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July 2014

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Building a Bullpen

Written by , Posted in General

In an alternate universe* where I am the youngest general manager in Major League Baseball history—take that Theo—I find the building of a bullpen to be the most fascinating of activities.

While starters get the big-money contracts and deadline buzz, bullpens are pieced together with some strange concoction of failed starters, big-stuff young guns and a handful of oft-travelled veterans. Sometimes they work and sometimes they fail miserably, but no team can survive a season without the band of merry gentlemen coming out of the pen to (hopefully) preserve the occasional tight win.

I’m a bit of a sucker for good relief pitchers, as evidenced by my unnecessary hogging of holds leaders and surprising save-by-committee-competition winners in my friends-only fantasy league every year. But how exactly does a (real) team catch lightning in a bottle and create a group of pitchers that will eek out late-inning wins rather than give up the traumatic gopher ball in the closing moments?

There are two general trains of thought when it comes to building a pen, at least in my experience: developing or buying. Both strategies are rather self explanatory with developing bullpens focusing on mid-level arms in the draft and buying bullpens getting put together with a flurry of back-page trades or free-agent signings.

While I would love to spend the next three years of my life studying what strategy is better is a stand-alone recipe for success—my day job will come calling eventually—so I’ll tell you what I THINK I know.

I think the answer lies somewhere in between the two strategies. Okay fine, maybe this is a copout of a response, “Surely no team builds a bullpen solely one way or the other,” you say. I’ll give you that, but every team has a different identity in how they build their pen, whether their focus is international players or live arms or whatever redeeming quality a front office may want.

The teams with the best bullpens know how to get the most of the guys in their system, while also supplementing them with an assortment of wily vets. The problem with building a bullpen is that, by nature, they are volatile from both performance and longevity standpoint.

Mariano Rivera’s and Lee Smith’s don’t just grow on trees anymore. Injuries, contract demands and lack of sentimentality among players have led to shortened careers or 10-stop careers. For many relievers, this is the life you live. Just ask a guy like Latroy Hawkins.

Only closers get the somewhat royal treatment that starters receive, but even their shimmer as a high-priced cog for teams is fading. My buddy Dave, who I probably reference way too much, always rags on teams who spend big money on closers in free agency. “Teams should instead,” he says, “focus on building up their closer spot from within and spend money elsewhere.” It’s hard to look at the contract doled out to traveling closers in recent years and disagree with his sentiment.

Middle relief is an underappreciated art—that is until something goes wrong. However, I tend to find that the most beloved Cubbies in recent years have been of the mid-inning-eater variety. James Russell and Sean Marshall are two guys that instantly come to mind, as solidly developed guys who have been the glue holding a middling pen from falling completely apart. On the flip side, the Cubs have had their fair share of over-priced closers take a shot at becoming a fix in the role. Unfortunately few, if any, have worked out in the team’s favor in trying times.

The late-night heartburn caused from too many agonizing Carlos Marmol and Hawkins’ blown saves has been relieved a bit after the early-season release of Jose Veras—another example of a FA closer not working out. Sure the Cubs are still losing games at an exorbitant rate, but the losses seem to be piling up more because of a youthful offense in comparison to gauge-your-eyes out collapses.

Chicago’s makeshift bullpen in 2014 has been far from perfect, but their current rank of 17th in ESPN’s relief category is a drastic improvement from their ranks of 29th and dead-last in 2013 and 2012 respectively. Interestingly enough, the Cubs bullpen this year is still seeing time in plenty of pressure situations because of the low ERA numbers on an individual basis from the rotation. Despite an offensive power outage, many of the guys coming in during the middle innings have seen a large number of toss-up scores.

The record might not be any different in 2014, but again, there are many reasons for why this is the case that most educated fans understand. But it is interesting to see the improvement in the pen, despite a lot of question marks surrounding the future of its makeup.

Currently, not a single player in the pen has a set-figure salary following the season. Carlos Villanueva is an unrestricted free agent and a probable goner, while everyone else minus Justin Grimm and Brian Schlitter is arb-eligible. There is the hope, as always, that most of these deals will get done sooner rather than later and the Cubs have shown that arbitration needs to be avoided at all cost. Who can blame them, arbitration is a bit awk(ward for you oldies).

Wesley Wright and Russell could both be moved by the time this article is posted, which changes the dynamic of the unit a bit for the remainder of the year.

Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop will be mainstays in the back half for the time being, as are probable cheap options Justin Grimm and Brian Schlitter. Outside of that the Cubs will probable see another offseason of turnover in the middle of the pen. Management will need to decide if they see Chris Rusin and freshly acquired Felix Doubront as back-end starters or middle relievers.

The continued improvement of the young relievers in their system has been one of the least talked about goals for the team. A farm full of big bats will be able to mask many deficiencies with the staff, as well the likelihood of adding a top-flight pitcher by the time Opening Day in 2016 rolls around. However, figuring out the right collection of players in the bullpen, both current and future, will have a lasting impact on how high the arrow can actually go up for the franchise.

 

*EDITOR’S NOTE: This universe actually exists in the program called Out of the Park Baseball and not in Josh’s delusional brain.

So what say you VFTBr’s, what does your bullpen look like in two years?

 

 

  • Russel and Bony to ATL. Well I’ll be. Which kid comes up?

    • Doug S.

      If what I read we got back for these two is correct (a A league catcher), then we got hosed.

      • Dork

        Just opening up roster space, but I think the cubs did get a respectable prospect.

      • Sherm

        Switch hitting catcher/3b – #7 prospect in the ATL organization, so I wouldn’t say hosed. You think those two trade aways were long term in the Cubs plans? I don’t.

