SARASOTA, Fla. -- Of all the franchise-changing acquisitions in baseball this winter, here's the one that might have gotten the least hoopla:
Nov. 28 -- Cincinnati Reds sign closer Francisco Cordero for four years, $46 million.
Not the signing you were thinking of, huh? Well, hear us out.
Did the Reds spend more dollars than they probably should have on a guy who, by his own admission, has never even heard of the Nasty Boys? Absolutely.
While pitching for the Brewers last season, Francisco Cordero was second in the National League with 44 saves.
Could they find themselves, by the fourth year of this contract, wondering what in Rob Dibble's name they were thinking? Sure, they could.
Does this deal come with any "40 saves a year or your money back" guarantees? Sorry. Not happening.
But if the criteria for this debate is "franchise-changing acquisition," you'd have a tough time arguing with the team-altering impact of this deal. Why? Here's why:
• This is a team that led more games at the end of the fifth inning last year (75) than the New York Mets, Chicago Cubs and Arizona Diamondbacks (among others). You could look it up.
• This is a team that got outscored by 71 runs after the seventh inning last season and by 92 runs after the sixth.
• This is a team that lost eight games it led after seven innings and went a ridiculous 7-17 when it was tied after seven.
• And this is a team that was last in the National League in bullpen ERA (5.13) -- and allowed the highest opponent batting average (.282), on-base percentage (.360) and OPS (.807) of any bullpen in the league.
Those are ugly, ugly numbers, ladies and gentlemen. But not just your ordinary, run-of-the-mill ugly numbers. Pretty much any astute baseball observer in this world (like us, for instance) will tell you there is a bigggg difference between ugly bullpen numbers and just about any other size, shape or flavor of ugly numbers. And that difference is …
Ugly bullpen numbers blow up entire teams.
When your bullpen is a mess, said Reds starter Bronson Arroyo, "There's just a cloud hanging over you. You know how teams like the Red Sox feel like they're always in a game, because when it gets late, they feel like that's their point in the game? Well, when you have a club that kind of feels the opposite, you're thinking, 'Uh-oh. We're up by five, but can we hold it?' And that's a bad feeling. Once you feel like you can't get the job done at that end of the game, you never feel confident."
And Arroyo ought to know. He had more quality starts last year (22) than Johan Santana, Roy Oswalt or Josh Beckett -- and still wound up 9-16. Part of that was due to five blown saves. But just as much was due to one of the pitching profession's most dreaded afflictions -- Fear of Leaving the Game Disease.
"When you've got 105 pitches and you've thrown six [innings]," Arroyo said, "and you feel like, 'All right. I've got the game where I want it, but maybe I don't have enough stuff right now' … the last two years, I felt like I still had to take the ball because we had so many problems in the seventh and eighth innings. … Now, hopefully, I'll be confident enough to come out after six innings, maybe being a little tired, and hand the ball over to the bullpen, instead of trying to muster up an extra inning."
Think it's some kind of accident that Arroyo and Aaron Harang have thrown more innings over the past two years (451 1/3 and 466, respectively) than any two teammates in baseball? Yeah, sure it is. In the same kind of way it's an accident the sun sets in the west every night.
That, in a nutshell, is just one of the many under-the-radar ripple effects of broken bullpens. But before we continue down this trail, we need to detour for a moment. We need to because we're required by the Justice Department to point out that virtually none of this relief crew's problems were the fault of last year's closer, David Weathers.
Before last year, Weathers had never saved 30 games in any of his 16 seasons. But there he was, at age 37, transforming himself into a veritable one-man bullpen rescue squad. He saved 33 games, got at least four outs in 18 different appearances, blew only one save after July and became "by far our MVP last year," said Adam Dunn.
So there's zero justice for poor Weathers in a signing that essentially demoted him to set-up work. And the proof is that, after the Cordero signing, he got personal we-still-love-you-man phone calls from general manager Wayne Krivsky, manager Dusty Baker and owner Bob Castellini.
"I don't have a problem with this," said Weathers, one of the all-time class acts, "other than the fact that sometimes in the game of baseball, the reward system is a little flawed. You go out and have your best year and get demoted. Yet [other] guys are signing extensions. So all those selfish thoughts go through your head. But I know the bottom line is [Cordero] makes our club so much better."
And he does. So even though the Reds recognized Weathers wasn't the culprit, they were determined to deepen their bullpen. And the brass was in massive agreement that Cordero was the No. 1 difference-maker in the free-agent market.
So from the moment the free-agent negotiating sweepstakes opened, the Reds took off after Cordero like Ryan Freel takes off after foul balls bound for the 17th row -- full speed ahead.
By the time they finished off that pursuit, they had made the 32-year-old right-hander the highest-paid free-agent closer in history. They since have taken their share of heat for what one GM calls a "ridiculous" contract. But Krivsky said his club feels no need to defend itself over the money it spent to fix its late-inning nightmare.
