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What About the Rays' Bullpen?

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The Rays' bullpen this year was quite the odyssey.  There were times we loved it, but just as frequently, there were times we hated it.  There were times it seemed invincible, but then again, there were times it imploded day in and day out.  Heck, this was a bullpen that had Troy Percival and Jason Isringhausen appear in a combined 23 games this year.  If we could express the 2009 Rays' bullpen through art, it'd look a lot like a Jackson Pollock painting: a mish-mash of colors, all used with a purpose, but still thrown at a wall to see what sticks.  Taken as a whole, it looks really cool and you can appreciate the work that went into making it, but really, why is it so expensive?

I'm reading "Baseball Between the Numbers" at the moment, which is an excellent read on sabremetics for anyone interested.  In one article, Steven Goldman tries to determine what the optimal mix is between offense and pitching; in other words, is pitching really "90% of the game"?  The short answer is, no, you need a blend of offensive talent and pitching depth for a team to actually be competitive.  Goldman finds that most competitive teams actually spend more money on offense than pitching, with pitching totaling around 30-50% of a team's annual payroll on a well-balanced team.

Upon reading this, my first thought was to see how the Rays distributed their payroll this past year.  In graph form, here's a quick breakdown:

 

Overall, the Rays spent 56.1% on offense and 43.9% on pitching, which puts them in the right range for a well balanced team; however, like I said above, what's with the expensive bullpen?  The Rays' bullpen contributed a total of 2 WAR this past year while consuming over 25% of our payroll, so what can we do about this going forward?

In 2009, the Rays spent 43.9% of their payroll on pitching, and the majority of the money spent on pitching went to their bullpen.  In dollars, the Rays spent approximately $17M this past year on the bullpen and $11M on the starting rotation (and that's assuming we paid the full amount of Kazmir's 2009 salary).  Bullpens are notoriously volatile from year to year, and relief pitchers typically add less value to a club than starting pitchers do, so spending this money on a bullpen seems like an inefficient allocation of resources for a small-market club.  If you don't believe me, take a look for yourself.

2009 Bullpen

Salary (in millions)

Troy Percival

$4.45

Chad Bradford

$3.67

Dan Wheeler

$3.20

Grant Balfour

$1.40

Brian Shouse

$1.35

Joe Nelson

$1.30

Jason Isringhausen

$0.75

Lance Cormier

$0.68

J.P. Howell

$0.43


Talk about a drain on the wallet.  Between Percival, Bradford, Nelson, and Isringhausen, we paid $10M this year for -0.6 WAR.  Considering $10M should be able to net you around 2 WAR on the free-agent market, it was really an unfortunate circumstance.  It's funny too - acquiring each of these four players looked like solid moves at the time.  Joe Nelson and Jason Isringhausen were risky signings, but they had potential high rewards and wouldn't involve much monetary investment.  Chad Bradford was an excellent pick-up down the stretch in 2008 and became a very valuable part of our bullpen come the post-season.  And Troy Percival was a signing that was seen at the time as being a team-friendly contract, and important to help our franchise become more competitive.  He was the first "big name" free agent our team had signed in ages, which if nothing else, showed that our front office was willing to get serious about winning.  It's only when combined that these contracts look like a giant albatross, which goes to show you how important the long view can be when evaluating contracts.

Thankfully, though, each of these four contracts are finally behind us.  With all of this money off the books, how does this leave the Rays' bullpen?  In short, in really good shape.

2010 Locks

2009 Salary

2010 Salary

J.P. Howell

0.434

Arb1

Grant Balfour

1.4

Arb3

Dan Wheeler

3.2

3.5

I don't think anyone is going to dispute that these three are most likely to be back next year.  Wheeler would be the only one I could see leaving, since his $3.5M is a bit steep, but that would involve 1) another team being interested in him, and 2) see point number one.  It's possible, for sure, but my guess is that the Low-Leverage King is back in Tampa again next year.

2010 Questions

2009 Salary

2010 Salary

Lance Cormier

0.675

Arb2

Andy Sonnanstine

0.430

0.430

Brian Shouse*

1.35

2

Jeff Bennett

0.438

Arb1

Joe Nelson

1.3

Arb2

* Has $.2M 2010 buy-out option.

This is where things start to get a little bit murky.  On the chart above, I ranked them in descending order of how likely I think it is they'll be with the Rays next year.  Cormier seems like a good bet to return after his solid 2009, especially considering he's rather cheap still.  Sonnanstine is also cheap and could fill in as the long man in the pen, since there's not looking like there will be a spot for him in the rotation next spring.  He's always been mentioned as a potential bullpen arm and considering how much starting pitching depth our franchise has, I'd rather we convert some starters to bullpen arms rather than let some of the talent waste away in the minors.  The trick is finding the right starters to convert (a la JP), and Sonnanstine seems like a good candidate based on his numbers and scouting report.

Shouse is also relatively cheap and could return to the Rays, although the Rays are going to have to ask themselves if it's worth paying $2M for a LOOGY.  And as for Jeff Bennett and Joe Nelson - I just don't see either returning to the Rays next year.  If the Rays could stash them away cheaply in the minors, then there's a possibility...but that's about it.

So where does all this leave the Rays' 2010 bullpen?  Basically, besides for the three locks, there are plenty of open spaces available for new signings and promotions.  To be honest, the Rays could adequately fill up their entire bullpen with arms from within the franchise (I'm looking at you, Dale Thayer and Winston Abreu), but there are also going to be plenty of cheap arms available on the market this year.  The trick with bullpen arms, though, is to keep the signings cheap and short; like I've said, relief pitchers are notoriously fluky from year-to-year, so there's no point in investing large amounts of money in the bullpen.  We don't want long-term deals like Percival's or Bradford's coming back to bite us years down the road again.  Instead, acquire lots of cheap, risky, medium-to-high reward players, let them have at it during the spring, and see what sticks during the course of the season.  Pollock's paintings may be expensive, but that doesn't mean you have to pay that much money to get the same value; anyone can take a can of paint, some paintbrushes, a blank canvas, and make their own.  Bullpens are the same way - keep it cheap and see what sticks.