Cobbling Together a Bullpen


You know and I know that the Tigers bullpen was not a strength last season. The performance of the Tigers’ pen in the ALCS against Boston (particularly relative to Boston’s own bullpen) made the difference between a trip to the World Series and a trip home. The Tigers massively underperformed their “pythagorean record” (how many wins you would expect based on run differential alone) – and bad bullpen performance is generally supposed to be the biggest reason for over or underachieving in that particular metric.

Sep 16, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Seattle Mariners relief pitcher Oliver Perez (59) pitches in the eighth inning against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

We’re still going to be pondering what will be done with the coaching staff, left field and second base. We’ll be wondering if the Tigers team speed or team defense will be improved during the offseason, somehow. But we’ll probably be most concerned with whether the Tigers can put an above-average relief corps out there in 2014 that is capable of maybe winning some close games and – at the very least – able to finish games out in which Max Scherzer spots them a four-run lead.

The big roster question is assumed to be whether or not to bring Joaquin Benoit back. You could even say that decision tree has three branches: bring him back, sign a free agent closer or go with in-house options. That’s going to be worth consideration, obviously, but it’s a little simplistic.

Really, there are TWO important but significantly vaguer questions:
1. How much money is it worth spending on a bullpen?
2. How should the money allocated to the bullpen be spent?

Personnel decisions get tricky when it comes to the bullpen… for several reasons. The first is that relief pitcher performance seems to be inherently inconsistent. Part of that (statistically speaking) is undoubtedly due to sample size alone – they don’t pitch all that much. Some of it is probably due to their makeup and their usage: these are typically guys with one or two good pitches, so they’re going to be awful if one isn’t clicking. They’re also guys who never have time to settle in if on some occasions it takes them a few batters to find a groove. You’d expect high variance. The second tricky bit is that a reliever’s value is tied up in situational usage: if you use a guy in high-leverage situations their performance means a lot more. And, of course, if you use the guy as a closer his market value goes up (particularly as weighed by arbitrators and agents). The third tricky bit is that there doesn’t seem to be much of an aging curve for relievers at all: guys can be highly effective in their late 30s and guys can be highly effective as rookies.

Why would any of those things make building a bullpen tricky? First – it can be advantageous from a cost standpoint to give key roles to young guys earning league minimum BUT as soon as they hit arbitration you wind up paying through the nose for the simple fact that you gave them key roles. If Bruce Rondon is the Tigers closer for the next couple of years, and given the lack of an aging curve he’ll probably be just as effective as he will in 3 years, he’s going to get a fat and potentially undeserved payday in arbitration. In free agency, we have seen a narrowing of the pay gap between closers and top non-closers – the same cannot be said of arbitration. Chris Perez is a decent but unexceptional closer – Fangraphs estimates that he’ll be getting $9 million in arbitration and as a result the Indians may just decide to non-tender him. In effect, using young guys to close games comes close to eliminating any value of team control – as if Austin Jackson would be awarded $15 million by virtue of the fact that he leads off, in which case you might as well just sign a free agent instead.

The fact that relievers are so volatile, statistically speaking, means that you’re going to have a hard time judging whether or not a free agent is worth the money but also whether your own guys are worth giving roster spots to and which roles they should be given. It also makes it hard to judge – and this is big – whether your bullpen is actually any good or not. It also means that paying for past performance is sort of silly, but arbitrators will base their decisions on past performance anyway.

The strategy that the Tigers have followed over the past few years – to moderate success – has been to go with established guys with long track records for late inning roles. They gave healthy paydays to Jose Valverde, Joaquin Benoit and Octavio Dotel and got mostly good results. That’s one way to do it – but I’m not sure it’s the best or the most cost effective. What you would assume to be the “small market” method – using team-controlled guys from within your organization – may not be the best or most cost-effective way to do it either. You run into the fundamental problems I already mentioned: arbitrators award relievers (closers in particular) what seem like excessive contracts and you don’t get much if any benefit from controlling guys during their “mid-career peak”. Cleveland is a good case study here – they’ve been filling bullpen roles from within, and they wind up with a mediocre closer for $9 million as a result.

I would argue that the Rays, as they do in so many other ways, set the standard for a cost-effective yet effective bullpen. Remember: going by ERA alone, the best season by a reliever in the past decade was Fernando Rodney‘s 2012 for them. Low-cost internal candidates are great BUT be careful about giving them roles that drive up their arbitration awards. Veterans are great – particularly old veterans – BUT don’t pay premium salaries for guys with great three year averages. Go for buy low candidates, give them high leverage roles IF they’re looking sharp and then let them seek a big payday elsewhere.

