The Royals settled one of their final pieces of financial business for the offseason on Wednesday morning, reaching a one-year, $4.675 million deal with closer Greg Holland to avoid arbitration. Holland will earn a $50,000 bonus if he returns to the All-Star Game.
Holland set a franchise record with 47 saves last season, posted a 1.21 ERA and struck out 103 batters in 67 innings. He finished ninth in the American League Cy Young voting and 15th in MVP voting. In short, general manager Dayton Moore mentioned earlier this week, Holland established himself as “one of the best closers in the game.”
He was dominant, and received a hefty raise after three seasons on a minimum salary. He sought $5.2 million. The Royals countered with $4.1 million. In the end, Holland received a deal worth $25,000 more than the midpoint. Moore and his front office retained their perfect streak of avoiding arbitration hearings since taking over in June 2006. But Holland still secured a sizable sum in his first year of arbitration eligibility, a price that will only escalate during the next two seasons.
The other bit of fiscal news on Wednesday was less significant. Utility infielder Emilio Bonifacio cleared waivers, and became a free agent. The Royals owe him about $575,000 of the $3.5 million deal they reached earlier this winter. The team designated Bonifacio for assignment after signing Bruce Chen in January.
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The agreement with Holland looms larger for the Royals’ future. Both sides have expressed their interest in a multi-year extension. But their conversation during these negotiations centered on a one-year agreement, according to a person with knowledge of the situation, who requested anonymity to protect the sensitivity of negotiations. The talks could be re-opened down the road. Holland can become a free agent after 2016.
A long-term contract with any pitcher, especially a reliever, is often considered a gamble. But at 28, Holland appears at the height of his late-game powers. He established himself as a bullpen fixture in 2011.
During the past three seasons, only Atlanta flamethrower Craig Kimbrel has been more valuable, according to FanGraphs’ version of wins above replacement, a metric that measures a player’s overall contribution to his team’s win total. Holland emerged as the dominant force in last season’s bullpen, which completed the season with the best ERA in the American League.
For now, Holland is a relative bargain, compared to the prices for free-agent relievers. He out-performed established closers such as Rafael Soriano (due $11 million in 2014), Joe Nathan ($10 million) and Grant Balfour ($6 million).
Still, if Holland continues his trajectory, he could soon approach that range. The arbitration system rewards relievers for statistics like saves, appearances and games finished. Even if his outstanding peripheral numbers decline — like his propensity for strikeouts and his avoidance of walks — his salary could increase.
Consider the case of Oakland closer Jim Johnson. After saving 51 games in 2012, his first as a full-time closer in Baltimore, his salary jumped from $2.625 million to $6.5 million in his second year of arbitration eligibility. Heading into 2014, Johnson settled for a $10 million deal. The Orioles traded him in December.
Holland is now set up to reap the benefits of two similar raises. He also is back to anchor the Royals’ relief corps. The organization can handle the financial consequences as they come.
Holland “had a terrific year,” Moore said on Monday. “He’s one of the best closers in the game.”