      • Seymour Butts

        A 20 year old at that. A good trade, thought the net hair balance is unchanged on the club

      • Sherm

        Wait. What? The NHB?

      • Dork

        Bonny bald – Russell well a few too many hairs – it all evens out

      • I still haven’t figured out why they all want to look like Karen Carpenter on the mound. Real intimidating, fellas.

      • Mark_from_Toronto

        If we can just get Schlitter to tone down his mountain-man look we can have a presentable ball club again.

      • I still haven’t figured out why they all want to look like Karen Carpenter on the mound. Real intimidating, fellas.

      • Mark_from_Toronto

        If we can just get Schlitter to tone down his mountain-man look we can have a presentable ball club again.

      • Dork

        Its still about short term assets into long term assets. Bonny was gone at the end of this 2014 debacle and Russell well they don’t have to open up a spot to bring back Fuji.

      • Sean Powell

        This was a great return. Neither guy in Cubs future. Boni is gone after this year (and take away his first 8 games this season, and his numbers are terrible) and Russell was an illusion (despite ERA, consistently allowed inherited runners to score) – and we can find guys like Russell anywhere (Wright is pitching very well, and we have Rosscup and others in the minors). Caratini is a switch-hitting true catcher – and we desperately need catchers – who will be under team control for years, and may be ready to contribute when we are contending.

        Also, trades don’t always work, and there can always be things to pick apart, but I think you should have learned by now that Theo and Jed never get “hosed.” Their trade record should speak for itself at this point.

      • Doug S.

        I respectfully yield to the knowledge of the VFTB faithful.

      • Buddy

        Agreed. Bonifacio can’t hit a lick, and Russell is almost worthless vs. RH batters. Nice trade.

    • Doug S.

      If what I read we got back for these two is correct (a A league catcher), then we got hosed.

      • Sherm

        Switch hitting catcher/3b – #7 prospect in the ATL organization, so I wouldn’t say hosed. You think those two trade aways were long term in the Cubs plans? I don’t.

      • Seymour Butts

        A 20 year old at that. A good trade, thought the net hair balance is unchanged on the club

    • Sean Powell

      Looking at 40-man members, I’d vote for Logan Watkins. I’d rather have Olt stay down in AAA for awhile longer and get his confidence back up. It could be Rosscup if you want another lefty, or Blake Parker if you don’t mind another righty.

      • Dork

        My opinion is that Olt should do some work in RF

      • Dusty_Baylor

        And… Valaika? Ugh

      • Sean Powell

        He’s had a good season. He deserves a chance in the big leagues, and why not now?

      • Dusty_Baylor

        Ok. He’s had a nice season. No harm. The Cubs are out of it anyway. .278/.344/.423.
        Meh. He’s almost 29, and has washed out with the Reds, and Marlins. I’ll root for him, but I’d rather see Logan Watkins. (shrug)

      • Sean Powell

        Yeah – I’m sure Logan will be up in September. I think it’s now or never with Valaika, so might as well see what he has.

      • Sean Powell

        Yeah – I’m sure Logan will be up in September. I think it’s now or never with Valaika, so might as well see what he has.

      • Sean Powell

        He’s had a good season. He deserves a chance in the big leagues, and why not now?

    • Sean Powell

      Looking at 40-man members, I’d vote for Logan Watkins. I’d rather have Olt stay down in AAA for awhile longer and get his confidence back up. It could be Rosscup if you want another lefty, or Blake Parker if you don’t mind another righty.

  • Dork

    I think the Rays got hosed on the Price trade

    • I’m with Dork on this one. Seems like flipping the kid from the A’s could have been a possibility.

      • Sean Powell

        Honestly, I wouldn’t trade Russell (plus other pieces) for Price right now, given the club’s timeline. Wouldn’t help us this year, maybe some next year (not sure the Cubs will be in position to “win it all” next season), but then he’s gone after that….or we sign a 32 year-old-pitcher for 14 million a season for 6 seasons. No thanks. If we had a chance to win the WS in the next 2 years? Absolutely do this trade. But since we don’t, I’d rather have the possibility of Russell being an all-star shortstop for the next 10-12 years.

      • Chuck

        Anyone who gives a true FA pitcher a 6 or 7 year deal should be fired. Period. The only way a deal that long for a pitcher is remotely justified is if you are buying out arbitration years at a discount.

      • Sean Powell

        Honestly, I wouldn’t trade Russell (plus other pieces) for Price right now, given the club’s timeline. Wouldn’t help us this year, maybe some next year (not sure the Cubs will be in position to “win it all” next season), but then he’s gone after that….or we sign a 32 year-old-pitcher for 14 million a season for 6 seasons. No thanks. If we had a chance to win the WS in the next 2 years? Absolutely do this trade. But since we don’t, I’d rather have the possibility of Russell being an all-star shortstop for the next 10-12 years.

      • Chuck

        Anyone who gives a true FA pitcher a 6 or 7 year deal should be fired. Period. The only way a deal that long for a pitcher is remotely justified is if you are buying out arbitration years at a discount.

  • Dork

    I think the Rays got hosed on the Price trade

  • Chuck

    This is a question that has absolutely nothing to do with baseball, but isn’t it time to ban all travel from Africa now? If Ebola hits US shores, there will be a panic this country has never seen before.

    • Eddie Von White

      They’re bringing them over here.

  • Chuck

    This is a question that has absolutely nothing to do with baseball, but isn’t it time to ban all travel from Africa now? If Ebola hits US shores, there will be a panic this country has never seen before.

    • Eddie Von White

      They’re bringing them over here.