Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Desparately Seeking Relief.

The recent signing by the White Sox of 34-year-old Octavio Dotel to a multi-year, $11-million dollar contract highlights once again an important facet that has allowed the Twins to remain a successful franchise in spite of the non-profit-like budget: Internal Relief Development. Because of Internal Relief Development, or I.R.D., the Twins have not had to invest valuable payroll towards what has become one of the most costly (and volatile) acquisitions on the free agent market.

"Relievers are like the stock market — you just hope you can hit on one," Colorado Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd told USA Today. "Bullpens are almost impossible to build. There is supply and demand, inconsistency of performance. You never know what you are going to get in a part of the roster that's increasingly important."

And O'Dowd did well assembling one of the better bullpens in 2007 considering he sunk nearly 23% of his payroll ($12.636 million) in Brian Fuentes (era+ 155), Latroy Hawkins (era+ 140), Jeremy Affeldt (era+ 137), Jorge Julio (era+ 122), Manuel Corpas (era+ 231), and Matt Herges (era+ 162). As the season ended, two free agents were looking to cash in on their recent success. In a maneuver that echoed his belief in the quote above, O'Dowd chose to let Hawkins (who has since signed a 1-year, $3.75 million dollar contract with the Yankees) and Affeldt (who recently inked a 1-year, $3 million dollar deal with the Reds) go unabated to the free agent market. What could be said about those two is that they greatly out-performed any estimates based on their previous seasons and O'Dowd knew this. And with the defense built at Coors, O'Dowd is betting that his I.R.D. graduates (like Ryan Speier and Corpas) will provide similar results and for the same asking price per year as Hawkins, sign Luis Vizcaino, a more consistent performer, for two years.

Bottom-line is that pitching is expensive, starting or relief, to purchase on the open market. USA Today reported that as of two weeks ago, teams have spent a combined $122 million on bullpen help gearing up for 2008. Unfortunately, as you will see, it would appear that these franchises have allocated more money for what are sure to be disaster relief efforts than FEMA during hurricane season.

Even with that wisdom that O'Dowd expound, organizations across the league have invested far too much in set-ups and LOOGYs who have become nearly as expensive as their closer brethren:

  • The Royals signed 37-year-old lefty Ron Mahay to a two-year, $8-million dollar contract. Mahay is cashing in on a season where he limited left-handed batters to a .189/.248/.292 split while with Texas and Atlanta. However, the two previous seasons Mahay's left-handed opponents hit .240/.336/.458 in 2006 and .302/.338/.571 in 2005. What's more is that there is no substantiating evidence to suggest that Mahay turned a corner last year. When analyzed, it would appear that Mahay was the recipient of good defense and luck as his batted balls in play was near .270 (his groundball rate has ranged from 43% to 52%). In the previous three-seasons combined (2005-2007) lefties batted .234/.302/.419 against him. In comparison, during that same period, lefties hit .203/.283/.256 against Dennys Reyes. The difference is that while the Twins will owe Reyes $1-million dollars next year, the Royals owe Mahay $3-million more.

  • The Phillies re-signed J.C. Romero to a 3-year, $12-million dollar contract because of his low 1.24 era in 36.4 innings of work. This statistical sampling is by no means large enough to valuate one's performance. Romero, as Twins fans will remember, had erratic tendencies and 2007 was no different. His walk rate was 16.8%, nearly double the league average of 9.0%, with Boston and Philadelphia. Romero is expected to set-up for Brad Lidge although his stats really indicate that he would thrive better as a LOOGY. In the previous three seasons, Romero has had a much better split against left-handed batters (.202/.309/.292) then the right-handed counterparts (.279/.400/.445). The Phillies will discover this in 2008 when his lower than average babip (.173) corrects itself.

  • The Brewers signed righty Eric Gagne to a one-year, $10-million dollar contract. It could be that the Doug Melvin did some online shopping at Baseball-Reference once they lost Francisco Cordero to the Reds and acquired his number one comparison. This acquisition was made under the guise of Gagne being a closer, still, he has been far from the once reliable closer he once was after spending significant time in and out of operating rooms (elbow and back), not to forgot being mentioned in a certain Mitchell Report. Gagne didn't have a terrible year last seasons split between the Rangers and the Red Sox - his era was a hefty 6.75 in 18 innings with Boston and he struck out 24.7% of batters faced while issuing walks to 10.1% of them. He converted 16 of 20 save opportunities (80% success rate) and maintained a era that was 121 points better than the league average. That being said, Gagne is a big gamble. In the previous three seasons he has thrown only 67 innings and 52 of those came last year.

Avoiding this cost by promoting from within has benefited the Twins not only by saving money but also by not partaken in these types of acquisitions, the Twins have managed to steer clear of large sums of money dedicated to bullpen calamities. Granted, there are some blemishes within the Twins pen, notably Juan Rincon and the lack of left-handed depth. A team that is rich in pitching resources can take the opportunity to make small-risk signings in the free agent market (like Dennys Reyes) and then sign premium pitchers to long-term contracts (like Joe Nathan, Jesse Crain and hopefully soon Pat Neshek).