Phillies Should Utilize A Thrift Store Bullpen

The bullpen has seemingly always been a problem for the Phillies. Whether it was the 1980 bullpen that barely made it to the finish line, the 1993 ‘pen, that imploded, or the revolving door bullpen the Phillies implemented between 1995 and present, there has never been that one constant. Sure, Billy Wagner was good for the two years that he was here, Brad Lidge had that perfect season, and Ryan Madson came out of nowhere to become one of the most dominant relievers in baseball, but the latter two are gone after this season having only been key cogs in the Phillies’ bullpen dating back to 2007 (’08 for Lidge).

With the off-season comes a plethora of unsolicited advice from fans and media types alike. The focus has mostly been on the shortstop position, and rightly so, but the Phillies have a bullpen in flux that cannot be ignored. The Phillies went into the season with the back of the bullpen including Madson and Lidge, as well as Jose Contreras, J.C. Romero, and Danys Baez. Prior to September call-ups, that changed to Madson, Antonio Bastardo, Michael Stutes, and Lidge; Contreras threw only 14 innings over the course of the season while Romero and Baez were both booted from the roster.

For the most part, the evolution of the bullpen was completely unexpected. No one saw Bastardo being as dominant as he was, nor did anyone expect Stutes to pitch in so many high-leverage situations. That is par for the course for most teams when it comes to the bullpen: they are all just rolling dice. After the 2011 regular season, less than half of the teams in the National League stayed within 0.20 of their bullpen ERA the previous season. Equally as many teams (seven) shifted by a half run of ERA or more.

Team 2011 ERA 2010 ERA DIFF
ARI 3.71 5.74 -2.03
CHC 3.51 4.72 -1.21
MIL 3.32 4.48 -1.16
PIT 3.76 4.57 -0.81
FLA 3.44 4.01 -0.57
PHI 3.45 4.02 -0.57
CIN 3.55 3.97 -0.42
LAD 3.92 4.07 -0.15
WSN 3.20 3.35 -0.15
ATL 3.03 3.11 -0.08
COL 3.91 3.99 -0.08
HOU 4.49 4.49 0.00
STL 3.73 3.73 0.00
SFG 3.04 2.99 0.05
SDP 3.05 2.81 0.24
NYM 4.33 3.59 0.74

Relievers are notoriously hard to predict, particularly because the sample sizes are too small. Madson finished the year with 60.2 innings pitched. Roy Halladay, on the other hand, surpassed that total after his eighth start on May 10. Needless to say, Halladay’s first eight starts of the season hold very little predictive value. It feels like relievers’ stats should stabilize quicker, but they don’t; they are just as prone to the randomness of the universe as any other player.

Unless the price is right and you are dealing with Mariano Rivera-types who are eerily consistent from year to year (Madson would fall into this category), it seems the best strategy is to spend as little money as possible on the bullpen and hope for the best by utilizing pitchers with good defense-independent skills. Of the 58 relievers that threw 50+ innings and posted an ERA lower than 3.00 during the 2011 regular season, only eight of them (14%) had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.0 or lower. Five of those eight had a ground ball rate at 50 percent or higher (six if the threshold is lowered to 49 percent).

The Phillies have five arms that could be key contributors to the bullpen that are not yet arbitration eligible: Bastardo, Stutes, David Herndon, Michael Schwimer, and Justin De Fratus. Meanwhile, Jose Contreras will still be around in the final year of his two-year contract, earning $2.5 million. With the five youngsters at a cheap price (let’s say $450,000 apiece) and Contreras, the Phillies could run with a bullpen costing them around $5 million. As a result, the Phillies would have much more freedom to address their other needs.

The Phillies should say no to Heath Bell, to Jonathan Papelbon, to Jose Valverde and any other expensive relievers out there. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like GM Ruben Amaro is going to, per Bob Brookover:

Amaro said that even if the Phillies do not re-sign Madson, they plan on going outside the organization for an experienced closer. Whether it’s Madson or somebody else with experience at the role, it’s likely to cost at least $10 million […]

The contract, to whomever it may be, has the potential to be just as hamstringing as the Raul Ibanez contract. If the Phillies play it smart, they’ll walk past the department stores and shop at Goodwill. Then they may give themselves enough room to adequately plug the shortstop hole, sign Cole Hamels to a contract extension, address third base and left field, and find a new bench corps.

