Eight for the Price of One, or: John Mozeliak's Smart Approach to Building the St. Louis Cardinals Bullpen

ST LOUIS, MO - OCTOBER 28: Jason Motte #30 of the St. Louis Cardinals pitches in the ninth inning during Game Seven of the MLB World Series against the Texas Rangers at Busch Stadium on October 28, 2011 in St Louis, Missouri. The Cardinals won the game and the World Series. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

The 2011 Hot Stove opened with a Papelbang when the Phillies agreed to a four-year $50 million contract with free agent closer Jonathan Papelbon. A vesting option could make Papelbon's the largest free agent deal ever given to a reliever. The Papelbon contract is the latest in a free agency trend, one which has seen clubs more frequently give relievers multi-year deals worth eight figures or more. This despite the pitfalls of signing relief pitchers to expensive multi-year contracts.

In the wake of the Papelbon signing, Doug Wachter of the blog Saber by the Bay looked at the volatility in performance of those relievers who have been signed to large free agent contracts in recent years. While by no means comprehensive, it is nonetheless insightful:

Largely because they pitch fewer innings and therefore produce a much smaller sample of data, reliever production is much more volatile than the production of players at other positions. This manifests itself as the teams have a very difficult time determining which relievers are worth signing to multiyear deals for large amounts of guaranteed money. Of the ten relief pitchers who signed for more than $10 million last offseason, only three (Mariano Rivera, Joaquin Benoit, and J.J. Putz) were among the top 30 WAR producers last season. The only relievers who appearance int he top 10 WAR producers in both 2010 and 2011 were Sean Marshall and John Axford, suggesting that it's very difficult to accurately predicting which relievers will produce consistently from year to year and which ones are likely to stumble.

In a guest post at Fangraphs, "Why Not to Overpay Relief Pitchers," Carson Cistulli also took a look at the performance of relievers leading up to and following the signing of free agent contracts. Cistulli's analysis is more comprehensive than Wachter's and supports the philosophy that signing aging relievers to multi-year contracts is not a good idea. The whole post is definitely worth a read for both its analysis and illustrative graphs. Cistulli finds:

[T]he average WAR, ERA, FIP, XFIP, IP, K/9, BB/9, HR/9 all get significantly worse from a reliever’s contract year to the first year of his new contract, and continue on a downward slope.

In this Fangraphs guest post, which was written before the Rangers' signing of Joe Nathan was announced, Cistulli cites the Tampa Bay Rays, Atlanta Braves, and Texas Rangers as the luminaries in low-cost bullpen construction. I would add the Cardinals to this list.

While the club that got -0.2 Fangraphs WAR over the life of the three-year, $36 million contract it gave to former closer Brad Lidge failed to learn its lesson about signing relievers to large contracts, St. Louis Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak seems to have learned his. For years the Cardinals paid Jason Isringhausen handsomely to close out games. That arrangement came to a brutal end in 2008 when the $8 million closer imploded, leaving the club closer-less entering that winter's Hot Stove. After flirtations with big-ticket free agents like Brian Flores  Fuentes and Francisco Rodriguez, each of whom thankfully signed exorbitant deals elsewhere, the Cardinals entered Spring Training in 2009 without a designated closer. Eventually Ryan Franklin won the closer's job and the Cardinals haven't paid more than $3.25 million for a reliever since. 

Filling a bullpen with relatively cheap arms affords a club maximum flexibility when performance volatility strikes. The 2011 season offered multiple examples of this as the gradual trimming away of the overpaid veteran fat of recent years accerated to light speed out of necessity. So steep were the veterans' respective falls off the cliff of effectiveness that Mozeliak replaced five of the seven Opening Day bullpenners via outright release, trade, or free agency. The end result was a remade bullpen that was a cornerstone of the Cardinals' improbable 2011 World Series title run.

Against the backdrop of the free agent market for relief pitchers this Hot Stove, the Cardinals' approach is both smart and effective. Mozeliak has filled the bullpen with young, hard-throwing relievers who are as cheap as they are effective. A 2011 Opening Day bullpen that was already cheaper than Papelbon will be by himself on Opening Day 2012 has been reduced to a fraction of that cost as Opening Day 2012 approaches. The St. Louis approach to bullpen construction stands in stark juxtaposition to the Philadelphia model. 

