Dave Dombrowski Not Alone in Bullpen Mistakes

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We know, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, that Dave Dombrowski made all the wrong bullpen personnel decisions last offseason (and during the season) – most importantly his decision to allocate the lion’s share of bullpen resources to signing Joe Nathan (though also signing Joel Hanrahan and Jim Johnson as well as trading for Joakim Soria).

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In retrospect “any idiot” should have known that Nathan was a big gamble (what with his age, health history, unusually good 2013, etc…) right? Right?

We’re prone to look at these things with some bias, just because we mostly focus on the Detroit Tigers (who we care about deeply) and other teams for whom everything went spectacularly well – since they’re the ones still playing and the ones still in the news. If you try to look at it a little more objectively, you’ll notice that while bullpen decisions for some teams (regarding some players) did turn out much better than the bet on Nathan (etc…) some others were just as bad and some were worse.

I have compiled a non-scientific list of the guys I consider to be the top 22 bullpen free agents from the 2013-2014 offseason – in no particular order. That list includes Nathan and Joba Chamberlain, who the Tigers actually signed, as well as Jose Veras and Joaquin Benoit who they decided to let leave. What jumps out at me is that by my count exactly 11 can be categorized as having “gone well” for the signing team while the other 11 should be categorized as not having “gone well” – and the bar for having “gone well” isn’t all that high.

Good:
Joaquin Benoit, JP Howell, Joba Chamberlain, Fernando Rodney, Javier Lopez. Francisco Rodriguez, Edward Mujica, Oliver Perez, Joe Smith, Chad Qualls, Eric O’Flaherty, Matt Thornton

Bad:
Joe Nathan, Grant Balfour, Jose Veras, Boone Logan, John Axford, Brian Wilson, Chris Perez, Kyle Farnsworth, Carlos Marmol, Jesse Crain, Scott Downs, Kevin Gregg

I tried to allocate guys that performed reasonably well to the “good” group, but closers with ERAs in the 4.50 range all to the “bad” group along with the utter flops like Marmol or Crain. O’Flaherty might be a special case – he pitched very well, but missed a lot of time due to injury. I put him in the “good” group anyway. Also left out is what was possibly the worst offseason bullpen decision: the A’s decision to forego the market for free agent closers and to trade for Jim Johnson instead.

What I’m trying to say is this: We applauded the decision to sign Nathan, but were very critical of the decisions to sign Joba Chamberlain and to keep Phil Coke. The first backfired, but the latter two paid off reasonably well. We can look back now and with that the Tigers had kept Benoit over Nathan and added Oliver Perez and Joe Smith.

If they HAD, the Tigers could easily be the team with the 2-1 lead in the World Series instead of Kansas City. But… don’t forget: We Tigers fans would have been happier I am certain – as of last offseason – had we signed Scott Downs and Jesse Crain to go along with Joe Nathan than either what Dombrowski DID do and what our 20/20 hindsight says that he SHOULD have done.

Dombrowski made some serious mistakes because it’s so easy. It’s very, very difficult to predict (impossible to predict might be the better term) how well any given reliever is going to perform because there is just so much variation in how well they actually pitch over short stretches and in what the numbers that their actual pitching produces look like (over short stretches).

The A’s were also not served well by their catastrophic bullpen decisions. Nor were the Dodgers (especially) or the Rays or the Rockies or the Cubs. If the Tigers had done nothing to change their ‘pen after the 2013 Fiasco, they would have held onto Benoit (smart) and Coke (reasonably smart) but also Veras (catastrophic).

Now they’re stuck trying to decide on whether to hold onto Joakim Soria or not and we have to wonder if he’s a Benoit or a Veras and the fact is we just can’t know.

We salivate at the thought of adding a top left-hander like Andrew Miller and Zach Duke and discuss who will cost what and who has the most talent and what the Tigers can afford, but… they key question is still which one will be Boone Logan/Scott Downs and which one will be JP Howell/Javier Lopez. And again, we just can’t know.

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