The first is a lineup filled with good hitters, guys with good on-base percentages and good slugging percentages — a group that refrains from chasing bad pitches, sustains rallies, and generally scores a bunch of runs.
The second is for the front office to wheel and deal intelligently: Buy low, sell high, bluff, leave two islands untapped to keep the threat of counterspell present, spend wisely and save when necessary. That sort of stuff.
The third is a competent bullpen.
There’s probably more than three; I just like how it sounded this way. Sandy Alderson and his TI-83s have mostly succeeded in the first two goals this season. The Mets are second in the NL in on-base percentage and fifth in runs-per-game with a lineup that has been patched together the entire year. (Daniel Murphy, who has been out since the beginning of this month, still leads the team in games played.) They wheeled and dealt with skill, spending money in the draft, cutting the dead weight in spring training, turning Carlos Beltran’s resurgence into a pitching prospect Zack Wheeler and dumping Francisco Rodriguez’s awful contract on the Brewers in exchange for two living baseball persons. Those phases have been a success.
But that third thing, the bullpen, well that hasn’t quite gone according to plan. Unless the plan was to have an awful bullpen, in which case — kudos. Going into last night, Mets relievers ranked dead last in the National League with a 4.29 ERA, second from last in wins above replacement, and third from the bottom in FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, a pretend-ERA statistic based only on strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed). Which is to say that the bullpen has been bad. The average ERA for a NL reliever this season is 3.58; only four of the 13 relievers used by the Mets this year have bettered that mark, and three of those four (Frankie Rodriguez, Taylor Buchholz and Mike O’Connor) are no longer with the team. That leaves lefty specialist Tim Byrdak as the sole remaining above-average reliever the Mets have used this season.
In other words, the Mets’ bullpen has been really, really terrible in 2011. The Spaghetti Incident bad. If the number of runs the Mets lead by isn’t higher than the number of outs the bullpen needs to get, I assume that the lead will be erased. It’s just easier that way.
The good news, if there is good news, is that it’s pretty easy to remake a bullpen. The only reliever with a guaranteed contract for next season is D.J. Carrasco – because they had to lock that down given the chance — so nearly the entire thing can be revamped by next spring at little extra cost. Other than letting everyone get healthy and a year older, fixing the bullpen is the easiest way for the Mets to improve in 2012.
But simply turning over a bullpen is different from remaking it into a good bullpen. Keeping that in mind, let’s look at four teams that have had success building bullpens over the past few years — the Atlanta Braves, the Boston Red Sox, the Chicago White Sox and the San Francisco Giants — and see what they’ve done to make a successful bullpen. Other then “get a bunch of good relievers.” Let’s make a plan.
Lesson 1: You don’t need more than one or two good homegrown arms — By Fangraphs’ count, the Braves’ bullpen has earned more wins above replacement (WAR) over the past three seasons than any other team; the White Sox are a close second and the San Francisco Giants’ pen is third. The Red Sox are eighth over that span, but they were fifth in 2009, fell to 27th in 2010, and then bounced back to second in 2011, so they’re on here more for knowing how to rebuild a bullpen quickly than anything else. These are teams that know how to make a bullpen.
But these teams haven’t succeeded by growing an army of reliever in the minors. In fact, going by these team’s blueprints, you only need one or two guys from your own farm: Atlanta’s system has produced the most, three bullpen arms in that period, Kris Medlen, Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters. The White Sox system has produced just one reliever over that time, setup man Chris Sale. The Giants and Red Sox have produced two major contributors apiece, Brian Wilson and Sergio Romo for San Francisco, Jonathan Papelbon and Daniel Bard for Boston. Nearly every other reliever for these teams over the past three years has come via trade, waivers or free agency, and not from the team’s own system.
Granted, these homegrown folk are the heavy-lifters for most of these bullpens. Papelbon, Wilson and Kimbrel are their teams’ respective closers. Plus, growing your own relief aces has its benefits: You get the upside of a top closer or setup man without the risks that come from handing out a three-year guaranteed contracts to relievers. But one or two of these dudes at a time gets it done, and the recent White Sox have proved that you don’t even need any.
What the Mets can do: Bobby Parnell is one homegrown, cost controlled guy the Mets have right now. He’ll be back next season, and I’d guess that he’s going to pitch better. So that’s one reliever down, six or so to go.
Lesson 2: Find talent everywhere — Peter Moylan and Eric O’Flaherty have been the two mainstays of the Braves’ recent bullpen. Atlanta picked up the sidearming Moylan after his impressive showing with Australia in the 2006 World Baseball Classic; they stole O’Flaherty on waivers from Seattle after he failed to impress in the majors despite good minor league peripherals. The Red Sox signed Hideki Okajima out of Japan in 2007, and the no-look lefty gave them 192 innings and a 2.72 ERA before his arm began to give out last year. Bobby Jenks was a fat, injured prospect bouncing about the Angels system before the White Sox nabbed him on waivers and turned him into their closer. There’s relief gold to be found out there, overseas or stuffing themselves in someone else’s system. It’s usually cheap and low risk to grab.