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23 comments

  1. Scotch Man

    October 17, 2011 08:35 AM

    I always say be careful with the contracts you hand out to relief pitchers. Though in an LCS where almost every game seemed like a bullpen game, one has to wonder how possible that is.

    That being said, I am quite happy that the Phils have the young talent they have in the pen. It does seem like every relief contract they handed out lately has blown up in their face with the exception of Madson’s last deal. Maybe it isn’t the worst idea to let the young lads work their way up the ladder.

  2. mitchwilliams

    October 17, 2011 09:12 AM

    There is some risk minimization, though, isn’t there? I think you sign a “proven” bullpen guy to go with the younguns. Sure, RP data goes up and down each year, which means you don’t sign the Baez’s (particularly to 2 year deals). But, I’d be hesitant to take the fluctuation to mean that you throw your best 5-6 guys and see what happens.

  3. Ed Burns

    October 17, 2011 09:28 AM

    Re: Scotch man’s “home grown talent”. I agree, it worked well for the Rays, and with the exception of winning, nothing builds a more solid fan base than a commitment to growing and using home grown talent?

    Re: mitchwilliams, are you *the* Mitch ‘Mitchie Poo’ Williams? Wow, esteemed readers here.

    I agree, we don’t need any dancing closers either. Let Boston keep Pap. They have some things to work out together.

  4. KR

    October 17, 2011 09:44 AM

    I think this is the best approach to start the year, if things aren’t going well you can try to swing a trade in July for a veteran BP guy that’s having a good year.

  5. KH

    October 17, 2011 10:01 AM

    I don’t think its fair to write matter of factly that Ryan Madson is gone. Unless I misread the latter two line. You have a crystal ball Bill?

  6. Bill Baer

    October 17, 2011 10:18 AM

    I didn’t say he was, but the Phillies shouldn’t pay top dollar to retain him, as good as he is. If they can keep him at market value or cheaper, then I’m fine with it. The problem is big-name free agent relievers are almost always paid more than market value.

  7. Richard

    October 17, 2011 10:26 AM

    “The problem is big-name free agent relievers are almost always paid more than market value.”

    Presumably what big-name relievers are always being paid is, in effect, their market value.

  8. Malcolm

    October 17, 2011 10:28 AM

    I wouldn’t mind the veteran arm to start the season, but in no way should the team overpay for a closer type. Those contracts are nearly almost always poor decisions.

    Would Madson come back on a three-year, $40M deal? Doubt it, but that’s my threshold with him.

    Otherwise I’d rather see Amaro grab (max) a Matt Capps type for something around two years, $17M.

    A bargain bullpen is great (Tampa showed it can be done) but you need flexibility and something a bit more proven back there, at least to start the season.

  9. Phylan

    October 17, 2011 10:35 AM

    Matt Capps couldn’t breach 5 strikeouts per 9 last year, why would you want to give him $8.5 mil a year?

  10. Taggs24

    October 17, 2011 10:38 AM

    $13M year for Madson? I wouldn’t go higher than $9M. What is the market value (range) for a top closer anyway?

  11. Bill Baer

    October 17, 2011 10:38 AM

    @ Richard

    Relative to what they actually contribute, they’re rarely worth the price.

    Figure that someone like Rafael Soriano faces four batters an inning and will pitch ~65 innings in a season if his team is lucky. That’s 260 batters faced (pitcher plate appearances, if you will). Compare that to Jimmy Rollins who had 700+ PA seven times in his career.

    Even Roy Halladay would face 920 batters given four batters per inning and 230 innings pitched.

  12. Bill Baer

    October 17, 2011 10:39 AM

    @ Malcolm

    you need flexibility and something a bit more proven back there (A), at least to start the season (B).

    (My additions in parentheses)

    First part (A): Why?

    Second part (B): Why does the start of the season matter?

  13. Ajay

    October 17, 2011 11:00 AM

    PLUS why re-sign Madson for 3 years when you have several guys who can close in the near future: Contreras or Bastardo this year, then DeFratus, Aumont, etc. for the future?

  14. Scott G

    October 17, 2011 11:52 AM

    I like Kenny KGB’s line from Rounders here: “Pay the man his money”.

