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Guest Post: Bullpen Security: A False Sense of, or, the Need for a Blanket

[Programming Note: If you're reading this I'm in Tokyo, where I am the only person without an active internet connection. Gamely stepping into the breach is fanpost hero bgh, who's been working on this piece since most of it would have appeared in future tense. Any weird formatting, I assure you, is the result of SBN's screwy Word Import button, and not his particular aesthetic sense. Without further ado:] 

There is a sense of impending doom about the Cardinal bullpen this young season, as if Nostradamus himself had prophesied the forthcoming disaster of an early season collapse and that prophesy was recovered and printed by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Ryan Franklin's late-season fall-off and Spring Training troubles did not help matters. No less disconcerting than the Motte getting apple-jacked on Opening Day 2009 was Ryan Franklin's Opening Day 2010 performance. After all, only one day in the baseball year lends itself to the hopes of 162-0 and the fears of 57 blown saves, and that is the season opener. However irrational our fears and the conclusions they spawn may be, the uneven bullpen performance of Spring Training has officially carried over into the regular season, at least the first game of it, and this carry-over caused me to hearken back to a post Erik wrote for Fangraphs back in the early days of Spring Training.

*Perhaps my favorite headline ever. Tabloids--both British and NYC-based--doubtlessly contacted DanUp in its wake to inquire as to how much money he would require to put his English degree to work for them, crafting headlines. Luckily for us, he has spurned the big-money advances and stayed true to himself, writing baseball clerihews, Game Post haikus, and one-act plays about the Cardinals. 

First of all, let me begin by saying that I love Erik Manning's work. Love, love it. Whether it is Future Redbirds (perhaps, my favorite venue for his writing), Play A Hard Nine, or Fangraphs, I am always excited to read what he writes. It is insightful and thought-provoking as a general rule and that is most certainly true as to his post over at Fangraphs (from earlier this year, during Spring Training*) addressing the Cardinal bullpen, entitled "The Cardinals' Weak Spot," which details how lucky the returning relievers were last season. His analysis gives those of us uneasy about the bullpen this year--a group that seems to have grown such that it includes the whole of Cardinal Nation--some numbers into which we can sink our teeth and feed that uneasiness. Erik's post is definitely worth a read, especially as we stock our 2008 vintage bunkers for the long, drawn-out shelling of the bullpen that seems so imminent to so many.

*In my mind, the baseball year begins with Pitchers & Catchers (Feb. 17th this year in Jupiter), evolves into Spring Training (when the position players show up--Feb. 22nd this year), ramps up and into the Regular Season, then winds down with the high-tension postseason before we enter the Hot Stove. You see, to me, Pitchers & Catchers is the appetizer, to Spring Training, and a wholly separate event and state of being for the game. At any rate, Erik was prescient enough to craft this post before the relievers threw lacklusterly in Spring Training and downright poorly on Opening Day, the day on which the fortunes of an entire season are inevitably foreseen with much celebration or teeth-gnashing, as the case may be. 

Erik uses his analysis of our bullpenners to question why we have not added an arm--namely, Kiko Calero--and answers his own question by suggesting that perhaps Mo & Co. have a false sense of security about the bullpen after last year's somewhat luck-based success. Here is his concluding paragraph:

It’s surprising to me that the Cardinals have yet to kick the tires on Kiko Calero, who was part of their 2004 team that won the NL Championship, and it’s also surprising that they have steered clear of Octavio Dotel or even the likes of Chan Ho Park this offseason. Maybe their general manager has been lulled into a false sense of security by the ERA that the ’09 team posted, because by all accounts they have money left in the budget to have signed one more relief pitcher. The failure to do so will likely make it easier for the underdogs to sneak up in the standings, unless lady luck strikes again.

