The last time Tigers fans saw Grant Balfour, he was mowing down the top of their order in a losing effort. Despite Balfour's heroics -- he pitched three perfect innings in this year's ALDS -- he and the A's could not overcome Justin Verlander's dominant outing in a decisive Game 5. Despite the loss, the perfect inning capped off an excellent 2013 season for Balfour, in which he notched a career high 38 saves in 41 opportunities. Now, he hits the free agent market with the ever-important "proven closer" title on his resume.
Who is he?
Balfour is a 35 year old right-hander from Sydney, Australia. The Tigers have not had a great history with Australian pitchers -- Brad Thomas, anyone? -- but Balfour is a step above that. He has been the Oakland Athletics' closer for the past two seasons, notching 62 saves in 67 opportunities. Prior to the 2011 season, he spent three productive years with the Tampa Bay Rays. His best season was in 2008, when the Rays lost to the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series. Originally a product of the Minnesota Twins' system, Balfour has also spent time with the Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers. He missed all of the 2005 and 2006 seasons while recovering from Tommy John surgery and a torn labrum and rotator cuff, respectively.
Why should we care?
Balfour has been one of the best and most consistent relief pitchers in baseball over the past six seasons. Since 2008, Balfour has logged 380 1/3 innings with a 2.74 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, and 2.75 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He only has 72 career saves in 10 big league seasons, but the vast majority of those have come in the past two years with the Oakland A's. He has dominated both lefties and righties throughout his career. In fact, he has held lefties to a slightly lower OPS, at .616.
Why should we stay away?
While he has pitched fewer than 500 innings in his big league career, Balfour will be 36 at the start of the 2014 season. It isn't crazy to expect him to maintain this level of production for a couple more seasons, but a contract longer than two years would be a concern. He will probably be seeing something in the neighborhood of $10 million per season, which would be an expensive deal to eat if things go south. His home/road splits are a bit concerning given his career 43.6% fly ball rate -- he has a career 1.17 ERA at the O.Co Coliseum -- but I wouldn't consider them a red flag.
Will he end up in Detroit?
I doubt it, and it has nothing to do with the dust-up between him and Victor Martinez in the playoffs last year. Balfour is the top closer on the market after three spectacular years in Oakland. At 35, he will most likely be looking to get one last multi-year contract. That said, it's tough to say how many teams will be bidding for his services. The Yankees have payroll concerns, and other big spenders like the Phillies, Red Sox, and Dodgers already have closers. Dave Dombrowski likes to wait out the reliever market, and I don't think Balfour will be a free agent for too long.