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Red Sox among four teams interested in closer Francisco Cordero

12.20.11 at 5:36 pm ET
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When the pistol fired on the free-agent shopping season, it was the market for closer’s that got off to the earliest jump. Jonathan Papelbon became the first prominent game-ender to move, signing a four-year, $50 million with the Phillies, and since his contract, Joe Nathan got $14.5 million over two years from the Rangers,  Heath Bell (3 years, $27 million) has signed as a free agent, Matt Capps got $4.75 million for one more year with the Twins and the Mets signed both Frank Francisco (two years, $12 million) and Jon Rauch (one year, $3.5 million). Meanwhile, there were three notable trades involving late-innings relievers, with Huston Street being sent by the Rockies to the Padres, Sergio Santos going from the White Sox to the Blue Jays and Mark Melancon heading from Houston to the Red Sox.

All of that movement has significantly narrowed the field of potential destinations for those remaining on the market. That undoubtedly has been the case for Francisco Cordero, the most established closer on the free-agent market this offseason.

At season’s end, Cordero — who had a 2.45 ERA and 37 saves for the Reds in 2011, in a year when his strikeout rate fell to a career-low 5.4 per nine innings — received contact from eight to 10 teams, according to his agent, Bean Stringfellow. Since then, that number has been whittled to four.

The Red Sox, according to multiple industry sources, have shown interest in the 36-year-old closer. The Angels and another team have also been in dialogue with the pitcher, as have the Reds, who have said on multiple occasions that they were interested in bringing back the pitcher who averaged 71 appearances per year for them over the course of the four-year, $45 million deal that ran from 2008-11.

“He was very good this year. His numbers indicate that he pitched well. He converted most of his save opportunities. I think he actually probably pitched better this year than he did last year,” Reds GM Walt Jocketty said at the GM meetings, where he said that the Reds were comfortable enough with the reliever’s durability that they had discussed a multi-year deal with him.

Cordero, Stringfellow said, is indeed looking for a multi-year deal. Based on his conversations to date, he expects to get one.

“With the interest we’€™ve received, we’€™ve been exploring multi-year deals and we’€™re very confident that’€™s where we’€™re going to end up,” said Stringfellow. “The teams that we’€™ve spoken to, none of them have balked at that of the four remaining clubs.”

That, according to an industry source, includes the Red Sox, who have mad more issues with the annual salary for Cordero than with the idea of a multi-year deal for a right-hander who has made at least 66 appearances in nine straight seasons. That’s no guarantee of durability going forward (as the Sox witnessed with Dan Wheeler, who had never been on the DL prior to 2011 but ended up being sidelined twice — once in May, and again in September), but durability, consistency (Cordero has a 3.00 ERA since 2003, with a sub-4.00 ERA in each of those years and a sub-3.00 ERA in five seasons) and experience (Cordero has 327 career saves, 12th most in big league history) are all part of the package that Cordero has to offer.

All of that being the case, it’s no stretch for him to be seeking a multi-year opportunity. In his discussions with teams, the idea of having a clear role at the end of the game is also important.

“Only a closer. Only a closer,” Stringfellow said of the role that his client would consider. “There’€™s not been one club that we’€™ve spoken to, even from the beginning, there’€™s never been any talk even when it was eight, nine, 10 teams, of anything like that, nor should there be.”

Even so, while Cordero has enjoyed the sort of steady results that are uncharacteristic for closers, there are a couple elements that suggest the possibility of decline.

First, there is the reality of his age. Cordero turns 37 next season. Only 13 pitchers in baseball history have collected at least 25 saves, pitched in 60 or more game and recorded an ERA that was league average or better in their age 37 season or later. That being the case, the fact that Cordero’s strikeout rate has declined steadily — from 12.2 per nine innings in 2007 to 10.0 in 2008 to 7.8 in 2009 to 7.3 in 2010 and, finally, 5.4 per nine innings in 2011 — no doubt represents an area of inquiry from teams exploring whether to sign the right-hander. His average fastball velocity, according to fangraphs.com, also hit a career low, registering 93.0 miles per hour according to Fangraphs.com. In a vacuum, those would suggest a pitcher whose stuff is in decline and who was unlikely to sustain the excellent ERA and save totals he posted in 2011.

However, there are some interesting elements that suggest that Cordero was consciously adapting his arsenal to increase his effectiveness after struggling at times in 2010. Among them:

–He appeared to make a decision to seek early contact in 2011, particularly with the bases empty. He struck out 13.8 percent of the batters he faced with the bases empty. However, with men on base, he struck out 17.8 percent of the batters he faced; with runners in scoring position, he struck out 20 percent of opposing hitters. That is below his career average of striking out 22.8 percent of opposing hitters, but less dramatically than his strikeout-per-nine numbers might suggest.

–Cordero produced his best groundball rates since 2003, getting three grounders for every two fly balls. That appeared to be more than coincidence, as the closer — a fastball/slider pitcher for most of his career — incorporated a changeup and curveball more extensively than ever before in his career, while also scaling back the use of his fastball to a career-low 41.2 percent of the time (per Fangraphs.com).

–That said, Cordero did show the ability to generate more power when he needed a strikeout. His average fastball velocity ticked up from 93.0 to 93.6 mph with runners in scoring position; with runners in scoring position and two outs, he averaged 93.8 miles per hour. His slider, meanwhile, played up nearly two miles per hour with runners in scoring position and two outs.

–Cordero’s 2.8 walks per nine innings were the third-lowest rate of his career, and represented a steep decline from the 4.5 batters per nine innings he walked in the previous three years. Again, that may be a good indicator that he was working more to early-count contact than in the past.

Of course, if Cordero’s strikeout rate doesn’t bounce back, he’ll have to continue to be stingy with walks while also continuing his newly discovered friendship with groundballs. Nonetheless, even though a great deal of the closer market has taken shape, it appears to remain the case that there is enough remaining interest in Cordero that a multi-year deal remains a likely outcome of his offseason, with the Sox being one of the teams that remains interested.

“The Reds acknowledge that this was one of his best years in Cincinnati. We don’€™t disagree with that,” said Stringfellow. “The bottom line is Francisco is one of the elite closers in baseball throughout his career.”

— One other notable element from Stringfellow: Two clubs have called about another of his clients, Billy Wagner, this offseason. Wagner — who has 422 career saves, two shy of John Franco for the most of all time by a left-hander — hasn’t pitched since 2010, a year in which he struck out 104 batters in 69 1/3 innings. However, despite the interest, the diminutive 40-year-old with a rocket arm appears to have no interest in ending his retirement.

“I have no doubt that he’€™d be able to get just about everybody out that he faced, but he’€™s perfectly content,” said Stringfellow. “He has no desire as far as I know of to pitch anymore.”

Read More: bean stringfellow, Cincinnati Reds, francisco cordero, Hot Stove 2011
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