Building a Bullpen
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?