Looking at the Cardinals' roster as constructed for the 2010 season would easily lead one to believe that Mo is perhaps a little overconfident in the skill of our relievers as a group. I know I agreed with Erik upon reading the post. Why else would Mo refuse to sign a proven commodity like Octavio Dotel, Chan Ho Park, Kiko Calero*, or John Smoltz? As with most good writing, I kept thinking about the Cardinal bullpen. In the shower, I was thinking about it. Driving to work, I was thinking about it. In line at the grocery store, I was thinking about it.** My thinking drifted from the individual relievers to Mo's motivations, and I eventually wondered if Erik's impression of Mo's mindset might be offbase. Speculating on a man's motivations is always dangerous, particularly one whose benign (non)comments on roster machinations have earned the Orwellian label "Mospeak." That said, if we take a step back and look at Mo's entire tenure as general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, L.L.C., I think we get a mindset that may be less about a sense of security and more about an underlying philosophy toward relief pitchers in general and those of the righthanded variety in particular.

*To a Minor League Deal! After a 2.56-FIP season! Prepositional phrase! 

**No man should probably spend this much time thinking about the Cardinal bullpen, I admit. But, in late-February, what else is there to think about? I do not understand the Winter Olympics enough to spend much time thinking about them when I am not watching them. The Northern Iowa Panthers only play two nights a week (even when they are busting brackets in the Big Dance). And, work, well, I spend too much time at the office as it is, and probably too much time thinking about work. So, I guess I am saying that, since I do not have children and work nine-to-twelve hours on any given day, that I am justified spending my down time considering the roster of the St. Louis Cardinals. After all, I have been doing so since I was six or seven--when Jack Clark was signed by my dad's favorite New York Yankees and  the Cards acquired a Hated '87 Twin, Tom Brunansky, to play right field--so, why stop as an adult? 

Mo took over as general manager after a 2007 season that had few bright spots outside of the always luminous Albert Pujols, the renaissance of Rick Ankiel as outfielder, the lucky Ryan Franklin, and, perhaps, the down payment on future contributor Ryan Ludwick, the emergence of future second baseman Skip Schumaker*, and Jason Isringhausen closing out ballgames. It's important to remember that Izzy did not finish 2006 pitching; rather, he finished it on the disabled list, leaving it to Adam Wainwright to record the most dramatic out of the Cardinal decade. Some may recall the debate--and it was a debate--about whether to name Wainwright the Closer or move him to the rotation in 2007. (To TLR's credit, he moved Wainwright to the rotation. Come to think of it, Waino's 202 IP of 3.90 FIPing in '07 was another down payment-type of bright spot.) In 2007, Izzy was Lights Out, to use the parlance of closer description. Well, maybe not early Aught's Lights Out, but Izzy was quite effective: 65.1 IP, 32 Saves in 34 opportunities**, 7.44 K/9, 3.86 BB/9, and a 3.76 FIP. If a team like St. Louis is going to alott $8.75MM--or, 8.8% of its almost $100MM payroll--to a player who throws 65.1 innings, those had better be some Lights Out 65.1 innings. They were, and, not surprisingly, Mo decided to pick up Izzy's 2008 option, for $8MM.

*If Skip Schumaker were still playing outfield, I would not reference his emergence as a bright spot of 2007

**The Cardinals won 78 games in 2007, which means that Izzy closed out nearly half of the team's victories. He only failed to close the deal twice in 2007 and did not earn a single loss. That's right. Izzy was 4-0 in 2007 with a save rate of 94.11%. If Izzy came in with the lead, the Cards stood a great chance of winning, which is, I believe, the point of having a Closer. 

Allow me to abuse WAR for a paragraph. As my little footnote demonstrates, Izzy did exactly what he was supposed to do in 2007. To put it another way, he did exactly what the Cardinals paid him to do. "Izzy, here's about 10% of our payroll. [I envision them handing him a 5-foot-by-2-foot giant cardboard check signed, "DeWallet."] Now you go close out games, the 30-to-50% of games that are 'close,' that is." According to WAR over at Fangraphs, Izzy's 2007 efforts were worth $2.7MM, or, about 23.6% of his actual salary. It is now important to remind ourselves that Fangraphs' WAR accounts for high-leverage pitching, using leverage index, but not full leverage index.* So, even though Fangraphs takes context into account with its WAR for relievers, if we see our abuse of WAR through to the last sentence of this paragraph, Izzy was still overpaid by about $6MM (even with his 2.71 WPA).

