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Looking at the Best Ways to Construct A Bullpen

With the struggles the Phillies’ bullpen has faced recently, and the potential for closer Jonathan Papelbon to be traded, I’ve seen various conversations on how best to construct a bullpen pop up. There isn’t really a consensus on the matter. Based on the unpredictable nature of relief pitchers who get only a small sample of innings in which to perform — 60 to 70 innings is one-third of a season for a starting pitcher — I have long advocated putting the ‘pen at the bottom of the list of priorities. That’s not to say that one cannot put together a great bullpen by throwing money at the problem, but anecdotally it seems to fail at a much higher rate than it succeeds.

We need some data on the matter, so I looked at the top-five bullpens in baseball by ERA (min. 20 IP per reliever) and compared it to the Phillies. (Note: only five Phillies relievers crossed the 20 IP threshold, so I lowered it to 15 IP for them.) Note that contract amounts list the 2013 salary, not the total salary or the average annual value.

* Denotes the closer

Braves ERA Acquired Contract Amount
Craig Kimbrel* 1.53 Draft Pre-Arb $ 655,000
Eric O’Flaherty 2.50 Waivers Arb-3 $ 4,320,000
Anthony Varvaro 3.08 Waivers Pre-Arb $ 490,000
Luis Avilan 1.78 Amateur FA Pre-Arb $ 491,250
Cory Gearrin 3.30 Draft Pre-Arb $ 491,250
Jordan Walden 2.59 Trade Pre-Arb $ 541,500
David Carpenter 2.16 Waivers Pre-Arb $ 490,000
2.74     $ 7,479,000

Lots of waiver claims by GM Frank Wren. To look at the way the Braves constructed their pen and say “just draft a Kimbrel” is obviously foolish. Looking at their quantity of waiver claims, there are plenty of relievers who simply don’t fit in on a team but would contribute with a change of scenery. Jason Grilli was in this position with the Phillies in 2011. As the team was destined for the post-season and the back end of the bullpen was sealed up with Ryan Madson and Antonio Bastardo, GM Ruben Amaro didn’t see a reason to push out someone on the other end for a reliever having success in a handful of innings at Triple-A after posting spotty results at the Major League level previously in his career. The Pirates happily took him and let him handle the eighth inning, eventually making him the closer to start the 2013 season.

Does this mean the Phillies should put a claim in on every reliever that hits the waiver wire? Of course not, but the Phillies have been very inactive in this regard. At worst, you pay a couple hundred thousand for organizational filler; at best, you find a diamond in the rough for the bullpen. That, my friends, is called low-risk, high-reward.

Twins ERA Acquired Contract Amount
Anthony Swarzak 2.77 Draft Pre-Arb $ 502,500
Ryan Pressly 2.12 Rule 5 Pre-Arb $ 490,000
Jared Burton 3.51 Free Agent 2 years $  2,050,000
Josh Roenicke 3.31 Waivers Pre-Arb $ 505,000
Casey Fien 3.82 Free Agent Pre-Arb $ 500,000
Glen Perkins* 2.20 Draft 3 years $ 2,500,000
Brian Duensing 4.00 Draft Arb-1 $ 1,300,000
Caleb Thielbar 0.00 Free Agent Pre-Arb $ 490,000
2.88     $ 8,337,500

The Twins filled up their bullpen mostly with drafted players and Minor League free agents. For a mid-market team, this is a very frugal way to put together a bullpen. This method relies heavily on your organization’s ability to evaluate talent. As the Twins are with the Phillies as one of the least-analytic, that is risky, but it has worked out and the Twins have their scouts to thank.

Royals ERA Acquired Contract Amount
Greg Holland* 1.93 Draft Pre-Arb $ 539,500
Tim Collins 2.57 Trade Pre-Arb $ 534,500
Bruce Chen 1.93 Free Agent 2 years $ 4,500,000
Kelvin Herrera 5.20 Free Agent Pre-Arb $ 508,175
Luke Hochevar 2.67 Draft Arb-3 $ 4,560,000
Juan Gutierrez 3.04 Free Agent Arb-1 $ 750,000
Aaron Crow 4.29 Draft Pre-Arb $ 1,280,000
2.92     $ 12,672,175

The Chen salary really sticks out if you don’t know his story, but he has been with the Royals since 2009 and had been used almost exclusively as a starter. However, they moved the 36-year-old to the bullpen for the 2013 season and it has worked out for them. The Royals signed him to a two-year deal after the 2011 season with the intent on using him as a starter, so $4.5 million isn’t as bad as it looks. The same story applies to Hochevar. So, they didn’t really fill up their bullpen with free agents; they just added a couple of failed starters. And that’s okay.

