The Cincinnati Reds got perhaps the deal of the offseason so far by signing Ryan Madson to a one-year, $8.5 million deal, a guaranteed contract that allows Madson to try to demolish any concerns about his ability to handle the ninth inning on a full-time basis and re-enter the free-agent market next winter.
Madson switched his approach in 2011 from a three-pitch mix to a two-pitch mix with the occasional cutter, and his out-pitch changeup became even more devastating along the way. That changeup is one of the best in the majors: He hides the ball well, it looks like his 92-95 mph fastball coming out of his hand and it often has late downward action on it. He's a moderate ground ball pitcher who has had very good success keeping the ball, even balls hit in the air, in the park since he moved to the bullpen, a key trait for a pitcher who'll throw half his innings in a homer-friendly stadium.
He's worth two wins to the Reds, at least, and the risk here to the club is quite low, with the potential for a draft pick in 2013 if he leaves or the chance to keep him for another year at around $12 million to $13 million. (Under the new collective bargaining agreement that's roughly the amount of the one-year qualifying offer needed to recoup compensation picks if a player leaves as a free agent.)
A few readers asked if Madson would have been better served taking the arbitration offer from the Philadelphia Phillies, but I think the answer is pretty clearly "no." Coming off a platform year when his salary was $4.83 million on a contract with an average annual value of $4 million, he might have gotten a raise through arbitration to the $9 million range, but he would have had to base his argument mostly on his 2011 saves total while minimizing his low career total. (This is the lunacy of the arbitration process. I'm just the messenger.) But taking arbitration would have put him in a set-up role in front of Jonathan Papelbon, hurting his market for next offseason and any potential arbitration case the following year. He could easily have incentives with Cincinnati to push his total compensation over $10 million, which would exceed any likely arbitration award anyway.
The big losers here are the Phillies, whose rash overpayment to Papelbon (four years, $50 million) looks absolutely comical in light of every relief signing and trade that has come along since then. Signing relievers to four-year deals is madness in most circumstances, and Papelbon isn't the elite closer to justify an exception to that rule, and the market has otherwise scoffed at reliever contracts of that length. Looking ahead to 2013, the Phillies have committed more than $100 million to just six players, assuming Roy Halladay's contract option vests, a list that doesn't include potential free agents Cole Hamels and Shane Victorino. And the attempted justification for the loss of the Phils' first-round pick for Papelbon -- that they would get a first-rounder back after losing Madson -- was destroyed by the new CBA. They'll get a sandwich pick and a second-rounder instead, leaving them worse off in this year's draft after several major trades have left their system very thin above Class A.