Starters are lasting shorter into ballgames than they ever have before and the hot topic this postseason is the continued growth of Bullpenning - especially in the playoffs. But I would still argue the worst thing the Cardinals can do this offseason is dump a bunch of money into a relief pitcher.
That's not how the Dodgers built their bullpen, and it shouldn't be how the Cardinals do it either.
The tides may shift, seasons change, and managers adjust how they deploy their bullpen, but relievers are still essentially pitchers who couldn't make it as starters. Many of the emerged, unheralded, from the scrap heap.
Craig Edwards, a writer at Fangraphs who lives in Chicago and therefore is probably a Cubs fan, took a look this week at the Dodgers Bullpen. Granted, at the top you'll find Jansen, a homegrown, converted catcher, recently re-signed to a huge deal - an outlier in many ways.
But below Jansen, the Dodgers pen is a collection of guys who were all acquired at pretty low cost - some mid-to-late round draft picks, a few signed as free agents to low cost deals, and several who were acquired in minor trades or as add-ons in bigger deals.
I'll get back to the Dodgers pen in a moment, but first let me air another generalized grievance against relief pitchers.
The value of relievers is always mitigated due to Bullpen Chaining. The asset isn't so much the individual pitcher as the bullpen itself. I mean, let's just step back for a second and consider that this is called a "bullpen." These guys are essentially cattle.
Whereas when a team loses a starting position player, the value at that position essentially drops from wherever that starter was down to replacement level, when a bullpen pitcher is removed - even if it's the top one, likely the closer, all the other pitchers move up a slot and the team actually has to replace the lowest link in the chain.
With that in mind, the onus on an organization is never so much to "acquire a closer" or any piece in particular, but rather to raise the value of the whole chain. Here again, the Dodgers are a great model to follow.
As Bernie Miklasz recently detailed, the Dodgers spread the innings around their bullpen better than any team in baseball. Fourteen Dodgers made at least 10 relief appearances, and they leaned much less heavily on a few arms at the top than the Cardinals or even the Cubs.
This was partly due to the way Los Angeles took advantage of the new, 10-day Disabled List, shuttling players in-and-out for something more like a rest than recovery from some acute injury.
The Dodgers increased the value of their bullpen chain by extending the length of the chain, with useful relief pitchers resting on the 10-day DL as well as temporarily demoted to the minors. Building that kind of bullpen is not about acquiring some kind of elite specialist. It's about scouring your own minor league system and frankly, the scrap heap, for as many guys as possible who you think might be able to give you 20 or so useful innings throughout the season.
The Dodgers also bridged the gap between their rotation and bullpen by coming into the season with a good seven or eight viable rotation options, some of whom could come in-and-out as the season went on via the good ol' 10-day DL, some of whom could slide back into the bullpen.
Taken on the whole, the Dodgers built a true Pitching Staff - a collection of arms who could be reshuffled and deployed in a variety of ways, rather than a static roster of guys in set roles.
Could the Cardinals build that kind of pitching staff? They absolutely could - and that should be their goal.
One reason the Dodgers were able to pull this off: They accepted that not every one of these deals was going to pay off. They took a flyer on Brett Anderson. They signed a guy like Brandon McCarthy with an understanding that he wouldn't be taking the ball every 5th day. As Craig noted in his Fangraphs piece, the guys who provided the innings and the value in their bullpen this year were not always the same ones projected at the start of the season.
Part of the reason they could do this is that they have a monster payroll, but the kind of deals we're talking about here are not cost-prohibitive for the Cardinals. We're talking about back-end rotation guys at best, and in many cases more like minor league free agents.
I think the biggest obstacle to the Cardinals pursuing this kind of strategy is their seeming fixation on winning every single deal. Signing five guys when you know you will probably only ever utilize three of them - even if you don't know which three and the total cost is still reasonable - does not seem like a very Mo Move™.
I realize identifying which guys out there on the margins are best able to help you is hard to do, and likely getting harder. There are certain "types" who everyone seems to be keying into as potential hidden bullpen gems: The washed out top draft picks, the guys with crazy-high rotation on a breaking pitch, and as-ever, the hard throwers.
I don't think I could look at the pool of fringe pitching talent right now and tell you who is going to be a solid reliever in 2-3 years, just as few of the guys doing that job now are ones most people would have guessed at a couple years back.
The way to combat this is through quantity: Identifying as many potential bullpen pieces as possible (in your system and beyond), keeping your fingers-crossed that you hit on as many as possible, then quickly and freely shuttling them in-and-out of your big league bullpen when needed.
The Cardinals reported intent to find a new pitching coach who is more analytically inclined suggests they are already looking to manage their staff more like the Dodgers, who in addition to spreading the innings around a long bullpen chain rarely let their starters see a 3rd time through the rotation. Let's hope they also acquire the personnel to suit that approach.