Building a bullpen is both the easiest and the hardest part of putting a team together. I firmly believe that.
It’s easy because there are about a million potential relief pitchers at any given moment, and the good ones come and go at such a clip that there is always a potential relief ace available somewhere.
It’s hard because good luck figuring out which guy it is.
Here’s the Top 10 Relievers by WAR from last season:
How many of those names would you have guessed? How many would you have predicted before the season started? My guess is not many. I’ll be honest, I had to look up a couple of these guys to even figure out who they were.
How many of them do you expect to be in the Top 10, or even the Top 20 next season? If you go back to 2017, only Vazquez repeats in the Top 10. The next is Aroldis Chapman at #26.
Compare this to any other role on a ball club. The volatility is unprecedented. Look at the top of the heap for position players or starters and you’ll see a lot of carryover from year-to-year.
Teams don’t build a bullpen so much as they cobble together a bullpen. How could you “build” a bullpen when it’s almost impossible to know who will be any good next season, let alone in three years?
Digging a little more into this year’s Top 10, they fall into three pretty distinct groups:
Young Guys Who Have Only Ever Been Relievers: (5) Diaz, Hader, Leclerc, Vazquez and Alvarado.
Failed Starter Dumpster Dives: (4) Treinan, Stammen, Ottavino and Smith.
Big $$$ Free Agents: (1) Chapman
Now I’ll grant you that choosing WAR as the measure and looking just at the Top 10 are both a bit arbitrary, but I still think this gives us a pretty representative group to talk about. So what can the Cardinals learn from it?
The biggest lesson here is once again, and forever: Don’t pay for relief pitching.
As Jen Langosch reported a few weeks back, in the last three years, the Cardinals have signed five free agent relief pitchers at a total cost of $68.25 million. They have returned a combined 0.3 WAR.
That’s clearly terrible, and we could ring our hands about the front office and these specific signings... but show me the club that’s building a bullpen through major league free agents. The Rockies spent $106 million on Wade Davis, Bryan Shaw and Jake McGee last offseason for a net WAR of 0.4. The lesson here is not that the Cardinals are bad at signing free agent relievers, it’s that guaranteeing free agent dollars to relief pitchers is a horrible bet.
The other problem with signing major league deals for relievers, especially multi-year ones, is that they become immovable objects when they are not performing. They can't go to the minor leagues without consent, so you either have to get them to agree to pretend they are injured, cut them and waive goodbye to the guaranteed cash, or just try to get anything useful out of them in low-leverage situations.
We saw last year how well that usually goes.
There are rumblings about the Cardinals being in the market for a “closer,” with names like Craig Kimbrel being thrown around. I hope they don’t go down that road. Sure, it could work out. But given the volatility of relievers, do you really want to be the team that’s stuck watching that hunched-over gunslinger delivery when his stuff dries up, and you’re on the hook for 4 years and $60-some million?
Signing free agent relievers - especially at the top end of the market - seems like the easiest way to fix a bullpen. But it rarely, rarely works out.
So that leaves us with two other places to find relievers: The minor league system or the bin of washed up starters.
As for the minors, that may not be the easiest place to improve in the short term, because the talent you have there is already... there. But one way the Cardinals could improve their major league bullpen is to more aggressively identify pitchers whose stuff profiles well in the bullpen, and focus them on preparing for that role.
The traditional model was, of course, to let pitchers work as starters until they show they can’t cut it there, be that in the minors or in the majors. All of the pitchers in the Top 10 above, even the Haders and the Vazquezes, did a little starting before they moved into the bullpen.
I realize that Jordan Hicks is a special case in a number of ways, but I’d like to see the team handle more guys the way they did Hicks. Rather than keeping Hicks starting in the minors for another 2-3 years, they identified his immediate value in the bullpen and put him there.
There may not be any other guys throwing 105, but the Cardinals have a ridiculous amount of major league or high minors starting pitching depth right now. For argument’s sake, let’s say your Opening Day rotation is Carlos Martinez, Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas, Michael Wacha and Adam Wainwright. That leaves Luke Weaver, Austin Gomber, Dakota Hudson, Daniel Poncedeleon, Alex Reyes, Ryan Helsley, Genesis Cabrera, Connor Green... and even a few more.
Rather than wait and wait to see which of these guys shows the most “starter potential,” I’d like to see the Cardinals more aggressively single out a few who they think could profile well in the bullpen and use them there.
When it comes to finding value in the bargain bin, I still think the right move is to go after quantity in the hopes that some quality will manifest. And the Cardinals have had some success at this in recent years. John Brebbia was a Rule 5 pickup who had been in and out of affiliated ball since being drafted. Pat Neshek was a minor league free agent when the Cardinals signed him back in 2014.
Looking at the ex-starter, bargain bin group above, a few trends emerge. With the exception of Treinen, they are not elite velocity guys. And that shouldn’t be surprising: Elite velocity is kind of hard to miss.
But each of these guys throws at least one - and generally just one - unhittable pitch. It may be a sinker, or a cutter, or a slider... Whatever it is, they’ve got one pitch they can throw to get an extreme number of swings and misses. Maybe they could never build enough of a repertoire around it for a viable career as a starter, but that one pitch, deployed with a savvy approach, may be all they need to be successful as a reliever.
The kind of guys I’m looking for the Cardinals to sign are anywhere from minor league free agents up to one-year major league deals in the $1-3 million range. You can make several of these type acquisitions and still come out on top if only one or two of them succeed. Guys signed in this range can either be shuttled between the majors/minors or at worst released when they are not performing without triggering the sunk cost fallacy.
So where do relievers come from? They come from all over the place. But for the 2019 Cardinals, I want to see them come from 1) the minor league system and 2) the low-end of the free agent market. Acquiring some talent via trade would be okay too, especially if they are under club control for multiple seasons and most importantly, have minor league options remaining.
Don’t spend money on relief pitching.