What the Mets can do: Ryota Igarashi was the right idea, just the wrong player. Hisanori Takahashi was the right idea, and right player. (Tangential, but my guess is that Japanese pitchers with funky motions fare better than their more traditionally-motioned counterparts.) Pedro Beato was probably the right idea, but the jury is out on the results. Alderson should keep scanning the waiver wires, Rule 5 draft, and international relief market this winter.
Lesson 3: Don’t fear the old, brittle closer — This should really be called the Takashi Saito rule. Find an old former closer with a duct-taped arm? Sign him up. The Red Sox picked up the Dodger’s former closer for the 2009 season, and Saito gave them 55.2 innings of 2.43 ERA ball. The Braves tried the same trick the next year, and Saito gave them 54 innings and a 2.83 ERA. The Brewers were next in line, and Saito has given them just 19.1 innings thus far in 2011, but a 2.33 ERA along the way. All these teams did (or probably will) make the postseason.
Billy Wagner with the Red Sox late in 2009 and the Braves in 2010 is another example of this gambit, as is J.J. Putz with the White Sox in 2010. Jason Isringhausen a less successful version of this plan. But bringing on an old guy with some injury risk on the cheap seems to be a good idea. If he’s healthy, you just got a second closer at (million) dollar store price.
What the Mets can do: Old, now-brittle closers Brad Lidge and Joe Nathan might be free agents this winter, should their teams decline their expensive contract options for 2012. Kerry Wood will be out there, and a couple other names. If any of them will come aboard for incentive-laden one-year deals? Cool. If they can stay healthy, it’s a relief ace on the cheap.
Lesson 4: But don’t bring in another closer at closer money if you already have a closer — Paying a lot of money for one closer is usually a bad idea; paying a lot of money for two closers is always a bad idea. And the baseball gods seemingly love to punish such crimes. Bobby Jenks with the Red Sox, Raphael Soriano with the Yankees, J.J. Putz with the Mets. Bringing in a second closer at closer money is like signing on as the drummer for Spinal Tap – it’s not going to end well.
What the Mets can do: Don’t go out and sign both Jonathan Papelbon and Heath Bell to multi-year contracts this winter. It seems like it should work, but . . . just don’t do it.
Lesson 5: Avoid multi-year deals for free agent relief pitchers if possible — Same idea as above, except expanding to non-closers. Rebuilding their bullpen this winter, the Red Sox picked up three of their better pitchers, Matt Albers, Dan Wheeler and Alfredo Aceves, for less than $5 million dollars, and the only money they commitment beyond 2011 is Wheeler’s vesting option for next season. The Braves picked up their lefty specialist, George Sherill, for less than $2 million dollars on a one year deal. The Mets LOOGY and best reliever this year, Tim Byrdak, was another cheap one-year signing.
Meanwhile: Bobby Jenks. D.J. Carrasco. Pedro Feliciano. Raphael Soriano. Brandon Lyon. D.J. Carrasco. Pitchers get hurt. Relief pitchers become ineffective quickly and seemingly at random — like D.J. Carrasco. Don’t give them more than a year if you can get away with it.
What the Mets can do: The Mets aren’t going to fix their bullpen woes by handing out a bunch of three-year deals to top free agent relievers this offseason. That’s only going to make things worse — someone is going to pay Ryan Madson a lot of money to sit on the DL for two years, and the Mets don’t want to be that team. Bringing in two or three random dudes for the same price is the way to go. If Byrdak wants back in on a one-year deal, cool.
6. When in doubt, seize the hard-throwing strikeout pitcher – Over the past three seasons, the Braves’ and White Sox’s bullpens lead baseball in strikeout rate; the Giants are fifth. It’s not an accident that they’ve been three of the best bullpens during that time. The Braves, White Sox, Giants and Red Sox also make up four of the eight teams with the highest average fastball velocity over that stretch. Brian Wilson brings it at 95 MPH for the Giants, Daniel Bard at nearly 98 MPH for the Red Sox, and the Braves’ Craig Kimbrel sits at 96, and they’re all tough to square up. Other things that are normally indicative of pitching success – walk rate, home run rate, and especially ground ball rate – don’t seem to be as important for bullpen success as strikeout rate and velocity.
What the Mets can do: I’m cool with Manny Acosta (94 MPH) hanging around. Maybe he’s finally figured it out, but live arms are more valuable than soft-tossers.
The Plan: If Sandy Alderson can piece together an average bullpen, that would be about a two or three game difference in the standings. A somewhat-good bullpen would be a four or five game swing — the difference between the Mets being five games under and five games over right now. It’s the easiest and cheapest way to improve the team next season.
Parnell, Byrdak and Acosta the three current Mets relievers I’d advocate for next season. If they can find one old, broken-down closer, that would make four relievers. The Mets have an abundance of decent-hitting, corner players – Nick Evans, Zach Lutz, Josh Satin, Fernando Martinez – that, with Ike Davis, Jason Bay, David Wright, Lucas Duda, Justin Turner and Daniel Murphy, they’re probably not going to need anytime soon. So maybe one gets flipped for a decent reliever this winter (or someone’s change-of-scenery candidate they can make a reliever), which makes five arms. Bring in two or three or more free agents, waiver-wire picks, Rule 5 picks or non-tenders, and presto: a new Mets bullpen that shouldn’t cost much in dollars or talent. And much less hair pulling at the end of games.