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February 6, 2008
Building a Better Bullpen
The Rays' 2008 Relief Corps
The Tampa Bay Devil Rays existed for 10 seasons-the club exorcised the Devil this past November-and have been plagued for most of that decade by an inability to put a decent bullpen together. Consider for a moment that in five out of 10 years, Tampa Bay's firemen combined for a negative Adjusted Runs Prevented (ARP) total.
What exactly is ARP, and why is it used here rather than another bullpen metric, such as WXRL? ARP is a pure context-free measure of pitcher effectiveness that doesn't take into account the leverage of the situation; a counting stat that compares a reliever's performance to how an average (not replacement-level) relief pitcher would have performed in the same situations. In other words, if you are looking simply for how many more runs a bullpen prevented or allowed than average, regardless of the timing of the relief work or how it impacted the game, then ARP is your stat. It boils away luck and any statistical advantage (or disadvantage) attained from pitching well (or poorly) in more important situations to get at the bare-bones underlying performance, which is what we want to evaluate in looking at past bullpen work. As Keith Woolner explained in a 2005 mailbag:
WXRL is a way to assess past performance, usage, and game importance. But it is not independent of how and where a pitcher is used. A better measure for that would be Adjusted Runs Prevented (ARP), which takes into account only how a pitcher performed, not the leverage of the situation, but does consider inherited and bequeathed runners fairly in doing so.
Derek Jacques did a great job of breaking down the differences between WXRL and ARP in this Toolbox last year, and if you want to get down to the real nuts and bolts of the ARP formula, take a trip back to the 20th century with this article by the founder of the metric, Michael Wolverton.
Getting back to the Rays' bullpen, the last three years have been especially gruesome-in that span the Rays relief has had aggregate ARPs of -40, -33.2, and -95.4, respectively. Last year's figure was the worst in the Baseball Prospectus database, which dates back to 1959. Using the sabermetrically-standard conversion of 10 runs equals a win, Devil Rays relievers cost the team nearly 10 wins compared to what an average pen would have produced pitching in the same situations. Twenty relievers moved through the bullpen for the Devil Rays last year, and exactly two of them were more than one run better than average. In fact, it can be argued that the best Devil Rays reliever was utility infielder Josh Wilson, on the basis of his pitching a scoreless inning in the team's 14-8 loss to the Marlins on June 8, and then never taking the mound again.
There hasn't been a bullpen that's come within 15 runs of last year's Tropicana disaster; the next-worst team by ARP is the 1990 Braves, whose relievers compiled a -78.4 figure. The 2007 Tampa Bay pen had a WXRL that ran into the red, as well, clocking in collectively at -1.75. In other words, if a journeyman assemblage of Triple-A relievers had taken over the home bullpen in the Trop, the Devil Rays would have won almost two more games than they did.
That's a horrid place to be starting from if you're Executive Vice President for Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman, or any other member of the Tampa Bay brain trust. How do you go about building a decent bullpen upon a historically-shaky foundation? "The bullpen has always been a big focus of ours, and I recognize the last couple of years certainly doesn't demonstrate that," Friedman said. "We had things we tried to accomplish, guys we tried to acquire that didn't work out, and rather than force it and get into a longer-term problem, we recognized it as a short-term problem that we needed to address. Fortunately we weren't tied up in the long contracts with guys that we quote unquote settled on."
