Note: This post initially neglected to mention Seung-Hwan Oh, whom the Cardinals acquired in the offseason. Although how substantial his acquisition was could be debated, it was a glaring omission to not mention him. His name has since been added.
When a team wins the World Series, it is inevitable that the 29 teams that did not will scan the champion to understand its blueprint for success. And the 2015 Kansas City Royals have been no exception.
The Royals were a well-rounded team which played well throughout the season but rose beyond that precedent in the postseason, as had been the case in 2014, when the club fell one game short of the World Series title won by the San Francisco Giants. And although factors such as outfield defense have been weighed, it is the strength of the Royals bullpen which most captured the attention of teams in the 2015-2016 offseason.
Even after the injury to Greg Holland, who had been a shell of his 2014 self through 44 2/3 innings last season, the bullpen was stacked. The success of the three-headed monster of Wade Davis, Ryan Madson, and Kelvin Herrera drove teams to pay a premium for relievers.
Aroldis Chapman went to the Yankees. Craig Kimbrel went to the Red Sox. Ken Giles went to the Astros. Any reasonable team would love to have any of these three.
This includes the St. Louis Cardinals, who were neither major buyers nor sellers in the bullpen this offseason. Departures of Matt Belisle, Randy Choate, Steve Cishek, and Carlos Villanueva aside, the major bullpen pieces of Trevor Rosenthal, Kevin Siegrist, and Seth Maness remain; the Cardinals also re-signed Jonathan Broxton, signed something of a lottery ticket in Seung-Hwan Oh and hope to have Jordan Walden out of the bullpen in 2016.
But should the Cardinals have bolstered the bullpen by adding a top-flight reliever to pair with Rosenthal for a seemingly unstoppable late inning duo? Conversely, as has been suggested on this site, should the Cardinals have traded Trevor Rosenthal to take advantage of the current appetite for relief aces?
In the case of Chapman, the Reds acquired four prospects for him, most notably Eric Jagielo and Rookie Davis, who are considered second-tier prospects by MLB Trade Rumors. While it may be tempting to dismiss these acquisitions as spare parts compared to the dominant closer the Reds traded, Aroldis Chapman is nearing free agency, and a factor which could delay that is a potential suspension for domestic violence, which isn't exactly adding to Chapman's on-field stock. And that's not even considering the fairly obvious moral hazard of employing somebody with this history.
As for Kimbrel, who has of late been a very good closer (if not quite at his unbelievable 2012-2013 peak), the Red Sox similarly gave up four prospects for him. Keith Law, who has forgotten more about prospects than I will ever know, succinctly titled his analysis of the trade as "Red Sox surrender too much for Kimbrel".
And Ken Giles, who has the benefit of more club control but far less of a track record, cost a package which included 2013 #1 overall pick Mark Appel.
Relievers were available, but they were not cheap.
For years, the vogue sabermetric take on relievers were that they were disposable, that pitchers who pitch a fraction of the innings of starters have that much less value for a team, particularly as managers had grown accustomed to the defined "closer" role, where a top reliever would more likely be used to protect a three-run lead to start the 9th than to pitch in a bases-loaded 7th inning jam in a tied game.
Clearly, organizations felt there was a market inefficiency and that premium closers were worth seeking. But perhaps the market has over-corrected itself. The Royals would suggest otherwise, but other recent champions do not follow the same model.
The three Giants champions of the 2010s used three different, relatively inexpensive closers: Brian Wilson, Sergio Romo, and Santiago Casilla. The former two were homegrown; the latter was an easily acquired journeyman. The 2013 Red Sox had a dominant closer in Koji Uehara, but he had not been an established closer prior to that season: he had one combined save in 2011 and 2012 with the Orioles and Rangers. Locally, the 2011 Cardinals went from Ryan Franklin to Fernando Salas to Jason Motte en route to a World Series title.
To be clear, having a dominant reliever is good. Not exactly a hot take, but it's worth reiterating. But this does not mean that a team should break the bank for a top reliever. Wade Davis of the Royals is a dominant reliever, but the Royals didn't throw tens of millions of dollars at him nor did the Royals trade top young talent to acquire him.
Rather, Davis was a throw-in in the trade headlined by James Shields and Wil Myers, converted from below-average starter to elite reliever. Perhaps they could have acquired a Davis equivalent by trading one of their high, initially disappointing draft picks such as Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, or Mike Moustakas, but without a core of players to get the game to the 9th inning with a lead, a closer has far less value.
Should the Cardinals have acquired a top reliever? Unless the Reds, Padres, or Phillies had a shockingly, irrationally high opinion on some middling Cardinals prospects, they were correct to not make such a move. As far as moving Trevor Rosenthal, it's hard to say. We have no reason to believe that the Cardinals listened to any offers on Rosenthal, and it is possible that teams view him less favorably than other premium closers.
Perhaps the Cardinals should have listened on Rosenthal. But considering the alternative, that the Cardinals stayed away from buying high during months of skyrocketing bullpen prices should be considered, pun intended, a great relief.