*Please read the link. I will leave it to far more intelligent mathematicians to fully explain the WAR formula for relievers and how it under- or over-values them. I feel somewhat comfortable stating that, whatever one's quibbles, Izzy is not going to make up $6MM in value by anything other than a radical adjustment to the manner in which WAR is calculated. 

I do not want to be the one to dredge up the heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, ulcer-inducing frustration that was created by the late-inning collapses of the 2008 Cardinal bullpen. No, I do not want to be the one to rip the scar tissue off that was formed by Franklin's 2009 run as Closer. But, in 2008, the Cardinals gave Izzy $8MM to do what he did in 2007 (as if the career-low .226 BABIP would repeat itself). We all know what happened: 42 IP, 5 Losses, 7 Blown Saves*, 4.64 BB/9, .338 BABIP (which fueled a .285 BAA), and many other Cardinal relievers finding themselves in the Closer role**. His WPA for 2008, at -2.97, was a 180-degree reversal of the year prior. To again abuse WAR, Izzy's 2008 value was -$1.8MM. 

*Izzy actually blew 10 Saves in 2006. Isn't it amazing how a World Series Championship won with Wainwright as Closer erases those memories? 

**While the trigger was not pulled, even post-injury Adam Wainwright as well as post-injury Chris Carpenter were tossed out as possible solutions at Closer.

Now, to circle back around to Mo's philosophy toward relievers, which I believe began to show itself during the 2008 season. You may or may not remember that many were clamoring for Mo to use the club's Faberge Eggs to bring in a bullpen reinforcement or two. There were a handful of relievers who were throwing for teams completely out of, or fading from, the playoff hunt, and those teams were demanding a king's ransom in prospects for the ability to trot those relievers out for the 15 or 20 innings that they would throw over the course of the remainder of that season. Mo stood pat, was widely criticized for doing so, and the Cardinals fell out of playoff contention. Whether Will Ohman or Brian Fuentes or some other late-inning reliever would have propelled the Cards past the Brewers or Cubs is open to debate, but count me amongst those who believe Mo made the right decision. I believe that Mo felt a reliever simply was not worth in benefit to the Cardinals what other teams were demanding in a trade. This is the first instance of Mo refusing to augment the 'pen.

During the 2008-2009 Hot Stove, there was a crop of closers that were seemingly the prescription for the Cardinals' 2008 fever. Izzy was allowed to leave and the Cardinals made offers to K-Rod and Brian Fuentes, offers that were nowhere near what those pitchers, respectively, would sign for in the end. Here, again, I believe that Mo did not believe even K-Rod was worth what the Mets would throw at him, in terms of money and maybe even years. I believe that he looked at the Cardinals' potential closers--Motte, Perez, Franklin, and may even McClellan--and decided that one or all of them would be able to give the team about what Fuentes would--but for far less money--and decided to roll the dice. During this same offseason, Mo let the lone 2008 bullpen bright spot, the grizzled Russ Springer, leave without so much as an offer and then signed the previously anonymous Trever Miller for peanuts. He would go on to sign Dennys Reyes for more peanuts, as well, late in the Hot Stove. In 2008, the Cardinal bullpen of Randy Flores ($1MM), Ryan Franklin ($2.25MM), Jason Isringhausen ($8MM), Kyle McClellan ($390K), Russ Springer ($3.5MM), Chris Perez ($390K), Brad Thompson ($416K), and Ron Villone ($600K) cost the team $16,546,000. In 2009, the upgraded 'pen consisted of Ryan Franklin ($2.5MM), Josh Kinney ($450K), Kyle McClellan ($411K), Trever Miller ($500K), Jason Motte ($400K), Blake Hawksworth ($400K), Dennys Reyes ($1MM), Brad Thompson ($650K), and Chris Perez ($402K) and would cost the Cardinals $6,713,000. The phrase "addition by subtraction," at least in terms of overall cost, was tailor-made for this situation. The 2009 Cardinal bullpen cost 40.57% of what the 2008 corps that caused so much heartburn was paid.

