New Chicago Cubs reliever Jason Motte, before his 2013 Tommy John surgery, was an excellent closer with the St. Louis Cardinals. For that reason, it’s understandable that both sides would enter into 2015 with the idea that (1) it’s possible that a change at closer could become necessary at some point during the year (it has happened several years in a row now), and (2) if a change becomes necessary, Motte is likely to get an early look.
Obviously no one is hoping that Motte as closer becomes necessary – Hector Rondon was a stud last year, and no one would complain if he duplicated the performance in 2015 – but you just never know with young relievers, and Rondon has had arm issues in the past.
With all of that in mind, then, Motte and the Cubs included incentives in his one-year, $4.5 million deal, and they are essentially tied to whether or not Motte becomes the closer.
First, the incentives, per Jon Heyman:
jason motte: $4.5M base. 250K for 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59 gf. 250K 60 games, 65 games. $2.5M bonus max #cubs
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) December 22, 2014
Something you may not know about incentives in contracts: teams are somewhat limited in the things to which they can tie incentives. Generally speaking, you can’t tie incentives to player performance in a direct way (“$2 million bonus for OPS over .800” or “$5 million bonus for 50 saves”), so teams get around that limitation by using proxies. Awards and games played/avoiding time on the disabled list are two notable ones. When it comes to relievers, the “games finished” proxy is frequently used, and it basically means you were the pitcher who finished the game. Obviously that will encapsulate a number of things – saves, blown saves, tie-becomes-wins, blowout wins – but, typically, a relief pitcher will accumulate a large number of games finished only if he’s the closer.
So, in other words, Motte’s incentives don’t kick in until he reaches 50 games finished, and he’s probably not going to get to that level unless he’s the closer for most of the year. For reference, in 2014, Rondon became the closer in late-April/early-May, and he accumulated just 44 games finished.
If for some reason Rondon is bounced from the closer’s role early in the year in 2015, the Cubs should have decent options for coverage, including not only Motte, but also Pedro Strop, Neil Ramirez, and Justin Grimm.
EDIT: As some of you have pointed out in the comments, Heyman likely means the two 60 and 65 level bonuses are for appearances – separate from the games finished bonuses, which start to kick in at 50 – which sounds right. That $500,000 is achievable, then, even if Motte never becomes the closer, though it’s not a lock: the Cubs had just four relievers reach 60 appearances last year (Rondon, Grimm, Strop, Schlitter), and only two of them got to 65 (Grimm and Strop (who had exactly 65 appearances)).