Blue Jays ERA Acquired Contract Amount
Brett Cecil 1.59 Draft Pre-Arb $ 510,000
Aaron Loup 1.95 Draft Pre-Arb $ 494,200
Steve Delabar 1.73 Trade Pre-Arb $ 498,900
Esmil Rogers 4.23 Trade Pre-Arb $ 509,000
Casey Janssen* 2.10 Draft 2 years $ 3,900,000
Darren Oliver 2.86 Free Agent Option $ 3,000,000
Brad Lincoln 4.15 Trade Pre-Arb $ 490,000
2.95     $ 9,402,100

The Blue Jays have a dominating back of the bullpen, with three arms posting sub-2.00 ERA’s. Oliver is the only free agent; otherwise, three have come from the draft, and three have been acquired via trade. Like the Twins, the Jays — though more Sabermetrically-inclined — are putting a lot of eggs in their talent evaluation basket. As far as power arms go, they know what they’re looking at, it looks like.

Brewers ERA Acquired Contract Amount
Burke Badenhop 3.41 Trade Arb-3 $ 1,550,000
John Axford 4.22 Free Agent Arb-1 $ 5,000,000
Alfredo Figaro 3.07 Free Agent Pre-Arb $ 490,000
Brandon Kintzler 4.03 Purchased Pre-Arb $ 491,000
Tom Gorzelanny 2.60 Free Agent 2 years $ 2,750,000
Mike Gonzalez 3.33 Free Agent 1 year $ 2,250,000
Jim Henderson* 2.03 Free Agent Pre-Arb $ 492,000
3.00     $ 13,023,000

The Brewers finally demonstrate how to use free agency correctly. Another reliever, Francisco Rodriguez (“K-Rod”), didn’t meet the IP minimum but is another solid free agent pick-up by GM Doug Melvin. But notice how their most expensive free agent, Gorzelanny, still cost under $3 million.

Phillies ERA Acquired Contract Amount
Jonathan Papelbon* 2.12 Free Agent 4 years $ 13,000,000
Antonio Bastardo 2.73 Amateur FA Arb-1 $ 1,400,000
Jeremy Horst 6.23 Trade Pre-Arb $  497,000
Mike Adams 3.96 Free Agent 2 years $ 5,000,000
Raul Valdes 7.65 Free Agent Pre-Arb $ 505,000
Chad Durbin 9.00 Free Agent 1 year $ 1,100,000
Michael Stutes 5.17 Draft Pre-Arb $ 490,000
4.66      $  21,992,000

The Phillies are spending nearly two times as much as the most expensive bullpen in the top-five. Papelbon by himself earns as much as the top-five’s most expensive bullpen (Brewers). If the Phillies hadn’t spent a combined $19.5 million on Papelbon, Adams, and Durbin and instead used internal options, bargain bin free agents, trade acquisitions, and/or waiver pick-ups, do you think we would have seen poorer quality?

In recent years, we have seen teams increasingly signing their coveted soon-to-be free agents to long-term contracts. This is particularly true with starting pitchers: Cole Hamels, Matt Cain, Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander, and Clayton Kershaw will soon join the club. We haven’t seen this with closers. This is mostly because teams traditionally don’t use young players in the closer’s role. In a way, it helps depress the value of their best arms. (Check out how good Ryan Madson was for the Phillies for the price.) What you see in the top-five bullpens, though, are four drafted closers and one Minor League free agent closer (Henderson).

Given how volatile bullpen arms can be from season to season, some teams no longer mind driving up their relievers’ price tags by giving them high-leverage innings prior to free agency. When they hit free agency, they will be content to let them walk away only to be criminally overpaid by a team with less guile, like the Phillies did when Papelbon left Boston.

There are a few different ways to put together a bullpen. We know that one of the least trustworthy and least efficient is the path the Phillies have chosen: by throwing long-term, big money contracts at veteran arms.