Mo's attitude toward relievers was not merely demonstrated by his big-league roster maneuverings during the 2008-2009 Hot Stove. He also made trades. To fill a hole at shortstop, Mo shipped out righty prospect Mark Worrell (who was, admittedly, out-of-favor and probably viewed by the Cardinals as nothing more than trade bait) and a prospect to be named later for Khalil Greene. The Padres wound up choosing Luke Gregerson as the Crash Davis of the deal. Worrell required arm surgery and was a non-factor in 2009 while Gregerson FIPed 2.50 over 75 innings for the Padres (with an 11.16 K/9!), giving the Friars nearly $8MM worth of value--according to WAR, as I again abuse it--for $400K in salary. Mo also left Luis Perdomo unprotected for the Rule V draft. Perdomo was selected by the Giants, who wound up releasing him. The Padres then claimed Perdomo and installed him in their bullpen for the 2009 season. If Perdomo were not pitching for the lowly Padres in 2009, a club that has taken the Win Later approach, he probably would not have stuck, FIPing 5.35 last season. It will be interesting to see how Perdomo performs as he ages.

The appetizer of the 2009 Trade Deadline saw Mo again surrender right-handed relievers--in fact, two of the system's better righty relievers (and, I confess, two of my favorite prospects)--to acquire an everyday position player in Mark DeRosa. Jess Todd was a AAA All-Star and did not earn the all-caps nickname, DESTROYER, for no reason, FIPing 2.38 for Memphis last season. Chris Perez, The Faberge Egg Formerly Known As "Young Pitcher," put up a FIP of 4.27 for the Cardinals and Indians last season, while striking out 10.74 batters per 9 innings. Perez is now the Indians' Closer, with Kerry Wood injured. Mo surrendered these two pitchers for three months and three games of Mark DeRosa, who was the proverbial veteran rental and never attained a status above "Plan B" in the Cardinals' 2009-2010 Hot Stove strategy.* It says something that Mo would not give up two prospects for a reliever rental in 2008, but was willing to do so in 2009 for an everyday third baseman rental. 

*I am not complaining about this. The Giants overpaid for an aging player entering a phase of his career where his risk of severe decline is very high, especially after the ill-fortuned wrist injury and subsequent surgery.

Recent weeks have again provided a glimpse of Mo's seeming priorities in constructing the Cardinals' roster. Shortly after the above-quoted post by Erik, the Cardinals made a free agent signing, but not of Kiko Calero or John Smoltz. No, Mo made the bargain basement signing of a player in Felipe Lopez who will be an insurance policy at multiple positions and could potentially be our everyday third baseman. I think this is not because Mo has a false sense of security about our bullpen; rather, I think that we the fans feel the need for a Proven Veteran in the bullpen to give us a sense of security that could very well prove false (like the one I personally had going into 2008). We need that Proven Veteran security blanket in the bullpen to assuage our nerves during those fretful late innings.* For Mo, it is not a question of what will make Cardinal Nation--or even possibly his field manager--most comfortable. For Mo, it is a question of what the club truly needs to win a playoff berth. Given his treatment of the Cardinal bullpen and would-be Future Redbird relievers, I believe that Mo does not view the bullpen as a part of the club that is in desperate need of bolstering, or ever will. I believe that he views the cost of making such a signing not to be worth the cost when compared to the potential benefit to the club.** In February, March, April, and May, Mo is perfectly comfortable with the arms the organization has to try out in the bullpen. "Looking at the Roster Matrix, we can trot out Franklin ($3.25MM), McClellan ($400K), Motte ($400K), Boggs ($400K), Hawksworth ($400K), Kinney ($750K), Parise ($400K), Salas ($400K), Samuel ($400K), and Sanchez ($400K). Let's see who can throw strikes and get outs. Fire up the Memphis shuttle, because we will shuffle them around, if we have to, until we find a solution."

