A bullpen is a funny thing. In theory, it’s the easiest thing to put together in baseball: A collection of pitchers, none of them good enough to start. A lefty specialist, a spot starter, a couple high-leverage guys, an innings eater.
But they’re also unpredictable. You can grab all the best relievers in baseball, put them in the same bullpen, and end up with mush.
It’s hard to quantify what makes a good bullpen.
The Cincinnati Reds had arguably the best bullpen in baseball in 2012 – opponents hit just .219 against them. The collective bullpen ERA was 2.65. They led the majors in saves (56). They had the eighth-most strikeouts in baseball (478). They had the third-most wins in baseball (31). All in hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark.
And this is a bullpen that featured Aroldis Chapman, Sean Marshall, Jose Arredondo, Sam LeCure, Logan Ondrusek, Alfredo Simon, J.J. Hoover, Jonathan Broxton, and a handful of innings from guys like Bill Bray and Todd Redmond.
With the exception of Chapman and Broxton, none of these guys were exactly household names prior to 2012. Broxton himself seemed pretty far removed from his 2007-09 form, having posting -0.6 bWAR for the Dodgers in 2011. Arguably the best reliever on the squad was Marshall, who had more than 1 win above replacement every year since 2007. Along with Bray (0.8), he was the only reliever in the Cincinnati bullpen who had had 0.5+ WAR in 2011.
So, then, where did all of the success come from in 2012?
Bullpens can be a bit of a mystery in that way. The Reds didn’t make any big free-agent splashes in the bullpen in the offseason (though they did trade Travis Wood, Dave Sappelt, and Ronald Torreyes for Marshall). They traded for Broxton in July, but they already had the best bullpen in baseball by then.
The 2011 Houston Astros had three relievers with positive WAR, so that’s a pretty good place to start building their bullpen: Wesley Wright (0.5), Xavier Cedeno (0.3), and Wilton Lopez (1.4). Sam Demel was recently claimed off waivers from Arizona, so I think it’s pretty likely he’ll be in the bullpen, as well. It’s not completely out of line to assume Fernando Rodriguez will be there, as well. He’s a Three True Outcomes guy who struck out 9.98/9 in 2012, and who could conceivably contribute, particularly in low-leverage situations.
That leaves a couple of spots open. Mickey Storey strikes me as a guy who could fill one of them – 9.97 K/9, 1.94 BB/9, 1.11 HR/9, 3.37 FIP in Oklahoma City. But once again, I think signing a veteran free agent to fill the remaining spot is something that can only help the rest of the team.
The Kansas City Royals signed Broxton at the beginning of 2012, and flipped him to the Reds in July. They bought low and sold high, which is exactly what you hope to do when you’re a non-contending team signing a free agent. So it makes sense to look for veterans with a solid track record, but who have fallen on harder times. Worst-case scenario, it doesn’t pan out. Best-case scenario, they impart some lessons on your youngsters and you can flip them at the deadline for rebuilding pieces.
Admittedly, it’s a pretty simplistic way to look for a reliever, but I want to find a pitcher – preferably under the age of 35, but certainly under the age of 40 – who was once very good (≥1.0 WAR as a reliever for at least one season, preferably more), but who has gone at least a season with a WAR of 0.0 or lower.
Taking away the guys who weren’t that dominant, or for whom it had been far too long, there were still fourteen names that came up for me, including some familiar faces (LaTroy Hawkins, Brad Lidge, Chad Qualls) and some that weren’t quite as familiar (George Sherrill, J.C. Romero, Brian Fuentes, Francisco Rodriguez, Jon Rauch, Ramon Ramirez, Kyle McClellan, Bobby Jenks, Kevin Gregg, and Todd Coffey). There was also one name – Francisco Cordero – that may make Astros fans shudder.
I don’t think anyone ever got scared when they found out they had to face Jon Rauch or Chad Qualls with the game on the line, so I took out some names that didn’t pass the “sniff test.” Of the names left, I had to get rid of Francisco Rodriguez, even though I like the idea a lot, because he’s a Scott Boras client and there’s just no way Jeff Luhnow is sitting across a table from Scott Boras this winter.
What I came up with is a list of Hawkins, Jenks, Lidge, Fuentes, and – yes – Cordero.
I can hear you all now, screaming “Not again!” For those who don’t remember, Cordero came to Houston as part of the 10-player J.A. Happ trade with Toronto. He pitched in 6 games for the Astros in 2012, and only managed to record 5.0 innings. He managed to record the loss in 3 of those 6 games, allowing 11 runs (all earned) on 13 hits. He also walked 4 and struck out 5. All told, his brief stint in Houston ended at 0-3 with a 19.80 ERA and 3.400 WHIP. He was released September 10.
But he can’t possibly be that bad. He pitched slightly better in Toronto in 2012, but not much. But before that, he had 11 straight seasons, and 12 of 13, with an ERA+ over 100. His only two professional seasons without an ERA+ over 100 was 2000 (94).
My suggestion is to sign him (or, if you’re too scared, one of the other guys above) at a low cost, with the intention of flipping them over at the deadline. You never know, it could turn out to be a big difference-maker. Buy low.
LHP Wesley Wright
LHP Xavier Cedeno
RHP Sam Demel
RHP Fernando Rodriguez
RHP Mickey Storey
RHP Wilton Lopez
RHP Francisco Cordero
(Editor’s Note: Storey was claimed off of waivers by the New York Yankees on 11/20/12).