Indeed, the best part about the 2007 Tampa Bay bullpen is that none of its members are signed with the team long-term. A look at every warm body that pitched out of the pen for the Rays last year:
2007 2008 Player ARP Age Status Scott Dohmann 8.2 30 Pre-arbitration Gary Glover 7.2 31 1 yr $1.075 million Edwin Jackson 0.9 24 Pre-arbitration Josh Wilson 0.5 27 Gone Juan Salas -1.7 29 Pre-arbitration Jason Hammel -2.3 25 Pre-arbitration Al Reyes -2.5 37 1 yr $2.3 million Jay Witasick -2.6 35 Gone Jon Switzer -4.3 28 Gone Grant Balfour -5.0 30 1 yr $0.5 million Jae Kuk Ryu -6.7 25 Pre-arbitration Dan Wheeler -7.3 30 1 yr $2.875 million Tim Corcoran -7.4 30 Gone Jeff Ridgway -7.8 27 Gone Ruddy Lugo -8.9 28 Gone Casey Fossum -12.3 30 Gone Brian Stokes -12.6 28 Gone Chad Orvella -15.0 27 Pre-arbitration Shawn Camp -15.2 32 Gone
Due to that roster flexibility, the Rays have already been able to excise six of the seven most egregious offenders; as for the lone exception, we'll turn to Orvella in a little bit. The most interesting name above is a pitcher still two seasons from arbitration, right-hander Juan Salas. Beginning his pro career back in 1999 as a third baseman, Salas was converted to pitching late in 2004. This was an outstanding career move, as two years later he made his major league debut on the mound. Salas got on base less than 30 percent of the time over more than 2000 minor league at-bats, but he quickly took to lowering opposing hitters to the same levels of frustration. Over the course of 143 1/3 minor league innings, Salas struck out 170 batters and allowed only 102 hits, blasting through the Appalachian, California, Southern, and International leagues in a little more than two seasons. Particularly mind-blowing is Salas' 2006 campaign: he threw 35 innings at Double-A Montgomery for the Biscuits, allowing 13 hits and zero earned runs (and only four runs total) while striking out 58. He then moved up to Triple-A Durham, and turned in 29 innings of 15-hit, five-run, 33-strikeout ball.
Not surprisingly, the converted position player throws hard and battles with control issues: Salas has walked nearly 90 batters in his 190 pro innings. Last season Salas spent most of the year with the big club, pitching in mop-up duty-25 of his 34 appearances came in Devil Rays' losses-while posting a 3.72 ERA and 26/17 K/BB performance in 36 1/3 innings, allowing 36 hits. While Salas is 29, keep in mind that he is entering just his fourth full season as a pitcher. With his 6'2", 210 pound frame and hard-to-hit stuff, all it will take is better command and control to make him a Guillermo Mota-esque monster for the next several years in Tampa Bay.
Salas's low hit total last year is more impressive than it looks, for as BP's Bryan Smith discussed last year, the Devil Rays had the worst defense in recorded history last season, turning 5.64 percent fewer balls in play into outs than an average team. That number should be far better this season, thanks to a reorganization of the infield. The defense at second, short, and third last season was a whopping 72 runs below average collectively, due primarily to the bad glove work of Brendan Harris, Josh Wilson, B.J. Upton, Ty Wigginton, and Akinori Iwamura. Harris and Wilson, the culprits at shortstop, have been replaced by an outstanding fielder, the Twins' Jason Bartlett. Iwamura has been moved from third to second, to be replaced at the hot corner by the third-best prospect in baseball, Evan Longoria, a good glove at third base. Wigginton is gone, and Upton has been moved to the outfield. Thus reshuffled, the infield defense has a good chance of being average in 2008 and could be even better, which will go a long way towards improving the pitching.
Another hard-to-hit member of the bullpen, Al Reyes, ended up with a 4.90 ERA last year, but he did have an excellent 70/21 K/BB ratio in 60 2/3 innings with just 49 knocks allowed. He gave up too many home runs, and nine of his 13 allowed came with runners on base, inflating his ERA. Reyes has been a BP favorite for years, and remains an underrated asset; he'll be a key part of the bullpen this year. The Rays exercised a reasonable club option on Reyes for 2008 after signing him to a minor league deal in 2006, when he missed the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. As Friedman notes, "Al Reyes is a guy that we've liked for some time. We signed him in '06 to rehab him, so we knew exactly where he was in the process and felt more comfortable with the risk associated with a guy coming off surgery."
Bringing in Reyes was exactly the kind of low-risk move with the potential for a big payoff that the Rays should be making to fix their pen. They tried to snag another Reyes by signing Jay Witasick during the middle of last season; Witasick was a good-to-great reliever from 2001 to 2005 before missing most of 2006 with an ankle injury. This shot at stealing a bullpen asset on the rebound didn't work out, though, as Witasick was alternately injured and ineffective during the short time he spent in a Devil Rays uniform; the team released him after the season. Such a minor setback, however, shouldn't obscure the larger point: in putting together a good bullpen on a budget, the injury scrapheap is a great place to find low-risk, cheap reclamation projects, and the chance that one of those projects will work out makes the enterprise extremely worthwhile.
Tampa Bay used this philosophy of arbitraging injury risks in a different way this offseason, delving into the free agent pool to sign the recently regenerated Troy Percival to a two-year, $8 million deal. While the Rays have excused themselves from playing the game you can't win in recent offseasons, knowing that the rebuilding franchise has virtually nothing to gain from overpaying for post-peak talent, the team made an exception with Percival. But isn't giving a soon-to-be 38-year-old, injury-prone reliever a multi-year deal a huge mistake?