*"Runners on second and third with one out in the seventh and the Cards clinging to a one-run lead? Yes, bring in Proven Veteran! He has recorded outs in the past in close games and I feel confident that he will do so again on this idle June Tuesday! For my peace of mind as a fan, his $5MM salary is in no way a roster extravagance!" 

**Ah, yes. You are asking me, to yourself, before commenting, "But bgh, Kiko Calero signed a minor league deal with the Metropolitans. That is less than peanuts. That is pitcher-coming-off-corrective-shoulder-surgery money. Get with it, man!" And you are correct. Given Kiko Calero's price, which was very low, it would seem that acquiring him would fit perfectly with what I suggest is Mo's view on the cost of bullpen arms. I cannot refute this argument, and that is why I was a bit upset by Kiko getting away to the Mets. All I can offer is that Mo and the front office do not think that Kiko is the reliever he was in 2009, for whatever reason (perhaps his 4.50 BB/9 in '09 and 5.79 BB/9 in '08?), and that they do not think he is a demonstrable upgrade over the corps of righties that will make up the 2010 Cardinal Bullpen.

While I have serious reservations about Ryan Franklin, Closer, I can't say that I have a problem with Mo's strategy once I started looking at it (despite my previously stated preference for Smoltz or Calero to Lopez). l think he is right to value relievers in the manner that he has, and that this philosophy toward roster construction is another piece in the puzzle of how the Cardinals can afford to keep big ticket stars like Matt Holliday, Albert Pujols, and Adam Wainwright, with a mid-market-ish payroll. You do this by not paying the bullpen over $16MM to give you half that in value. For example, the cut in bullpen cost from 2008 to today equals about half of Matt Holliday's 2010 salary and yet the production from the bullpen did not really suffer from '08 to '09 and likely will not suffer from '08 to '10, even with what seems to be the inevitable regression of Ryan Franklin. To put it another way, relievers are highly fungible and there is no real reason to overpay for an arm that is going to throw well under 100 innings in a season. We as a fanbase are going to have to get used to not having an expensive security blanket sitting beyond the right-center field wall in Busch III, just waiting for a late-inning, high-leverage situation in which he can come in and do what he has done for years. It seems that those days ended with Walt Jocketty leaving town. Instead, a big part of Mo's roster strategy seems to be to fill the bullpen with young, live-armed, and/or low-cost pitchers and then commit resources to the players that win division titles, players like Holliday and Pujols. As much heartburn as it may cause to be experienced, and as many beers (or Franklins, or Bullpens or...) as it may cause to be drank during the late innings, the roster philosophy seems to mean that we the fans of Cardinal Nation will be without a late inning security blanket for at least the early part of the 2010 season, if not beyond, and Mo seems perfectly okay with that. If it necessary to re-signing Albert Pujols, then I am, too.

About the Author: 

Last summer, I emailed Az some summaries of a few Memphis vs. Iowa AAA ballgames. Az, with the robotic editorial wisdom that has earned him administrator status on (at least) two of the more prominent fan blogs concerning the St. Louis Cardinals organization, posted them. In so doing, Az pointed out my UID number of 410 here at VEB. I confess that I don’t really know much of anything about computers, and thus, I don’t really know what exactly Az means when he brings up the UID number. The point at which Az was driving, I believe, is that I have been a member of the VEB community for a while. I joined roughly five years ago, during the 2005-2006 Hot Stove if my memory serves me correctly, back when I didn’t really understand that you could have a clever nome de plume, and long before we could have avatars. I have been a regular, if not daily, reader for the duration. My commenting has ebbed and flowed as my school and work schedules allowed. I have also posted Fanposts on occasion. To say that I find it an honor to be allowed to author Main Posts on VEB would be an understatement. VEB has directly caused me to abandon those prejudices given root by my sometimes lying eyes and caused me to make sure that my criticisms and feelings toward players, managerial moves, and roster management are founded. lboros, Houston Cardinal (later, chuckb), Az, Valtan, DanUp, RB, and, more recently, tom s. and vivaelpujols challenged and continue to challenge me to look at the game in a different way and this has given me what I believe to be a better understanding of the game, from the draft to the minutiae of the games.