On July 27, 2011, the Cardinals traded Colby Rasmus for a package of players that included relievers Octavio Dotel and Mark Rzepczynski. That savvy trade steadied the shaky bullpen, allowed the Cardinals to reach the playoffs and eventually win their 11th World Championship.
Or so the story goes.
While it's true Dotel and Rzepczynski played well over the next 2.5 months, I feel like their value gets overstated. Frankly, every move gets sprinkled with magic pixie dust in a season that ends in a World Series, because it all somehow led to a Championship. But I bring it up because this move is so often introduced as Exhibit A in the "you should trade for relievers" argument, and I believe with almost religious fervor that "you should not trade for relievers (at the trade deadline)."
An important point to keep in mind anytime you're talking about bullpen depth is bullpen chaining. The idea is basically that, as opposed to a position player - who generally has a replacement-level player backing them up, when a relief pitcher goes down, they are "replaced" by the next guy in the chain, and the new pitcher you call up from AAA or wherever goes to the bottom. As a result, reliever WAR is tied heavily to which link in the chain a pitcher holds - not just the quality of their performance.
Dotel and Rzep pitched well in 2011, but it wasn't exactly amazing. In terms of ERA in the 2nd half, they ranked behind Jason Motte, Lance Lynn and Fernando Salas. In terms of RE24, which measures how well a reliever over or under-performs their run expectancy when they enter the game, Dotel ranked 5th and "Scrabble" 10th.
As for their roles, Dotel came in very much as the "8th inning guy", and stayed there pretty much through the regular season. But the emergence of Lance Lynn bumped him from that spot come playoff time. In fact, here's a full breakdown of innings-pitched by reliever in the 2011 playoffs:
Now, to be fair, innings pitched is not a perfect representation of where these guys fit in the bullpen chain, but it's still pretty clear that Dotel was behind Motte, Lynn and maybe even Salas, with Rzep around 6th on the depth chart.
Adding Dotel and Rzep did help allow the Cardinals to drop Trevor Miller and Miguel Batista, both of whom had been terrible, off the bullpen chain altogether. But even in this oft-cited example of a midseason reliever trade that worked, by the end of the season the Cardinals had acquired the third and sixth man out of their bullpen. That value may have been just enough to push them one game ahead of the Braves and make the playoffs, so I'm certainly not saying it was a bad move, but it wasn't exactly a windfall either.
The more salient lesson of 2011 - and one the Cardinals have repeated in many seasons since - is the best way to bolster your bullpen is to promote the best arm in your minor league system, whether they are slated long-term as a starter or reliever. In 2011 it was Lance Lynn. In 2012 it was Trevor Rosenthal... and Joe Kelly and Shelby Miller. In 2013 (and 2014) it was Carlos Martinez. Hell, if you want to go back to 2006, it was Uncle Charlie Wainwright.
In 2016, the Cardinals should promote Alex Reyes.
Reyes 1.2 innings of domination in the Futures Game was a perfect audition for the role he should take on for the rest of the season, namely: Guy who comes out in the 7th, 8th or maybe even the 9th and throws 100 mph.
You are not going to do better than that on the reliever market at the trade deadline. In fact, what does the typical reliever market even look like? Here are all the relief pitchers that Cardinals have acquired via trade or free agency since 2014:
Blech. Now granted, several of those were just flyers, and in none of these cases did the Cardinals really get burned too bad in terms of what they gave up, whether in players or cash. But still, how many of these guys even lived up to the expectations we had for them when they were acquired?
Oh may have been a steal, but his was a pretty unique situation that you're not going to find at the trade deadline. Bowman has been a tick above replacement level as a Rule 5 pickup. But aside from that, is there anything here?
Most bullpen acquisitions amount to dumpster-diving, and the Cardinals recent forays into the reliever market certainly fit that description. Now you could make the argument, as Joe recently did, that the team should try to get out of the dumpster by going after a premium reliever like Andrew Miller. Joe suggested a starting point of Randal Grichuk, Junior Fernandez and a B/C+ prospect to make that trade happen. If you could get an Andrew Miller for that or just a little more, and I was wearing the bow tie, I'd probably do that deal. But I think that might be quite a bit low.
Dave Cameron over at Fangraphs estimated that teams pay roughly DOUBLE the value in trades at the deadline as they do in the offseason. I have a hard time stomaching that kind of mark-up when you are trading for relief pitching, the most unreliable and fungible commodity on the market.
Promoting Reyes is the easiest, and most likely way to add a guy near the top of your bullpen chain. It would knock out one of the current bottom relievers, likely a Seth Maness or a Sam Tuivailala. If and when Kevin Siegrist returns from his bout with The Kissing Disease, you bump another weak link off the chain.
Would it be nice to have a little more depth in the middle? Sure it would. So maybe you do go out and take on somebody's bloated contract, giving up almost nothing in terms of prospects, as the team did last year to add Broxton and Cishek. That two-headed monster of Veteran Proveyness combined to be exactly replacement level last season.
You may be thinking "they should try to do better than that." And I agree, they should try. But they won't do better than that because the reliever market is a trash heap.
I realize I'm being a bit hyperbolic here. Acquiring any player - or any type of player - makes sense at the right price. But for my money, making your big move to acquire relief pitching at the deadline is almost always a sucker's bet.