Bullpen Bucks

There's an article over at FanGraphs (the beige house with the lime green trim) by Eno Sarris examining the Yankees bullpen spending. Brian Cashman went on record that he thought the Rafael Soriano signing wasn't an efficient use of resources, but essentially was overruled by ownership. The Yankees are spending a gaudy $34M on their relievers this year, though - especially in the case of the Yanks - it only makes sense to look at this in percentage terms. According to FG, 17% of the Bronx Budget is allocated to the bullpen. Before you spit out your coffee or herbal tea all over your desk blotter, here's the context:

In 2009, according to Cot’s Contracts, the following teams spent more than 17% of their payroll on their bullpens: Cincinnati (29.21%), NY Mets (22.40%), Philadelphia (19.08%), Cleveland (22.69%), Chicago White Sox (21.30%), Kansas City (19.57%), Toronto (25.9%), Milwaukee (18.58%), [etc., etc., etc.]

This is old news, but still cautionary: spending nearly 30% of your budget on relief corps is probably not a great idea. Of course, the Reds' league-leading pct. is skewed heavily by the Cordero contract, which on its own accounted for 16% of the Reds' budget last season. Then you have the 2009 WS-qualifying Phillies, at nearly 20%, suggesting that spending more than an average share of payroll on the bullpen is not necessarily bad business.

Some years, teams may simply have more position players or starting pitchers that are cost-controlled, causing them to  spend more on their bullpen but remain highly efficient. In 2010, the Rays paid Evan Longoria $950K and Rafael Soriano $7.25M. That says close to nothing about how they value the two players, but mostly testifies to the team-friendly (friendly is far too weak a word) deal they signed with Longoria and the quirks of the baseball labor market.

But there's probably a point of diminishing returns. Below is the Reds' spending on relief over the past several seasons, estimating totals for 2011 and including Aroldis Chapman's 2010 and 2011 salary in the bullpen category. The total dollar amounts are subjective, given that I've essentially counted all major league guaranteed money paid to players whose roles were primarily relievers at the big league level, with the assumption it all adds up to real budget spent on the end product "relief pitching" for that particular season:

Year $ on bullpen % of budget on bullpen Cordero (% of total budget)
2011 (~) $19M*
(~) 25% (~) 15.4%
2010 $23.28M 30.6% 16%
2009 $21.49M 29.21% 16.4%
2008 $20.92M 28.2% 11.6%

If the Reds are over-leveraged in the bullpen, the problem is solved entirely by Cordero's contract coming off the books and further by Aroldis Chapman moving into a starter role. Given salary and pro-rated bonuses, those two make nearly $16M together, while no one else in the bullpen stands to make more next season than Nick Masset at $1.55M. So if the Reds can avoid paying Joey Votto money to free agent closers, they can get the problem under control. Even if, heaven help us, Aroldis Chapman were to remain in the 'pen as a closer, he'll be making well below market value for a reliever of his caliber, at least until arbitration. Aside from the question of whether Chapman even should be in the bullpen in 2011 at all, the team just has to avoid the pitfall of paying starter salaries to pitchers who only see a fraction of the innings.

It's worth noting that WAR is not the best currency for relievers, as it probably doesn't properly value them in high-leverage situation. But as a starting point, the Reds got 3.8 FanGraphs WAR from their relief corps last season, which is worth close to $15M in free agent dollars. While it's a relatively safe bet that they overspent, pretty much every regular who spent most of the season in the 'pen was a positive contributor for their contracts, with the exception of Cordero and disqualification of Chapman. The problem of overpaying relief pitching could vanish with the expiration of Cordero's contract - but it could persist if the Reds continue to put too high a premium on relief pitching, which could include putting overvaluing Chapman in a late-innings relief role.

Relief pitching has consistently been an overvalued resource by the Reds and other MLB clubs, at least at the set-up and closer level - but this is not to say the Reds haven't assembled good bullpens recently. They certainly have. The Reds have been able successfully deploy Masset, Arthur Rhodes, Chapman and others to provide top-shelf bullpen value over the past two seasons at a fraction of the salaries that free agent closers like Soriano receive. The outlook for the future is also good, with a cost-controlled supporting cast including Arredondo, Ondrusek, Bray and several 5th starter also-rans.

The talent surplus in the bullpen can also help replenish itself when it becomes too costly, taking advantage of the tendency for relievers to be over-valued on the open market by often desperate spenders. The example set by the Rays and Blue Jays this offseason is one the Reds could emulate. The Rays offered arbitration to five relievers, which would potentially net as many as 7 compensation picks in the draft. The Jays offered arb to three, with only Jason Frasor accepting, part of larger strategy to bring in a draft haul - which FG estimated valued at $11M.  It always depends on the marginal value of players who might get you "over the top" to a division title; but the potential value in early draft picks (in addition to the savings by letting a FA walk) almost always beats the difference between replacing a free agent set-up man with in-house talent.

Supplementing this strategy by scouring the globe for the next Cubandolero should allow the Reds to leave the Big Closer Money to the "big closers."

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