"I don't, because we weren't the only team that wanted him, and there was another team [Cordero's former employers, the Milwaukee Brewers] that was offering him $42 million," Krivsky said. "So that's what it took. At that point, I had to go to ownership and say, 'This is what it's going to take.' And they said, 'Get it done.'"
So the Reds added a million bucks a year to their offer, and presto. They had themselves a closer.
But how good a closer? That's the $46 million question.
When we polled two dozen executives last month on the best moves of the winter, no player split the group more than Cordero. For every exec who called this one of the best signings of the offseason, there was another shooting it down as excessive or criticizing Cordero as a closer of "questionable" reliability.
So how reliable is he? Well, over the past five years, only four pitchers -- Mariano Rivera, Billy Wagner, Jason Isringhausen and Trevor Hoffman -- have saved more games than Cordero (167). And of the six closers who averaged 30-plus saves a year over the past five seasons, just two -- Joe Nathan and Wagner -- had a higher strikeout rate than Cordero (10.39 per nine innings).
On the other hand, Cordero had the highest walk rate (3.73 per nine innings), the most hits allowed (7.76 per nine innings) and the most baserunners allowed (11.76 per nine innings). Matter of fact, he permitted nearly two more hits and three more baserunners every nine innings than Nathan.
So maybe he isn't quite in that elite-closer strata. But he still is in the next tier. Which means he is a major bullpen upgrade for this team. And we can sum up what a relief that is to the entire city of Cincinnati with two words:
So what's up with that chocolate cake? Here's what: Cordero said that after he finished dinner in Cincinnati the night of his news conference, "all of a sudden, this guy comes with dessert, and he goes, 'This is on the house.' And I say, 'Why?' And he just said, 'Welcome to Cincinnati.' It was a big chocolate cake. Pretty good, too."
Hey, we're glad he liked it, because earning his paycheck in this town will not be a piece of cake. Not when the home ballpark in which he has to pitch these next four years has produced the second-highest homer rate in baseball over the past three years.
"You know, I pitched in Texas," Cordero said. "I know it's not the same. But in Texas, the ball flies. All you've got to do is keep the ball down and make your pitches, and you'll be OK."
Well, that sounds simple enough. So who wants to break it to him that Harang had roughly the same, essentially flat, fly-ball/ground-ball split that Cordero had last season -- and still gave up 28 gopher balls (15 at home)? Hey, not us. Nevertheless, that's not the only reason Cordero is likely to miss Milwaukee. Checked out his home/road splits lately? Uh, here goes:
Cordero in Milwaukee last season: 1.09 ERA, .143 opponent batting average.
Cordero in towns not named Milwaukee last season: 6.55 ERA, .337 opponent batting average.
"Everyone else looks at that way more than I do," Krivsky said. "I was aware of it. And it certainly stood out. But there wasn't a history of it. The two years prior to that, his road numbers were better than his home stats. So I looked at it as some kind of aberration."
I know the bottom line is [Francisco Cordero] makes our club so much better.
--Reds relief pitcher David Weathers
What isn't an aberration, though, is the energy and optimism Cordero has injected into the Reds this spring. If he takes care of the ninth inning, and Weathers can handle the eighth, and one-time Rule 5 pick Jared Burton (1.84 second-half ERA last year) can stabilize the seventh, it's not so tough for this group to envision a season with a much happier ending than last year.
When your bullpen is rolling, Baker said, "It gives your team more confidence. And it gives the other team less confidence that it can come back on you, because you know, what you think will happen will happen. When you start thinking about, 'How are we going to lose this one?' you will lose it."
The manager doesn't have to explain that concept to this team, though, because these guys have been there, thought that. Then again, he also doesn't have to explain what might happen if there's a pitching staff in town that can complement a lineup that hit 203 home runs last season and scored more runs than the Mets or Cubs.
Suppose this rebuilt bullpen stops the bleeding. And suppose Harang and Arroyo get help in the rotation from eye-popping spring phenoms Johnny Cueto (13 IP, just 8 hits) and Edinson Volquez (13 IP, 19 strikeouts).
Look at the Reds that way, and they're far from hopeless -- if their new closer simply helps all those pitching pieces drop into place. So no wonder his new teammates are so jacked up to have Cordero around.
Heck, it's the highlight of their day just watching him lean in for the sign between pitches -- scrunching himself so low that it's tough to tell whether he is about to manicure the mound with his fingertips or launch into a somersault.
"I think when he throws, his arm moves so fast that all the blood rushes out of his fingers, so he has to get it back down there," Dunn said, laughing. "That's my guess. But you know what? He can do whatever he wants -- he can stand on his head -- if he goes out there and saves 30 for us."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.