Monday, December 3, 2012

The bullpen problem

It's not a news flash that the Milwaukee Brewers possessed a pretty terrible bullpen in 2012, and the performance of the relief pitching was probably the biggest reason the Brewers missed the postseason. I'm not going to focus on the numbers, because they're bad. Pretty much every Brewers reliever had their worst season. Understandably, Doug Melvin has already started a massive overhaul, parting ways with Kameron Loe, Jose Veras, and Manny Parra. Set-up man Francisco Rodriguez is a free agent and is unlikely to return under any circumstance. Burke Badenhop was acquired in a trade, and Melvin has already added five other relievers on minor-league deals. Next up is lefty relievers. That all sounds reasonable, right?

Sort of. The minor league deals are all fine moves, and Melvin has a history of finding treasure among other people's trash (John Axford, Marco Estrada, Jim Henderson, and Jeff Bianchi to name a few). Pursuing a lefty makes tons of sense, the team has had to make do without a decent one for a couple of years now. Parra needed to go. But the rest of the moves are murky at best.

Veras has an annoying skill set and is often difficult to watch, but pitched much better in the second half and has been a decent reliever throughout his career. He may not have been worth what he would have been paid, but his strikeout ability is nice to have around. The Loe and Badenhop moves are far more puzzling. Loe might cause Brewers fans to roll their eyes, but he was a perfectly fine middle reliever for most of his time in Milwaukee. Injuries and a lack of better options briefly forced Loe into a setup role in 2011, a role he is not designed for and some blown saves soured fans' opinion of him. A plethora of short outings by the starting rotation led to him being overworked early in 2012, and he never seemed to recover. The team decided to try to do trading for his twin in Burke Badenhop. While Badenhop had a better 2012 (and is a little cheaper), his performance in prior seasons suggest that he's no better than Loe overall. Basically, they're buying Badenhop's career year combined with Loe's worst year over the larger sample of their respective careers.

This is where an interesting problem arises; we watched Loe and Veras fail repeatedly last year, which makes us want to be done with them even though we'd look at them as good buy-low candidates if the pitched somewhere else in 2012 (to give another example, when Dan Haren was cut loose by the Angels, every other team's fanbase looked at him as a great bounced-back option, while Angels fans viewed him as an aging starting pitcher with back problems and velocity issues). The recency effect also helps is forget how good guys like Loe and Axford (now viewed as a shaky and unreliable closer) were previously. This also shows us the volatility of relief pitchers; 60 innings is a small sample size for any pitcher, yet for a reliever that's an entire season, and a slump or random bad luck is all it takes to taint the perception of said reliever. Paying these guys lots of money is an enormous risk, and dismissing them because of one bad year is also a risk.

So with all of this in mind, what's the correct way to rebuild a bullpen? The old-school approach suggests finding seasoned veterans (including a "proven closer"), an approach that worked pretty well for teams like the Orioles, Rangers, and Yankees in 2012, but on the other hand failed horribly for the Mets, Red Sox, and Marlins. The new school approach is to go cheap, buying low-cost veterans and trusting unproven youngsters. Worked great for the Rays, A's, and Nationals, not so much for the Cubs, Rockies, and Astros. This leaves us at something of an impasse; putting faith in Brandon Kintzler and Tyler Thornburg sounds cool, but could backfire just as easily as signing Sean Burnett and Jason Grilli to hefty deals.

The best solution to this problem is simple, but not easy; depth. It's what the good teams have and the bad teams don't. Bullpen depth is something the team did not have last year, having to bring up guys like Vinnie Chulk, Juan Perez, and Mike McClendon when injuries and ineptness happened, and unsurprisingly it led to more ineptness. In a vacuum, there was nothing wrong with the relief core that broke camp this last season, and there was no way anyone could have predicted that every pitcher would have a terrible year. But that's no excuse for having someone like Chulk as next best option in AAA. Whether it's through trades, free agency, or continued development of the youngsters, Melvin's primary concern should not just be quality, but quantity as well.

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