nathan still Joe Nathan? According to Bill James’ projection for 2012, he in fact is. James projects Nathan to have 33 saves and a FIP of 2.97 in 2012. This would be better than Feliz’ 2011 (32 saves and FIP of 3.57). However, James’ projects a WAR of 0.8 for Nathan in 2012, which would only be worth $4 million this season. Thus, the Rangers overpaid for their new closer. And when you consider the fact that Feliz will be making around 500k, this season it seems as though they really overpaid, when they had a cheap closer in place. But, the Rangers have to fill the rotation vacancy left by free agent starter Wilson. Wilson is the best starter on the market, which means he currently has many suitors, which will drive up his price. Texas seems reluctant to put up the $15 million per season, that Wilson is expected to receive. So is a rotation with Wilson and Feliz at closer, better than a rotation with Feliz and Nathan at closer, even if it will cost them around $8 million more?
In 2008, Feliz’ last full season has a starter he had a FIP of 2.18 at single A and FIP of 3.07 at Double A. Feliz has grown as a reliever in the majors and could possibly put up solid numbers as a starter, somewhere around a FIP of 3.60 would be what I’d expect. A rotation of (James’ projections in parentheses) Colby Lewis (4.11 FIP), Matt Harrison (4.06 FIP), Derek Holland (4.21 FIP), and Alexi Ogando (3.41 FIP), coupled with Feliz would be above average, for a low price (6.65 million). From a moneyball prospective, this is a very enticing option, and one the Rangers seem to want to go forward with. With so much money invested in their offense, a solid five man rotation that costs over $8 million less than their free agent ace seems like a great plan.
But how good is CJ Wilson? James’ projects Wilson to have a FIP of 3.41 and WAR of 4.8 in 2012, which would make him the best starter on the Rangers’ staff. That 4.8 WAR also would pan out to be worth $24 million, or $9 million less than he is expected to be paid. Thus, the Rangers could have (possibly) underpaid to bring their ace back and left Feliz right where he was last season. But as a team they have more information, than I do and it seems as though bringing Wilson back was not in their plans, and they must like Feliz more as a starter than a reliever. From an economics perspective, however, paying a closer, who has a lot of mileage, is coming off a rough season and Tommy John surgery, more than their entire rotation does not make a whole lot of sense.