Our next Pinch Hitter, Kevin Seefried, spent his early years in Westchester County before moving to Colorado at the turn of the century. He’s now a freshman at Claremont McKenna College, and he co-founded 6pound8ouncebabyjoba.com  back in 2008. Kevin is often featured at the Claremont Sports Connection where his Sports Disconnection series  recently debuted, and he’s a regular on The Nightcap  sports talk radio show in Claremont, CA.
Kevin spends his free time listening to Mitch Hedberg and Daniel Tosh albums to feed his stand-up comedy addiction. In his more serious hours, Kevin is an Economics major — for whatever it’s worth, I actually minored in economics at Mizzou — and he’d like to land a gig in the sports industry at some point. For his guest post, the self-described “Joba-idolizing character” looked into what it takes to build a winning bullpen.
Okay, so the Yanks’ signing of Rafael Soriano sort of lit the blogosphere ablaze with debate and disagreement and yada, yada, yada. Questions arose. Should teams spend big dollars on set-up men and lefty-specialists? Or should the bullpen be an assemblage of minimum wage (by MLB standards) journeymen, rookies, fading stars and failed starters?
Well, I’m going to start by apologizing for not taking a staunch hold to either side and settle in the middle.
Brian Cashman has it right: You can have extreme success in the bullpen by throwing a bunch of guys out there and seeing what sticks. Phil Hughes electrified the Yanks’ endgame in ’09 when he unexpectedly stepped into a setup role. David Robertson wasn’t the biggest name on the farm, but he’s proven important over the past couple years. Heck, even Edwar Ramirez and Jose Veras saw some success in the ‘pen.
That said, wasn’t Hughes one of the game’s best starting pitching prospects? His dominance in a one-inning role wasn’t all that surprising. Robertson was a K-master in the minors before his promotion, posting a 15.34 K/9 rate at AAA in ’09, a 13.11 rate in 35 AAA innings in ’08, and a 12.54 rate in his other 18.2 ’08 innings at the AA level. So, it shouldn’t have been shocking that MLB hitters flailed at his pitches too. As for Veras and Ramirez, they essentially flunked out of the bullpen in ’09, right?
The Yankee bullpen’s 4.06 FIP in 2010 placed last among playoff teams. With Kerry Wood back on the North Side of Chicago, the team needed to add some insurance to their late-game staff. Sure, you can hope and pray that an eighth-inning messiah arises from the mess of relievers fighting for time in the Bronx, but how likely is that to happen?
Among Robertson, Joba Chamberlain, Mark Prior, Robert Fish, Steve Garrison, Ryan Pope, Brian Schlitter, and Daniel Turpen, do you really see anyone that’ll remind us of Mariano circa 1996? The lights-out talents that manned the eighth inning for the Yanks’ last three playoff teams were all former top-prospects: Joba, Hughes and Wood. With a not-so-full rotation, the Yanks can’t be plugging top young starting talents into late-inning roles when those guys would be much more valuable taking the hill for six or seven innings at a time. Even before Soriano signed, it was pretty clear that any gems like the 2007 Joba or the 2009 Hughes are going to be asked to start, not take on a set-up role.
When it comes to the game’s last two innings, it’s nice to have a little insurance, but when patching together the rest of the bullpen, Cashman’s approach can be effective. I’m fine watching Veras/Ramirez/Robertson/Coke/Aceves types in the middle innings, because someone is bound to play over their head for the year and make the stat-lines look good. You don’t need a Mariano-type in the sixth inning, but come the eighth, knowing that your lead is safe is a big deal.
Relievers are volatile, which is why generally it’s not smart to dish out the big bucks to a seventh- or eighth-inning guy. When a guy is coming off one good year, with an injury-laden past or without a strong history of success, dishing out dinero is silly.
Folks with proven records are worth the extra couple mill, though.
Arms like Scott Downs, Ryan Madson, Matt Thornton and — yes — Rafael Soriano proved dominant consistently for two-plus years and thus deserve to be paid accordingly. Sure, some deals won’t work out, but hey, that’s true at any position. The best way to look at relievers is to examine the marginal upgrade of a signee over whatever arms would otherwise take up a roster spot. The difference between a 3.50 ERA/1.30 WHIP veteran and a bunch of rookies that might put up those same numbers isn’t enough to merit a seven-figure salary. If the veteran in question will post a 2.00 ERA/1.10 WHIP, however, he’s worth the investment. That’s a big upgrade over a spring-training standout.
The only way to run a baseball team is with an open-mind to all philosophies. You don’t have to embrace them all or completely abandon a strategy that has worked, but GMs need to constantly reevaluate each situation. Yes, letting a hodgepodge of relievers duke it out for bullpen spots can work. Yes, paying a veteran millions of dollars to join that ‘pen can work too, just ask Tom Gordon. But you can’t just choose one path and never make exceptions.
Moral of the story: You have to adjust for your budget, your situation, your in-house options, your out-of-house options and your rotation. Sticking with one theory because it worked in a different time and different situation just won’t fly. Billy Beane moved away from OBP and poor fielders, Roger Clemens stopped relying solely on his fastball, and Brian Cashman must consider alternate bullpen theories. That’s the game. That’s life. Adjusting to the situation is the only way to see success.
Associated Press photos