How should the Marlins have fixed the pen?


Yes, we all know that the Marlins bullpen has sucked this year. Is anyone all that surprised? Not particularly, given the ragtag crew that the team brought in this offseason to pitch the high leverage innings.

What has come as a surprise to me is the outrage of Marlins fans about how the bullpen situation has been handled. This particular FanPost on FishStripes got me thinking about this. Why is it that fans complain about the way a team is built only after the team struggles? Each year, the Marlins build their bullpen in the same fashion: combine younger players with scrap heap veterans and hope for the best. Is it the best way to fill out a pen? Probably not. But how much better would it be to pay free agent value for decent relievers, on average? Probably not much better.

When the Marlins’ plan comes to fruition, as it did in 2009 for the most part, no fan gets mad at the process of building the bullpen. Consider the players involved in the 2009 and 2010 bullpens, for example:

2009 Season

Leo Nunez3.473.48
Matt Lindstrom3.663.50
Kiko Calero4.004.01
Renyel Pinto4.084.09
Dan Meyer*4.234.53
Burke Badenhop*4.454.62

*Denotes that player’s projection is as starter

2010 Season

Leo Nunez4.174.20
Renyel Pinto4.054.40
Dan Meyer4.084.08
Brian Sanches4.264.04
Jose Veras4.244.39
Burke Badenhop4.003.89

Very similar numbers right? Yet last season very few people were up in arms about the bullpen, especially in the middle of the season as Kiko Calero, Dan Meyer, and others were successful. Only when Leo Nunez began giving up all those home runs did Marlins fans begin getting uneasy and questioning the wisdom of the front office for going off the scrap heap for the bullpen.

This is the same retrospective analysis of moves that gets GM’s fired for making decent trades and signings which turn into busts for reasons outside their control. The Marlins are employing a strategy that will allow them to save money (whether you like that or not is up to you) on an area that is pretty random in terms of performance. Only the best bullpen pitchers are consistently good year-to-year, and even the consistently average relievers are not usually worth the free agent money teams would have to pay.

For those who thought the Marlins should have pursued some free agent relievers, here were some available, recognizable names and their subsequent contract signings:

PlayerCHONE Proj. ERACHONE Proj. FIPContract
Mike Gonzalez4.124.242yr/$12M
Fernando Rodney4.584.502yr/$11M
Brandon Lyon3.663.753yr/$15M
Kevin Gregg4.164.541yr/$2.75M
Billy Wagner3.163.041yr/$7M
Takashi Saito3.183.471yr/$3.2M
Jose Valverde3.474.042yr/$14M
Matt Capps3.633.821yr/$3.5M

Those players were among the former closers who ended up with major league deals. Very few of those guys project to be worth the amount which they will be paid this season, and only Saito, Gregg, and Capps were even close to the Marlins’ price range. Of all of the pitchers mentioned, Gregg and Capps were the best fits for the Fish in terms of money, projected performance, and minimization of injury risk (Saito had missed all of 2008). A few of those relievers were also Type A free agents, and at least two (Valverde and Gonzalez) were offered arbitration, meaning the Marlins would have owed draft picks for signing them.

The top end relievers that signed multi-year deals were barely projected better than Burke Badenhop. Is it the front office’s fault that the Hopper struggled and was sent to the minors? Unlikely. Would it have been worth paying both money and draft picks to get these relievers? How many more games would Gonzalez, Valverde, or Wagner saved for the team? In 30 innings, Wagner was projected to allow only three fewer runs than Meyer. That may translate to about half a win if they pitched in similar roles. Prorate that to 70 innings and that’s a saving of about 0.7 wins, maybe a full win better. Would that have been worth the extra $6M in committed dollars (plus any potential buyout money for options) that Wagner might have cost?

Yes, the Marlins bullpen has been terrible this year. However, this does not mean the front office did the wrong thing before the season started. They went with the same plan they have been going to for years, the same plan that we have all been agreeing to for years. This time it did not work, but we cannot use that hindsight to retrospectively question the work of the FO.