In most cases the answer is yes, but Percival's situation is more complicated. While he could break down on any pitch, he's an excellent bet to be either extremely effective or injured, a tradeoff that the team is certainly aware of and willing to risk. Percival has been an elite closer, and he showed that form during his 40-inning comeback with the Cardinals last year. That history costs money. Given the Rays' unique position of having one of the worst bullpens ever, they had to make some sort of significant move to address the issue, and this addition serves as a sign of good faith for the Rays' fans (don't laugh, they're out there, and growing stronger) that the club is committed to making the late innings less of a bloodbath. With the team's history and unattractive home venue, Tampa Bay has been one of the least desirable destinations for free agents (disclaimer: this is about to change), and thus the Rays have to overpay somewhat to bring in a veteran with other offers. In fact, Tampa Bay had to give Percival both a two-year deal and promise him the closers' role to keep him away from other suitors, including the Yankees. The move gives the bullpen an anchor and takes pressure off Reyes, who will slot back into his more-familiar set-up role. It also serves as subtle notification that the club's seemingly permanent building phase is nearly over, and that the club expects to contend sometime in the next two years, with Percival as the closer.
"What really drives everything we do is becoming more competitive in the short term, while maintaining the flexibility to sustain a competitive team over a number of years," Friedman said. "With Percival, he brings a lot to a young team, and we had tremendous reports on him from last year. It's certainly a risk with a pitcher his age, but with a two-year deal, we felt like the rewards certainly outweighed the risk."
Besides trawling for free talent and free agency with usable arms, the Rays have also used trades to build up their bullpen. In late July last year, they sent Wiggington, an average corner infielder who had no chance of contributing to the next winning team in St. Petersburg-make that the first winning team in St. Petersburg-to Houston for a struggling Dan Wheeler. Wheeler had transformed himself into an elite reliever from 2005-06 after coming over from the Mets, and just as quickly seemingly converted himself back to mediocrity last year, as he posted a 5.07 ERA in 50 innings with the Astros. The Devil Rays recognized that that high ERA was a fluke, and that his 56/13 K/BB ratio was actually better than it had been the previous two years. While Wheeler pitched poorly in his 25 innings with the Devil Rays down the stretch, it's reasonable to expect that his numbers in 2008 will be closer to his 2005-06 peak than to his forgettable 2007 results.
What was the thinking here? As Friedman notes, "we wanted to try and get out in front of [reworking the bullpen] as much as we could, so there was less pressure going into the offseason, and getting into that free agent process. [The trade] certainly helped put us in a much better position [for free agency] than if we didn't."
The Matt Garza-for-Delmon Young deal the Rays pulled off in late November also netted the team a potential future relief ace in Eduardo Morlan. Ranked the third best pitching prospect in the arms-heavy Minnesota organization, Morlan is, according to BP's Kevin Goldstein, a possible future closer who could be ready by 2009. Morlan will join the Rays' growing ranks of minor league stud pitchers who will begin to burst onto the scene in the next couple of years.
The Rays have built up a large crop of potential starters, and as is always the case, those that don't work out smoothly, or who are unable to force their way into what will be a stacked rotation quintet, can be moved into relief. The Rays have three locks for the rotation in Scott Kazmir, Garza, and James Shields, a number of top prospects who should fill those last two spots starting as soon as next season (David Price, Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis, Jacob McGee, and Jeremy Hellickson), and a middle tier of young 24- and 25-year-old placeholders (Edwin Jackson, J.P. Howell, Jason Hammel, and Andy Sonnanstine) who will likely be displaced by the organization's best minor league prospects before too long. This surplus means the Rays have the luxury, if they chose, of moving the "losing" pitchers-those who aren't quite good enough to crack the rotation-into the bullpen. They could also go the route of moving their promising youngsters into relief duty as part of the developmental process, with bullpen work acting as the step right before the major league rotation, akin to how Johan Santana and more recently Joba Chamberlain began their big-league careers.