The 2011 Opening Day bullpen had veterans but they were not particularly expensive. The most highly paid member of the relief corps was incumbent closer Ryan Franklin who would earn $3.25 million in 2011. The second-highest paid reliever was LOOGY Trever Miller at $2MM. Miguel Batista and Brian Tallet tied for third-highest reliever salary; each earned $750,000. The total price tage for the Opening Day bullpen was $8.03 million--less for an entire bullpen than some individual relievers are paid.

OPENING DAY BULLPEN

2011 SALARY

Ryan Franklin

$3,250,000

Trever Miller

$2,000,000

Miguel Batista

$750,000

Brian Tallet

$750,000

Brian Augenstein

$414,000

Jason Motte

435,000

Mitchell Boggs

$431,000

TOTAL

$8,030,000

 

One might suggest that Mozeliak and the Cardinals got what they paid for from their bullpenners in the early part of the season. This would be wrong for they got much, much less. That is how badly Franklin, Miller, Batista, and Tallet pitched. Injuries, releases, and call-ups infused the bullpen with relievers from the farm system. The Rasmus trade and the signing of Arthur Rhodes off the scrap heap completed the bullpen's transformation. For the postseason, the Cardinals had a collection of relatively cheap arms to choose from when forming their bullpen for each round.

POSTSEASON BULLPEN

2011 SALARY

Octavio Dotel

$2,750,000

Kyle McClellan

$1,375,000

Jason Motte

$435,000

Mitchell Boggs

$431,000

Marc Rzepczynski

$429,600

Fernando Salas

$414,000

Arthur Rhodes

$414,000

Lance Lynn

$414,000

TOTAL

$6,662,600

 

The NLDS incarnation featured Dotel, Motte, Boggs, Rzepcynski, Salas, Rhodes, and Westbrook--who I haven't included in the chart because he is a fifth starter paid $8.5 million. The price tag for this group (excluding Westbrook) was $5,287,600. For the NLCS, Kyle McClellan joined the relief corps as a replacement for Jake Westbrook, which drove the overall bullpen salary up to $6,662,600 for this eight-reliever incarnation. After McCellan was shelled in his lone NLCS appearance, he was mercifully left off the World Series roster with Westbrook taking his spot. Excluding McCellan and Westbrook, the collection of relievers that pitched in the World Series cost the same amount as the NLDS version:  $5,287,600.

It was a group without much the oft-coveted Proven Closer and his accompanying price tag. In fact, comparing the Cardinals' postseason reliever collective's price tag to those of recent free agent veterans, St. Louis has received production at a bargain of a price. Isringhausen earned $8 million in 2008, his final season in St. Louis. The free agent relievers the Cardinals reportedly targeted as potential heir to Isringhausen's closer mantle--Fuentes and Rodriguez--each cost more than any version of the 2011 Cardinals bullpen. The postseason St. Louis 'pen combined for a lower salary than either Joe Nathan or Papelbon will earn next season. 

 

The three postseason series offer several potential bullpen compositions for 2012. Even though he did not see postseason action, it is very likely that Eduardo Sanchez will fill one of the spots. Despite the Cardinals having expressed some interest in bringing back Octavio Dotel, his profile is so similar to Sanchez's that the two pitchers are redundant talents in a bullpen. Furthermore, even without Dotel, a healthy Sanchez creates a right-handed log jam that must be cleared. The most likely candidates for trade and/or non-tender are Mitchell Boggs, who has struggled with his command and control, and Kyle McClellan, who will likely see his price tag in the face of arbitration exceed his mediocre production. The club will also likely shop around for a left-handed reliever to fill the spot vacated Arthur Rhodes. There will be raises across the board with the arbitration-eligible Motte likely to receive the largest salary increase. Even so, it seems likely that the 2012 St. Louis bullpen will cost a fraction of the big-ticket brand name closers across the league, making the relief corps a welcome efficiency on a roster that could very well bear the anchor of a $25 million first baseman in his decline phase.

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