Neal Huntington’s relievers

Neal Huntington commissioned Dan Fox, the Pirates’ statistical guy, to perform an analysis of the value of relief. Among other information it produced: If you take the top 50 relievers in the game, then take out all the closers, there tends to be a 60 percent turnover from year to year.
-The PBC Blog

This is a perfectly defensible position for a front office to take. I’ve said in the past that reliever performance is hard to predict, and Fox’s research just reaffirms that. This sort of logic is a perfectly reasonable explanation for pulling Chris Jakubauskas off of waivers instead of overpyaing Brandon Lyon. It also has nothing to do with non-tendering Matt Capps. Capps was under reasonable cost control as a second-year arbitration player with at least some established value. Saying, “Well, he sucked last year and he might suck again next year so we really didn’t want to pay him” isn’t an acceptable solution to a problem when a team only has a $32 million payroll and has admitted they have some money to spend.

Really, unless Capps is indicted for some heinous crime tomorrow, there was no good reason to make the move the Pirates made with Capps. If the Pirates were sick of Capps’ poor conditioning or his attitude or some kind of behind the scenes refusal to work with Joe Kerrigan and they wanted to get rid of him, that’s understandablet. But there are several months until camp starts and Capps could be traded without the team ever having to deal with him again. To throw up their hands and say, “We tried to trade him but people were afraid we might non-tender him, so we had to non-tender him!” is a self-fulfilling prophecy with an easy solution. Offer him a contract. Once that happens, the market has to recover at least a little bit.

I’m sorry. I wanted to go another direction with this, but the gap in logic required for this non-tender is so huge that I’m still trying (and failing) to wrap my brain around it. After the jump, I want to take a closer look at the quote that leads the post.

As I said above, it’s actually a little exciting for me to hear a GM talk about how variable relief performances are from season to season. Look at how Cincinnati’s hamstrung themselves with the Francisco Cordero contract. Overpaying for relief is something a team in the Pirates’ position simply can’t afford to do, because relief help is almost always cheaply available if you know where to look.

That final part is key, though. You can afford to jettison big money relievers (not in the way the Pirates did with Capps, but through trades or letting them walk via free agency) if you can find relief help elsewhere. Since taking over as general manager Huntington has given walking papers to (by my count) Salomon Torres, Damaso Marte, Sean Burnett, Jesse Chavez, John Grabow, and Matt Capps. In return he’s acquired the following pitchers that have appeared in relief for the Pirates: Jeff Karstens, TJ Beam, Denny Bautista, Marino Salas, Evan Meek, Craig Hansen, Tyler Yates, Joel Hanrahan, Donnie Veal, Chris Bootcheck, Eric Hacker, Jose Ascanio, Anthony Claggett, and Virgil Vasquez. To this point, those two groups are notably unbalanced.

It’s not that cut and dried, though. Of the second group, Bootcheck, Hacker, Claggett, Vasquez, and probably Beam were mostly acquired to be minor league depth in a system that needed it and of that group, maybe only Beam was really expected to make any sort of contribution to the Pirates when acquired. Still, even if you don’t blame the front office for acquiring players that quickly exhibited serious injuries after arriving in Pittsburgh (Hansen and Ascanio), we’re left with decent production from Meek, Hanrahan, and Jackson with a big future question mark on Donnie Veal. And of the three that have produced, Meek and Hanrahan both walk more than 5.5 batters per nine innings (if you think the eighth and ninth innings will stop being adventurous without Capps, you’re likely to be disappointed) and Jackson’s low ERA last year was almost all smoke and mirrors (his K/BB ratio was less than one).

Huntington, though, has had the luxury of time that allows him to cast a very wide net for relievers. He doesn’t need to bat 1.000 on these pickups to build a good ‘pen. The Rays are a good example of how quickly a bullpen can turn around. In 2007, they had a nightmare squad of Al Reyes, Gary Glover, Casey Fossum, Brian Stokes, and Shawn Camp making most of the appearances out of their pen. In 2008 they signed Troy Percival ($3.8 million) and Trever Miller ($1.6 million), moved the previously terrible JP Howell into a LOOGY role, and got huge performances from two pitchers that had struggled after being acquired during the previous season in trades, Grant Balfour and Dan Wheeler (from Milwaukee for Seth McClung and Houston for Ty Wigginton, respectively). That gave them one of the best bullpens in the league in 2008. They spent less than $6 million, traded a Jeff Karstens type and a utility guy, and caught three guys on huge upswings.

That’s not to say it’s easy or that the Rays were lucky, just that Andrew Friedman juggled a ton of guys through his bullpen when the team was no good between 2005 and 2007 before getting a group that worked. Of course, you could also argue that he didn’t get the group that worked until he spent a bit of money, and that’s be true, too. Friedman knew when his team was ready to compete, though, and didn’t want to go out and grab guys like Percival and Miller before then. The Pirates clearly aren’t to that point yet, so we’ll see what Vinnie Chulk and Chris Jakubauskas are capable of this year and probably try starters like Kevin Hart and Dan McCutchen in the bullpen.

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.