"One thing that's important to us is to eventually get to the point where we're self-sustaining, and we've got guys coming up that fill certain roles and serve apprentice roles for a year, and keep moving up the ladder into higher leverage situations," Friedman said. "It's probably going to take us a season or two to get to a point where we're self-sustaining. We've got a lot of really good arms coming, and some that will stick in the rotation, and some that may trickle down to the bullpen, so we're excited about where we're heading. We feel like short-term our '08 bullpen is much improved, and will actually be a very good bridge to some of these guys that are coming up. We want to get to a point where we really need to target [only] one, maybe two [free agents], and if it's two, possibly it's a waiver claim or a smaller deal on a guy that we feel fits our club well. It would be ideal to avoid the free agent market on that front [entirely], but I don't think it's that realistic."
In addition to the young starters who are nearly ready, the Rays have another option for the bullpen in the minors who seems to have been forgotten after some early success. There was a huge buzz around Chad Orvella following his 2004 season, in which he posted an absurd 117/10 K/BB ratio in 74 innings while rocketing across four minor league levels. He made it to the majors in '05, pitching 50 respectable innings of 3.60 ERA ball with a 43/23 K/BB split. The walks were worrisome, and they only got worse the next two years in the majors, but he's continued to pitch well at Triple-A. You can bet that Orvella, without as much pressure to perform and with the experience already under his belt, will be befuddling big leaguers before too long.
So, with that long-winded dissertation behind us, back to the core question: What exactly will the Tampa Bay bullpen look like in 2008?
Closer: Percival Setup: Reyes Setup: Wheeler Middle: Glover Middle (2?): Salas/Munter/Dohmann/Balfour Lefty: Miller/Birkins/Howell/Anderson Rotational Spillover: Jackson/Howell/Hammel/Sonnanstine
According to Friedman, Percival, Reyes, Wheeler, and Glover are locked in to four spots. That means there are probably three bullpen seats open for competition in spring training, because the Rays will break camp with 12 pitchers due to the need to provide extra support for a young, developing staff. "It's ideal in our minds to go [with] 11, but I'm not sure we're quite there yet with our young starters," Friedman said. "We're still in a position to insulate some of our guys, but as soon as we're able to support an 11-man staff, we'd love to do it."
Considering the Rays just gave a new contract to Grant Balfour, you'd expect he'll have a leg up on the field for one of the middle spots, although he has nothing besides a strong strikeout rate (and several surgical scars) to show for his 93 big-league innings. Salas would be a logical choice for another spot, but considering that he has options left, he could certainly spend some time shuttling back and forth from Durham. Sinkerballer Scott Munter was picked up when the Giants non-tendered him; the Rays recently signed him to a minor league contract with a spring training invite, and he could also win a position and be an obvious beneficiary of the Rays' revamped infield defense.
The problem is that there's no clear lefty option-which is not really that much of a problem, because the talismanic dependency on at least one token situational portsider is more superstition than sound baseball; those great Angels pens of the early aughts proved that. If the Rays do decide to carry a southpaw, however, the options would appear to be down to starter J.P. Howell-who's never pitched out of the pen in the majors-Kurt Birkins, and veteran Brian Anderson (recently signed to a minor league contract with a NRI). In Birkins' case, it's probably not a sound idea to rely on a pitcher that even the Orioles decided wasn't good enough to help their abysmal relief corps, while Anderson is 36 years old, hasn't pitched in the majors since 2005, and hasn't put up a sub-5.00 ERA since 2003. The team is reported to be after lefty veteran Trever Miller, a former Devil Ray, but Miller has shown little ability to get right-handers out during his career. [Ed. note: Tampa Bay signed Miller to a $1.6 million deal with an option for 2009 on 2/1.]
"We'd like to have a good [left-hander], but what we're not going to do is just have one for the sake of having one," Friedman said. "If we're sending out a right-handed pitcher who in our mind is better than the left-hander and has a better chance to help us win more games, then we're not going to have a left-hander for the sake of having one. Obviously if we could have a left-hander that we felt like could be effective against left-handed hitters and also leave him in against right-handers, that's ideal. But they're not that easy to find."
Whoever occupies the back end of the pen, the 2008 Rays bullpen, moored by Percival, Reyes, Wheeler, and a much better defense, should be the first in four years to post a positive ARP total. Through a willingness to search out and take chances on freely-available talent, arbitrage injury risk to their advantage, trade from strength, and potentially show a willingness to audition young starters in relief roles, the Rays have the makings of a good, cheaply-constructed bullpen that contains virtually no long-term commitments. Next year's pen has a good shot at being a healthy contributor to the beginning of the Rays move up the standings towards the top of the American League East.
Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.