September 11, 2013
The A's and Building a Bullpen By Attrition
The other day, Ben Lindbergh and I were bantering about relievers who are all of a sudden awesome. Will Smith, Louis Coleman, Neal Cotts, some other guy whose name I have already forgotten. (Ed. note: Kevin Siegrist.) And Ben asked, as somebody always will, why teams still pay for relievers when there seem to be an infinite number of humans capable of pitching like Jonathan Papelbon for a year.
The A’s don’t pay for relievers. Their top seven this year are making about $8 million and cost almost nothing in talent to acquire. The A’s also have the second-best bullpen FRA of the post-expansion era, behind only this year’s Braves. They make it look so easy! But this incredible success is also the answer to Ben’s question. Teams still pay for relievers because the A’s way of doing things takes so much friggin' effort.
Here’s the A’s bullpen this year, listed by acquisition method instead of name:
That’s essentially five players acquired for nothing, one more acquired as somewhat of an afterthought in a bigger trade, and one player acquired for a medium-sized investment. But building a bullpen is a war of attrition, and those seven players stand atop a mountain of corpses. Here’s what else went into putting those seven together:
Trade undesirable veteran for unheralded minor-league reliever
Blevins was (with Rob Bowen) half of the return in the 2007 mid-season trade of Jason Kendall to the Cubs. Kendall played 57 games for Chicago. At the time, Blevins had just been promoted to Double-A and was having a fantastic season as a 23-year-old reliever. But he had entered the season with three minor-league seasons and a near-5 ERA, almost all of it out of the bullpen. He was a 17th-round draft pick.
Math: Trade seven players you don’t want anyway for seven minor-league relievers. Most will be released before they ever move up a level in your organization. One will be a useful big-league arm.
Convert a first baseman to the majors.
Doolittle was, of course, a first base prospect whose hitting career had been interrupted by injuries. He started throwing on the side, the A’s decided to give him a shot on the mound, and a year later he was awesome. Two years later he is also awesome. A scout once told me that, on average, most teams try this with a failed prospect about once a year, and the A’s have tried this with players who weren’t Sean Doolittle. Last year, Petitti, a 37th-round catcher who had hit .174/.249/.239 in two seasons, tried to make the switch. He struck out 17 batters per nine innings in rookie ball, but the A’s let him go after the season. (He appeared in an independent league this year.) Santana was an infielder who hit .236/.320/.314 in six seasons. Before cutting him loose, the A’s put him on the mound four times. (He wasn’t good.) The last time the A’s converted a position player into a major-league pitcher was Marcus McBeth, who appeared 23 times in the majors in 2007.
Math: Take the few dozen position players who wash out every year; find the best arm among them; get a major leaguer every five or 10 years.
Trade a good player for a prospect, or multiple prospects; get minor-league reliever thrown in on the side.
Cook is a former 27-round pick who had pitched 30 innings above Double-A when the A’s got him as the less-famous part of the Trevor Cahill trade. In those 30 innings, he had 24 strikeouts and 18 walks. “A move to the bullpen in 2011 helped jumpstart his career, as he missed bats with a 92-95-mph fastball and a slider that is solid but will need to improve in order for him to have above-average major-league value,” we tacked onto the end of his Transaction Analysis.
Math: Trade six good players for sixish prospects; ask for a 23-year-old reliever, instead of a 19-year-old starter with control problems, as a throw-in; one will turn out to be an All-Star set-up man.
Pick up freely available mid- or late-20s reliever with very little big-league experience
Pick up freely available mid- or late-20s reliever with lots of big-league experience
Pick up freely available veteran in his 30s
Over the past 24 months, that’s at least 26 veteran relievers that the A’s have signed, claimed, purchased or traded a nothing piece for. A few of these guys were cut free before they’d thrown a pitch; a few more pitched a small handful of innings with the big club. Miller and Scribner were useful in the A’s bullpen last year.
The math: Pick up a dozen or more veteran relievers a year, get about two or three average arms, and maybe one fluky career year.
Easy as Balfour makes this step look, there have been plenty of half-measure attempts at getting a half-formed relief ace that haven’t worked out during Billy Beane’s tenure: Octavio Dotel, Arthur Rhodes, maybe Juan Cruz fits here, maybe Joey Devine.
The math: Sign two veterans who each cost around half what a regular closer costs, for around half as many years; end up with a closer.
So yes, you can build an amazing bullpen. You can spend about $8 million on the entire group. You can do it by trading things you don’t want, scavenging for things nobody else wants, and asking other teams nicely, and letting your low-minors position players indulge their fantasies. It just takes 30 or 40 arms to make it work. And heaven help you if, instead of six or seven useful relievers out of those 40, you end up with only four.