  15. KevinP

    October 17, 2011 12:31 PM

    I am comfortable with the young arms of Bastardo and Stutes at the backend of the Bullpen. Except for the end of the season when they both looked arm tired, they both performed well. And given their ages, It should be expected that they tired in their first full season. Bastardo reminds me of a left handed Lidge (2008 version). I would prefer Madson, but with his agent, I do not see him returning. And I don’t see any top end relievers out there worth what people will end up paying them.

  16. Bill Reynolds

    October 17, 2011 12:43 PM

    I hope RAJ reads Bill’s assessment of the bullpen which makes total sense. Paying big bucks for an “experienced” closer doesn’t make sense when the team needs “flexibility” in other areas that are much more important. The Phils need to get younger and slow down with the extravagant (Ryan @5yrs for $125K) contracts. Going with our current BP helps to address this need where getting some of our young talent onto the team allows RAJ to perhaps better improve the starting 8.

  17. Richard

    October 17, 2011 12:47 PM

    “Relative to what they actually contribute, they’re rarely worth the price.”

    Yes, I know. But that’s not what market value means.

    In any event, I’d try to re-sign Madson, if it were me, though not if the price becomes ridiculous. Relievers tend to be highly variable, from year to year, so when you have someone who’s consistent, it’s worth keeping him around. But for how much? We’ve seen that the market has over-valued closers in the past, but will it continue to do so?

  18. John M

    October 17, 2011 01:03 PM

    Richard – Agree with your “market value” comments. Nice catch.

    Bill – I agree about not overspending on the pen. That never seems to pay. Personally, I’d try to sign as many relievers coming off bad years, with historically good numbers in the stats I wanted (K/BB, K/inn, etc.) to low contracts for one year. Figure you can sell them on rebuilding their careers on a good team, and neither side is locked in to a contract it doesn’t like. Keep the ones that look good, cut the rest. Maybe if you sign enough guys, you’ll find one or two that pitch better than they had the year before (under the theory that relievers vary from year to year). Easier said than done, I’m sure, but that would be my suggestion.

    Also, not to quibble, but you start by talking about the Phillies lack of a constant in the bullpen, but I think that’s unfair. Other than the Yankees (Mo) and the Padres (Hoffman), what teams DO have one consistent thing in the pen? Almost all teams turn over the pen on a pretty regular basis.

  19. hk

    October 17, 2011 01:28 PM

    John M,

    I agree with your idea of what type of veteran reliever(s) to target. Unfortunately, I’m not sure the current GM is seeking the same stats that you are (see Baez, Danys). Matt Thornton is a reliever that I would like to see the Phils target, especially if the White Sox are looking to dump his salary. He’s due to make $12M over the next two seasons and with Santos and Sale expected to pitch the late innings, I could see the White Sox dealing him for next to nothing and throwing in some cash to boot.

  20. Zak

    October 21, 2011 03:20 PM

    We have some flexibility if we let people walk…

    So we lose Lidge, Ibanez, Oswalt, Baez, Romero, Orr, BenFran, Schneider, Gload, Kendrick, Madsen, Rollins, etc… a lot of 1 yr deals will be renewed like the Bp for minimum salaries.

    Hammels will see an increase to 15mm and Pence to 10mm so ~48 mm to play with

    We need a Closer, SS, LF, and bench players. With the option of upgrading 3B.

    To maintain the current salary we can spend:
    Closers = 5 to 10
    SS = 6 to 12
    LF = 6 to 12
    Bench/3B = 14 available

    Also keep in mind by letting Rollins, Oswalt, & Madsen go we get 3 1st round or supplemental round draft picks. With Ibanez & Lidge we get 2 comp picks. Wich we desperately need to retool. CF, 2B, and 3B all will need to be turned over in the next few years. So we need to hit on some top prospects.

  21. Zak

    October 21, 2011 03:21 PM

    Forgot to mention SS needs to be turned over as well..

  22. Ryan

    October 21, 2011 06:15 PM

    Skip the big names, add arms at the deadline if you need to, and keep the financial commitment to a minimum.

    We just got out from under a $36 million contract from Lidge, that could have went a long way toward fortifying our bench, or adding to our starting lineup over the past three years. Instead we are scrambling to find a LF option, and a replacement for JRoll if he leaves.

    In hindsight, Lidge’s big money extension, WHICH CAME DURING ’08, NOT AFTER, was a mistake. And extending Madson for big $$$ now would be the same mistake.

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