Case not closed on Valverde's landing spot

Case not closed on Valverde's landing spot

HOUSTON -- It seems to happen every year: Veteran player coming off a solid season declines his club's offer of arbitration with visions of multiyear offers dancing in his head, only to be disappointed when the hoped for present isn't under the tree.

Last year, Jon Garland declined arbitration from the Angels -- and a likely $12 million, one-year contract for 2009 it would have netted -- and ended up settling for a one-year, $6.25 million contract (with a $10 million club option) with Arizona. He was traded to the Dodgers, who declined his option, and he is a free agent once again, still searching for a multiyear offer.

The year before that, it was Boston catcher Jason Varitek turning down arbitration only to then settle for a one-year deal with an option with the Red Sox for roughly half of what arbitration could have gotten him.

This year's gambler is Houston closer Jose Valverde, who made it known late in the regular season that he planned on testing the free-agent market in search of his first multiyear deal. So when Valverde, who made $8 million last season, turned down the Astros' offer of arbitration minutes prior to the Dec. 7 deadline to remain a free agent, it wasn't a surprise.

The surprise, for Valverde, is that so far, no market has materialized for his services. The free-agent closer's market has shaped up as a game of musical chairs, with more closers than chairs. There are several high-profile closers circulating the market and only a few teams either interested in, or capable of, opening their wallets for premium back-end bullpen help.

Three weeks later, Valverde remains on the open market waiting for the music to stop -- and hoping there's a chair with his name on it.

There are still two months before pitchers and catchers have to report for Spring Training, but the last week's signing of closer Mike Gonzalez, formerly of the Atlanta Braves, by the Baltimore Orioles to a two-year, $12 million deal plus incentives has narrowed Valverde's options.

Valverde, who led the National League in saves with 47 for Arizona in 2007 and 44 for the Astros in 2008, remains the best available closer on the market. But finding a home with a team with the financial wherewithal to meet his contract demands is an issue.

The Florida Marlins, Detroit Tigers and Pittsburgh Pirates are still in search of a closer, but none appears to be inclined to spend big money on one, especially when it would cost them compensatory Draft picks (Valverde is a Type A free agent).

The Braves settled their closer situation by signing Billy Wagner to a one-year, $7 million contract and, in addition to Valverde, Kevin Gregg, Matt Capps and Fernando Rodney are still looking for work.

Valverde, 31, saved 25 games in 29 chances and posted a 2.33 ERA in 52 games last season, missing 41 games with a strained right calf. He went 4-1 with 23 saves and a 1.76 ERA in the final 44 games and finished the season with a consecutive save streak of 19.

The hard truth for Valverde is that although he is the most talented and accomplished of the available closers, it may very well be that turning down arbitration from the Astros -- and the likely $10 million salary that he would have netted for 2010 -- was a bad gamble. He may end up having to accept a one-year deal anyway, as Wagner did, and potentially at significantly less than he would have made in arbitration.

What he -- and his agents -- are thinking at the moment remains unknown. The right-hander's representatives at the Beverly Hills Sports Council did not respond to requests for interviews, and Valverde has not returned a phone message.

Shortly after Valverde rejected arbitration, the Astros signed Brandon Lyon to a three-year, $15 million contract. Lyon also turned down arbitration -- from the Tigers -- but he was able to secure a multi-year deal within hours, albeit at nearly half the amount Valverde is seeking. The key for Lyon was knowing, and accepting, the landscape.

Lyon's agent, Barry Meister, said free agents who have been offered arbitration have to assess the market and determine whether a long-term contract is forthcoming, and then weigh that against the one-year arbitration value or negotiating a one-year deal with another club.

"In Brandon's case, we had been contacted by a number of clubs who seemed willing to offer a long-term contract," he said. "But I also knew that although Detroit had offered a one-year contract and also had indicated they would make a long-term contract available to Brandon, I would lose all my leverage once I accepted arbitration because then Detroit would have the ability to limit him to a one-year contract, which is something clubs find very valuable.

"Also, the one-year contracts in arbitration are non-guaranteed, so for Brandon, it was an easy decision not to do that."

Astros general manager Ed Wade said a team's decision to offer a player arbitration has more to do with the club's personnel needs and financial situation than the potential market for the player.

"First of all, you have to make a determination that if the player accepts, do you want him back?" Wade said. "So before you ever go into it, you're going to have to determine if the player fits, do you want him back? And then you have to try to determine what value he would have in arbitration and how that fits in your payroll.

"The first part is always about talent, and then it becomes how the economics plays, and does that work? If the answer to both questions is yes, then it's sort of an easy decision and you go ahead and make him the offer."

The Astros answered yes to both questions with Valverde and were prepared to pay up for what Wade called "the best available closer on the market" if he would have accepted arbitration. When he declined and LaTroy Hawkins opted to sign with the Brewers, the Astros were able to spread that money around to sign Lyon and third baseman Pedro Feliz and trade for Marlins right-hander Matt Lindstrom. And they will gain two compensatory Draft picks when Valverde signs elsewhere.

So although Houston offered arbitration to Valverde, his gamble gave the Astros an opportunity to fill several needs instead of just one, and net two Draft picks to boot. One could say they won that gamble.

It remains to be seen if Valverde will be able to say the same come Spring Training.

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.