Making Sense of the Grant Balfour Rumors
With Rafael Soriano, Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen, Jerry Blevins, and Craig Stammen the Washington Nationals bullpen has five solid relievers and two open spots that will be filled by a bevy of depth. In other words they could use another reliever but there is no reason to spend a lot of money for one when they already have Tanner Roark, Ross Ohlendorf, Nate Karns, Ryan Mattheus, Xavier Cedeno, and Christian Garcia competing for those final two bullpen spots. With that information in hand the rumors of the Nats being interested in Grant Balfour is puzzling, but step back from a minute and look at the rest of the Nationals roster. If the season were to start today it is very likely that Danny Espinosa would be the utility infielder and Chris Snyder the back-up catcher. Of those two players Danny Espinosa fits with the role of a utility infielder better than Snyder fits being a back-up catcher. Snyder has good enough offense and defense to be the back-up on an average team, but with Wilson Ramos' injury issues the Nationals shouldn't settle for the average catch and throw back-up catcher. Yorvit Torrealba is the best of the rest of the catchers on the market and his career OPS is worse than Chris Snyder's and he lacks the upside of Solano or Leon. The free agent market contains nothing for the Nationals when it comes to back-up catcher.
So then how can the Nationals not weaken the current team and grab a better back-up catcher? By now you should have put two and two together and understand that the way to do it is to trade a reliever that has value, that has the label of being a proven closer, and fill the created hole through free agency.
This isn't the first time Drew Storen has been rumored to be on the trading block. He was included in both the rumored Zack Greinke and Denard Span deals that never materialized. On several other occasions the Nats were rumored to be interested in trading Drew Storen. The reason Drew Storen doesn't seem to be valued that highly by Mike Rizzo is that outside of Craig Kimbrel there isn't much difference between one closer and another. The average team wins 90% of the time when they enter the ninth inning with a lead. Those last three outs are thought to be the most important outs but in reality they aren't any different than any other three outs and any talented reliever can be a closer. That means that if a team values Drew Storen as a closer then Mike Rizzo would be more than happy to trade him for the value of one.
If Drew Storen is traded the Nationals are going to need another reliever. As it stands right now Drew Storen would slot into the seventh inning and could be facing the heart of the order in that inning and be just as important as the reliever scheduled to pitch in the ninth. Drew Storen has the label of proven closer and while Mike Rizzo would be willing to trade him for that value it is also likely that he would like someone back that has closed before. There are two relievers on the market that fit that bill, Grant Balfour and Fernando Rodney. Fernando Rodney isn't a Mike Rizzo type player. Rizzo did stick with Henry Rodriguez much longer than most would've but look at who Mike Rizzo drafts and trades for. For the most part Mike Rizzo values pitchers with control and Rodney's career 4.5 BB/9 doesn't fit that bill. Balfour's career 3.9 BB/9 isn't great but it is closer to average and his career hasn't seen the fluctuations of Rodney's.
With Grant Balfour noted as the player that would replace Storen in the bullpen the Nationals have to sign him before moving Storen. This is how Mike Rizzo operated last off-season when it came to the LaRoche/Morse issue. Rizzo wasn't going to trade Morse until he was certain that LaRoche was back in the fold. Rizzo very much a bird in hand type of GM, and wants to acquire the replacement before jettisoning the replaced player.
Balfour was rumored to have worked out a deal with the Orioles earlier in the off-season but that fell apart due to his physical. The Nationals went down this road in 2013 with Dan Haren where earlier in the off-season the Cubs worked out a trade with the Angels for Haren but Haren didn't pass his physical due to his hip and back much like Grant Balfour didn't pass his physical due to a wrist and knee. It isn't always an arm injury that derails a pitcher. With the failed physical and Balfour's desire to stick it to the Orioles it is likely the Nationals could get him for less than the two years $15 million the Orioles had offered but expect it to be somewhere around one year and $5 or $6 million.
Balfour overall is only a slight upgrade over Storen. He is older with a career 3.27 ERA but over the last four seasons he's pitched in at least 55 games with an ERA of less than 2.60. The question is whether that can continue into his age 36 season. Drew Storen is younger but there are still plenty of questions about him. He spent most of 2012 on the DL, returned to good success, but then struggled in 2013 amassing a 4.52 ERA and spending a small amount of time being demoted to the minors. The question of if Drew Storen can get back to being close to the pitcher he was in 2011 is a big one. In many ways it is even a bigger question of if Grant Balfour can remain good in his age 36 season.
As far as the Storen/Balfour part of the rumors that is about as even a trade off as the Nationals could hope for. The true upside to this deal is what the Nationals would get in return for Storen, and if it is a better than average back-up catcher that is an overall upgrade to the current roster, and with the Nationals in win now mode upgrading the current roster is the chief priority.