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Today in history: Blue Jays acquire Bill Caudill

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As we await the beginning of the winter meetings, 35 years ago they were underway and the Pat Gillick was making a big splash for the Blue Jays. Determined to improve the team’s soft underbelly in the bullpen, on December 8, 1984 the Blue Jays traded Alfredo Griffin and Dave Collins to Oakland for Bill Caudill.

It was sort of a curious time in baseball history. Relievers were still largely seen as extra guys rather than the integral specialists they are today, but the cult of the closer or stopper or relief ace was firmly established and they were some of the best paid players in baseball. The likes of Dan Quisenberry, Bruce Sutter, Goose Gossage routinely finished near or at the top of Cy Young voting.

When the Blue Jays emerged from the cellar in 1983 and even flirted with contention late into the season, the bullpen was an obvious area of improvement. The Blue Jays had never had a relief ace — there’s little point when you’re routinely losing 100 games games — so before the 1984 season Gillick made his first real splash into free agency, signing Dennis Lamp to a three year deal worth $1.5-million guaranteed, with two vesting options.

It didn’t work. Lamp was more a workhorse starter-turned-swingman who had just one season mostly in short relief in 1983 when he posted a 3.71 ERA. In 1984, that ballooned to 4.55 and he recorded just nine saves as the Jays they flatlined with an identical 89 wins but finishing 15 games behind Detroit.

Hence, Bill Caudill. Over the previous three seasons, he has emerged as one of baseball’s premier Proven Closers, accruing 88 saves and a 3.10 ERA (76 ERA-) over 264 innings. This was to be the guy who slammed the door at the end of games to take the the Jays to the next to the next level.

The big issue was going to be securing Caudill for the long-term, as he had just one last season of arbitration before hitting free agency. Goose Gossage had signed an unprecedented six year, $3.6-million deal as a free agent with the Yankees after 1977. For perspective, the entire 1977 Blue Jays payroll was $858,000 (the least in baseball, but still).

In 1980, Bruce Sutter won a landmark arbitration case against the Chicago Cubs, landing $700,000 after winning the Cy Young against the team’s submission of $350,000 that completely reset the market. The next year, he was traded to St. Louis where he signed a long-term deal that paid him almost $1-million per year. As a free agent after 1983, Gossage set the market even higher with a five year deal for around $6-million in San Diego.

Which in term set Sutter up to score big time as a free agent, coming off 45 saves and a 1.54 ERA in 1984. And indeed he did. The day before the Jays traded for Caudill, Sutter signed a six year deal with Atlanta for theoretically about $9- to $10-million. That was just the beginning of it. The deal called for Sutter to receive $750,000 annually in salary, with the balance deferred in an annuity structure at 12.3% interest to result in $1.12-million annually for the 30 years after the deal finished. That’s right, despite lasting only three poor seasons in Atlanta, he’s still being paid. And as a cherry on top, when it ends in 2021, he gets a balloon payment of $9.1-million representing the “principal“ initially deferred.

So it was against this backdrop that Caudill, already with a $575,000 salary in 1984, could certainly expect a multi-million contract coming his way. There was a stumbling block: Gillick and the Jays had a policy of not guaranteeing more than three years (sound familiar?). That put the Jays at loggerheads with Caudill and his agent, a former minor league teammate and industry novice by the name of Scott Boras (referred to as Boaris in some initial news reports).

A late December trip by Jays’ brass to Caudill didn’t bridge the gap, and there was no better luck even on a one year deal, as Caudill filed for arbitration at $1.3-million compared to the team’s offer of $850,000. That was a record demand, matching that demanded by Fernando Valenzuela. Caudill threatened that if it went to arbitration, he would become a free agent (having apparently rejected a three year deal for $3.7-million).

Right before the hearing, Boras and Gillick were able to hammer out a deal. It was reported as five years and $7-million, representing a convention in reporting at the time. But it was actually three guaranteed years and $4.5-million for 1985-87, with vesting options for 1988 and 1989 that became guaranteed upon finishing 45 games in a season (so the 1988 option vested in 1985). He could also earn up $750,000 more per year in incentives tied to winning various awards.

Wit the contract settled, it was time to put the new acquisition to work. A couple rocky blown saves in April had his ERA at 9.31 seven games into the season, and Bobby Cox lost confidence. At the end of May he had nine saves, he finished at just 14 despite getting his ERA down to 3.25 by the end of June and 2.99 at the end of the season. He was supplanted by some guy named Tom Henke.

The headline numbers held in, but Caudill was not the same pitcher. Not that there was such a thing, but his FIP backed up to 4.65 as his strikeouts fell from averaging over one per inning to just six per nine innings. His fastball velocity was down as he battled shoulder problems.

With Cox gone in 1986, Caudill looked for a fresh start. It was not to be, as a rough May left him with a 7.15 ERA at the end of the month. He was used increasingly sparingly to his outspoken frustration. He went nine days without pitching at the end of June, prompting Boras to hire an airplane to pass above Exhibition Stadium on June 25th, dragging a banner: “Jimy — Give Caudill the ball”. He made just four appearances in September, for a season total of 40 (6.19 ERA) which itself was controversial. 45 games would have guaranteed his 1989 option.

It turned out that was end of Bill Caudill’s tenure in Toronto, as he released just before opening day in 1987. All told, the Jays paid him $6-million for 105.2 innings of 4.09 ERA and 16 saves. He caught on briefly with Oakland, but could not regain his old form and it was his last year as a player.

It’s interesting to look back on the deal. Today, a team would be loath be give up a whole lot for one year of control of a closer, especially when it’s so expensive. Really, there’s a lot of parallells to Ken Giles. In return, the Jays gave up two regulars including one of their most tenured players in Alfredo Griffin. Of course, with modern analytics he’d have probably been gone long before. His batting average was not only poor, but it was also complete empty, negating his defensive prowess. The Jays did sell high on a 32-year old Dave Collins coming off a monster 1984, as he would never again hit at a league average clip.

The Caudill signing was a cautionary note on the fraility of closers, and how quickly the bottom can fall out. So of course, 21 years later, the franchise gave five years and $47-million to B.J. Ryan when they in turn sought to shore up the bullpen. As the saying goes, history may not repeat, but it rhymes.

Sources: Baseball Reference, Globe and Mail archives