Thursday, April 12, 2007

How Do You Build a Bullpen Anyway?

Al Reyes did a nice job closing last night; before the game, with all the emotion swirling around relief pitching, I had already been thinking about addressing the broader question of how to construct a bullpen. This seems to be among the most difficult holes to plug in a roster. Teams always identify the need for more relief help, set out to solve the problem, and fail. Why is it so hard?

Since our project here is to analyze how a team is built, and our team, the Devil Rays, is having major bullpen issues, this seems to be the dilemma of the moment.

Many organizations have attempted to fill their pen by throwing money into it. The Yankees have fallen victim to this temptation in recent years before shifting their focus. In 2001, they signed middle reliever Steve Karsay to a huge and disastrous contract, during which the pitcher was rarely healthy and never effective. Two years later, they brought in Tom Gordon to pitch the eighth inning. Flash did well for the Yanks, but wasn't able to help the team get the ring for which he was searching.

This past offseason, the Orioles have taken a similar approach, heaping millions on veterans Chad Bradford, Jamie Walker, and Danys Baez. Early returns are decent, but probably won't ultimately lift the team out of fourth place. One wonders it was the wisest way for the team to spend Peter Angelos' money.

The problem with using free agency to build a bullpen is the unpredictability of relievers. It is rare for a setup man or closer to experience sustained success over many seasons. Often, relievers burn brightly but quickly, and are sliding--or racing--downhill by the time they hit free agency.

Another approach, which our first example, the Yankees, have switched to, is to develop relievers as starters and then convert them. This, remember, is how they found Mariano Rivera. The Sheffield and Johnson trades stuffed that organization with many arms. Some of these guys will pitch effectively in the middle innings of Yankee games later this year and next. Right now, the Yankees have Sean Henn and Scott Proctor, both of whom were originally starters, pitching decently in relief.

On to the Rays. There are quality arms in Durham right now who may eventually find a home in the Tampa bullpen. And, as I've suggested before, the surplus of outfielders can be exchanged for some arms.

The one bad idea I've heard lately: acquiring Brad Lidge. When you have arms, good draft position, and a tiny payroll, it is a mistake to sacrifice anything for a declining reliever. Lidge's flame seems to be flickering, and the team would have to give up too much to get him.

We started this column with Al Reyes, and we'll circle back around to that. He represents a promising, Billy Beane-style approach to fixing the bullpen. Moneyball is really just about finding players who are overlooked or undervalued by the market. Reyes is a classic example. He was pretty effective for the Cardinals a few years ago before joining the Tommy John club. Considering the high recovery rate of that surgery, Reyes may well be a find. This is evidence that Friedman is paying attention, and will fix this problem as intelligently as his budget allows. But then, maybe budget isn't the solution for this particular dilemma, anyway.

Buster Olney was also talking bullpens today. You need an ESPN account to view this, but it is well worth reading if you have one.

With Fossum starting tonight, check out my previous post on him, if you haven't seen it.


ruby said...

Reyes was a good pickup...let's see more of him, Joe.

raysfan02 said...

Shields had it going on...mostly...

Ray said...

I agree that too much money is often wasted on relievers who don't pan out. Given last night's performances of the Rays' bullpen, let's give them a little time before hitting the panic button.