Tuesday afternoon, the Dodgers bounced back from a horrible start by Jeff Weaver, one that put them down 8-3 in the fourth inning, to win 9-8. The day’s most obvious hero was Milton Bradley, who singled in the tying runs in the ninth inning with a line drive to left field that Jason Ellison misplayed to allow the winning run to score. Just as important, however, was the six innings of shutout relief that the Dodgers’ bullpen provided.

Read this space, or really any BP content, for long, and you’ll see someone invoke one of the guiding principles of applied performance analysis: relievers are fungible. Below the level of Mariano Rivera/Trevor Hoffman, relievers tend to come from all over the place–failing starters, minor-league veterans, independent leagues–and there are a lot of hurlers with two good pitches and an opportunity to put up 80 solid innings if given the chance.

The availability of effective, low-cost relief pitching is why we tend to reserve some of our harshest criticism for teams who make significant investments in relievers. There are just too many guys out there who can give you what Troy Percival or Jose Mesa can, and for a lot less money. If a team has a bad bullpen, it’s generally not because they didn’t spend enough money; it’s because they didn’t do a good enough job in sifting through the inexpensive options. You don’t spend $15 million to build a bullpen; you invite a bunch of live arms with some track records of success to spring training and sort them out in March.

It’s probably just my Strat background, but I’ve been a stickler for this thought process for a long time. When year-in and year-out you find yourself getting value from people like Paul Mirabella and Craig McMurtry and Derek Lilliquist, you develop a healthy respect for the valances of perfomance in small sample sizes, and just how little pedigree it takes to be effective in short relief.

The Dodgers have applied this principle in assembling their bullpen this year. Conceding that the group looks a lot less impressive without Eric Gagne–part of the elite tier of relievers, and the one in whom they invested $18 million–the Dodgers’ bullpen has no one else with much of a profile. Yesterday’s three pitchers–Giovanni Carrara, D.J. Houlton and Buddy Carlyle–all spent at least part of ’04 in the minors, and only Carrara pitched in the majors and was reasonably assured of a job this spring. Aside from Gagne, no Dodger reliever will make more than $500,000 this season, with that king’s ransom going to Carrara.

A look at the seven relievers–don’t get me started–the Dodgers are carrying:

  • Yhency Brazoban came over from the Yankees in the Kevin Brown deal. He’s a very raw 24, having just taken up pitching in 2002. He stepped in late last season to provide 33 solid innings down the stretch, and his presence was a partial trigger for the Guillermo Mota trade. He’s a Roberto Hernandez starter kit.
  • Duaner Sanchez ran out of time in Pittsburgh, literally arriving late for a game after a call-up in the summer of 2003. He was waived after that season, and picking him up was one of Dan Evans’ last moves. (As much as I like DePodesta, Evans’ fingerprints were all over last year’s team, and he didn’t get proper credit. He remains an excellent GM candidate.) For a guy with his stuff, his strikeout rates have been low. As a third or fourth right-hander, he’s fine.
  • The 37-year-old Carrara, who got the win yesterday, has been here before. He was the Dodgers’ second-best reliever in ’02, behind Gagne. A detour to Seattle went horribly awry, and he resurfaced last season throwing his hard sinker and getting outs for the Dodgers. Not that he’s been a lot of places, but his baseball card is 8 ½” by 11″. His ERA should spike up from last year’s 2.18, as he will give up more than one home run this time around.
  • Carlyle is about ten years behind Carrara on the Rand McNally Index, having already been to Japan and back. The former Padres prospect is a command guy who, to be honest, has yet to put up a good performance above Double-A. He’s one of the candidates to be sent down when Gagne returns.
  • Kelly Wunsch absolutely eats up left-handed hitters, very comparable to Mike Myers in how he pitches. He lost his job in Chicago to Damaso Marte and an ill-described shoulder injury, but there was little loss in his effectiveness when he pitched last season (30 K, 13 BB, 23 H in 29 2/3 IP at Triple-A and in the majors). The Dodgers have had some problems finding a lefty-stuffer, which can be an issue in a division loaded with guys worth attacking. Wunsch is that guy for them.
  • Steve Schmoll is…um…is…OK, I know I play baseball expert and all, but what I know about Steve Schmoll could fit comfortably inside a thimble. He was a walk-on at Maryland who signed with the Dodgers as a free agent after his senior year. His submarine delivery has worked so far; in two professional seasons, he’s allowed two home runs, and none above the Pioneer League. Having him and Wunsch makes for an interesting tactical duo; if you can get enough innings from your starters, you can get matchup-happy for outs in the seventh, then use Brazoban and Gagne to end the game.
  • I love D.J. Houlton. Here’s his player comment from this year’s book:

    Houlton is a command guy who throws a lot of off-speed stuff that puts balls in the air. He reached Triple-A in 2003 and could have been there last season but for a glut of arms at New Orleans. The Dodgers, who have just the park for a guy like this, took Houlton in the Rule 5 Draft. Remember the name; he’s good enough to be a league-average starter, and the Dodgers have a lot of question marks at the back of their rotation.

    Since that was written, the Dodgers signed Derek Lowe and retained Odalis Perez, so Houlton doesn’t have a clear path to a starting job. As a long $316,000 long reliever, however, he’s a find, an excellent candidate for 90 innings and a 3.75 ERA. Put it this way: as annoyed as Jose Lima was that the Dodgers let him walk away, how can you pursue Lima for $2 million when you have basically the same pitcher for the minimum salary?

If Gagne never came back, this would actually project as a slightly above-average bullpen. When Gagne does return, likely replacing Schmoll or Carlyle, it will be one of the best pens in the league. That’s excellent work.

Thank you for reading

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