We’re going to assume until proven otherwise that the Tigers are going to have to ration their spending this year and that therefore resigning Benoit and a couple more top relievers to replace Dotel and Phil Coke may not be affordable (though it’s sort of the Tigers recent MO). If they did? We might see Benoit resigned, and large offers made to guys like Eric O’Flaherty and Edward Mujica. The “small market” method – which would save money in the short run but cost money in the long run (and probably make for a weak bullpen) – would mean giving the closer role to Bruce Rondon and simply mining Toledo to fill in any holes. The “Rays” method – which seems to be the best – would mean letting Benoit leave in search of closer money elsewhere but signing (hypothetically speaking) Oliver Perez and Juan Carlos Oviedo to 2-year $5 million deals and giving them and Veras (but not Rondon) a chance to earn the closer role in March.

OK… for the bottom line. I’m against, you could probably say STRONGLY against, any offseason plan that hands the closer job to Bruce Rondon. Ready or not, making him the closer before (perhaps) his second arbitration season makes him ridiculously expensive even if he doesn’t turn out to be a spectacularly effective closer. That doesn’t mean I’m necessarily wedded to the idea of pursuing a free agent closer, Veras is a relatively cheap and trustworthy in-house option for 2014. The question of whether the Tigers should be active in free agency (or how active) in the market for relief arms comes down to how much faith you have in the Tigers organizational depth at this position.

Here, as elsewhere with relievers, it’s simply hard to accurately judge what you have and what they’re worth. Smyly can be a top tier reliever – assuming he isn’t moved to the rotation. So can Rondon (if healthy), Al Alburquerque (if healthy) and so can Veras. That’s the top end right there. The problem would be that they’re all solid rather than flat-out unhittable. Solid will win you a lot of games over a 162 games season, so the value is not to be understated, but it does leave you dreaming of adding a Koji Uehara. The other drawback is that if the top of your pen is solid and the middle/bottom is a question mark, you’re going to be at a distinct disadvantage in certain types of games compared to a team that is solid throughout or with a premium top and solid middle/bottom (like, say, the Yankees).

Can the Tigers internal candidates make for a solid middle/bottom or would it be a bloody, red question mark threatening to cost the Tigers every single extra-inning game and high-scoring affair in which both starters were driven out early? If it’s the latter – the Tigers would probably be better off signing a couple of free agents, be they Mujica and O’Flaherty, Oviedo & Perez or just Joaquin Benoit and some kind of lefty, to push guys like Alburquerque and Rondon down to the middle rather than the top.

The answer to the question depends, really, on your evaluation of 5 guys (put a comment up if you think I have missed one): Luke Putkonen, Darin Downs, Evan Reed, Jose Ortega and Matt Hoffman. Hoffman has never thrown a pitch for the big league club, but he’s done very well in Toledo and at the very least deserves a shot at Coke’s job in March. The other four have seen significant big-league action over the past two seasons and haven’t been half bad (or lights out). Putkonen, Reed and Ortega throw surprisingly hard – with fastball velocities higher than Veras or Benoit. Ortega – like Rondon and Alburquerque is a guy with command and control issues, it’s going to be very hard to say whether he can be counted on in advance. Putkonen and Reed are groundball guys – with GB% similar to Fister or Porcello – without particularly high swinging strike rates despite the heat. It would be interesting to see what the two of them could do with a full season of Iglesias at short.

Downs had a rough stretch late this past season, but his peripherals look great assuming you don’t plan on letting him face many righties. Big splits aren’t uncommon for relief pitchers, but Downs’ are something exceptional: a .548 career OPS against lefties and an .881 career OPS against righties. Used right, I’d say Downs can be very valuable. If Smyly stays in the pen, that would mean no room for 3rd lefty Matt Hoffman – at least right out of the gate – but if there’s any guy in Toledo that’s certainly ready to fill a role on the big league club, it’s Hoffman. In short, I DO think that the “depth” that the Tigers can field is capable of getting major league outs and not embarrassing the franchise.

If the Tigers decide to just resign Benoit or avoid free agent relievers altogether, I’d still expect that all things considered the 2014 Tigers ‘pen is going to put up better results than last year’s ‘pen – not really a bold claim since it will be a bullpen without Phil Coke and Jose Valverde (and probably without Jeremy Bonderman and Jose Alvarez). My big concern? A bunch of these guys are either injury or effectiveness risks and if the organization elects to go without adding bullpen payroll, they’re going to find that the organization doesn’t really go much more than 9-10 deep, and 13 Tigers relievers threw at least 10 innings in 2013.