Option 1: Exercise it
Cost: $6.5 million. There was definitely a significant element of doubt about this early in the season, as over the first two months of the 2012 campaign, Putz had a 6.35 ERA, with an 0-3 record and three blown saves in 17 innings of work. He had allowed 20 hits, half of them for extra-bases. The prospects of him being a Diamondback in 2013 certainly seemed slim. However, Putz turned it around: in 39 games the rest of the way, Putz had a 1.21 ERA, striking out 45 in 37.1 innings and holding opposing hitters to a minuscule .454 OPS. Exercising the option would be betting on that Putz showing up next year, not the one from April & May.
It was mostly poor command which appeared to be at the core of the early problems, allowing hitters to feast - he gave up four home-runs in his first ten innings. According to Putz, "The struggles early on had nothing to do with infrequent work. It was more or less mechanical things, and that's just part of baseball." Certainly, the home-runs stopped, and Putz will carry forward to next year, an ongoing streak of 173 batters faced without a ball leaving the park. That 46-game streak ranks third among right-handed Diamondbacks [though he has a long way to go before catching the record holder, Brad Ziegler, whose 95-game streak ended late last month].
Health is another potential risk. Before coming to Arizona, J.J. did have a reputation for fragility, having averaged only 43 innings over the previous three years. He has done considerably better both years in the desert, with a short stint on the DL before the All-Star break in 2011, the only apparent problem. I note more caution in his usage this season - despite not missing any time during 2012, J.J. still made fewer appearances and threw fewer innings than last year. That's because the percentage of times he was given more than one day's rest between games; increased from 40% (24 of 60) in 2011, to over 54% (31 of 57) this campaign.
Most of what the club has said strongly points toward this being the most likely scenario. Earlier in the month, GM Kevin Towers described exercising the option as a "no-brainer", based on how Putz has performed, the cost of the option and the market for closers. Derrick Hall echoed the sentiment in a recent online chat, saying "We have had so much confidence turning the ball over to him to close out games, it is hard to imagine us not doing so." Hall mentioned another point that's perhaps also worth remembering: "He is a great leader in that bullpen and mentor to our relievers."
Option 2: Let Putz go
Cost: $1.5 million. The Diamondbacks have long been a team averse to spending lots of money on relievers in general, and particularly on closers. The sole bullpen arm in franchise history to earn even $5 million per year was Matt Mantei, who took home over $14 million for the 2003 and 2004 seasons combined - and thanks to injury, he didn't exactly justify it, throwing a total of 65.2 innings, with a 4.11 ERA. Since then, as soon as someone looks to be in line for big bucks, they've been traded (Jose Valverde) or simply allowed to walk away, as happened with the Diamondbacks' 2008 closer, Brandon Lyon.
Certainly, $6.5 million is a lot to pay by Arizona standards, and is borderline in value for any player who gave you 1.2 bWAR last season. In David Hernandez, the team absolutely has an alternative, a pitcher who is younger, cheaper and quite possibly better than Putz. However, promoting him would result in a ripple effect all the way to the back of the bullpen, with everyone moving up to a higher-leverage spot. Hernandez might be perfectly fine in the ninth inning - but what of Brad Ziegler in the eighth, or Bryan Shaw in the seventh? Plugging that hole with another reliable arm would cost, and the cash is on top of the $1.5m payable to Putz regardless.
Another factor which could have weighed in was a desire to keep Hernandez's costs in arbitration down, by stopping him from racking up saves as long as possible. However, David signed a deal in June, which lock down his costs for 2013 and 2014, at $1.25 and $2 million respectively. There is still a third year of arbitration beyond that, but it seems almost certain Hernandez will be the full-time closer for 2014 anyway. All told, this seems like the least likely of the possible scenarios.
Option 3: Sign and Trade
This is one that personally intrigues me. The concept would be, exercise the option on Putz - but then, trade him to another team for a piece that addresses a weakness, such as a shortstop or third-baseman. There's no denying there would be interest from other teams, because since he was signed by Arizona, J.J. has been one of the best and most reliable closers in the business. Only three men - Craig Kimbrel (88), Jose Valverde (84) and John Axford (81) - have saved more games than Putz's 77 over the past two seasons. Here are the stats for all those pitchers with 40+ saves since 2011, sorted by ERA+.
There are a couple of names on the list who are scheduled to become free agents this winter, but Putz at $6.5 million would seem to be a more cost-effective option than Jose Valverde (2012 salary: $9 million) or Mariano Rivera ($15 million!). Trading Putz would free up a solid chunk of cash - indeed, it'd be cheaper than letting him walk, as we'd not have to pay a buyout and his new team would presumably take all the salary. With Hernandez a cost-controlled alternative in waiting, it could be an alternative for Arizona to trading from the outfield depth to strengthen their squad in 2013.
The downside would be the same as letting Putz go - an overall weakening of the bullpen, resulting from everyone moving up. As a result, it's not so much replacing Putz with Hernandez as replacing Putz with the current 8th-best reliever. Of course, the crappy end of the relievers will tend to get used in low-leverage situations, when their potential for suck matters less. I think it may depend on what offers the team get for Putz. The obvious touchstone is the trade of Valverde in 2007, but in his previous two years, he had an ERA+ of only 118, though had led the majors in saves, with a 2.66 ERA, the season immediately preceding the trade.
That got us Chad Qualls, Juan Gutierrez and Chris Burke, as you recall. Yeah, not exactly a great haul, though the deal looked okay through the end of 2009, with Qualls having a better ERA+ than Valverde, over almost exactly the same number of innings, and earning about $9 million less. There are always teams willing to overpay for "proven closers", and if the team can take advantage of that, they'd be foolish not to. But they are in the fortunate position of not "having" to deal Putz. If the return doesn't live up to expectations, they can proceed in other directions, and we go with the same set-up and closer, who have given us 250 innings at a 2.74 ERA over 2011 and 2012.
Hard to complain about that.