Youth In the Bullpen Is Still the Way to Go


I hate to ever, ever use T.J. Simers as a source for anything – hell, in the same column we’re about to discuss, he says he’d choose Ian Kennedy over Clayton Kershaw for the Cy Young because “without Kennedy the Diamondbacks don’t win the division”, as though A) that makes sense or B) Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay don’t exist – but the LA Times‘ resident clownshoe did manage to elicit an interesting quote out of Ned Colletti yesterday:

He’s hoping Hiroki Kuroda returns and will look to add a veteran to the bullpen, “but not a closer,” he says. “I think we’ll go with a combination of Kenley Jensen [sic] and Javy Guerra.”

For such a short sentence, there’s a whole lot going on there, and I’m not talking about Kuroda. Let’s take the second part first, where he says they’ll stick with Guerra and Kenley Jansen (not that Simers knows who that is) in the back of the bullpen. This is unquestionably the correct decision, because Jansen has been one of the most dominating relievers we’ve seen in years – decades, perhaps – and Guerra, for all of our uncertainty about his underwhelming peripherals, has consistently gotten the job done as the closer. While Jansen fits the prototypical mold of the fireballing closer more than Guerra, I agree with Jon Weisman that using him as the fireman in the highest leverage situations is a much better use of his time than shoehorning him into the 9th inning because that’s simply what closers do, which is often not when the game is won or lost. Going out and spending big dollars on a closer just because he has “saves”, like Francisco Rodriguez, Matt Capps, or Heath Bell, is not the most efficient usage of money when you have Jansen and Guerra, and good on Colletti for recognizing that.

If that was the end of the story, we’d be sitting pretty, but unfortunately, Colletti had to add that he wants to add a veteran to the bullpen, and that’s where the problems begin. We’ve talked ad nauseum around here about the unfortunate Matt Guerrier contract and how handing out multi-year contracts to decent-ish middle relievers rarely works (particularly when, as shown in that last link, better veteran relievers were signed for less money last winter).

It’s not even that Guerrier has been bad this year, because he hasn’t, just that there’s almost no way he lives up to the money committed to him, as Chad Moriyama broke down a few weeks ago:

Guerrier was the big money free agent signing, and he was actually decently productive in 2011. Unfortunately, the only reason he clocks in at positive value is because of the deferred nature of his overall contract (4 Y/12 M), so he’ll have to get better in a hurry if he wants to continue breaking even. The more likely scenario is that it ends up being a neutral to poor overall transaction.

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Over the course of the 2011 season, the Dodgers relief corps has proved that bullpen arms are indeed a fickle and fungible group, with production to be found from a multitude of sources, and that the most value out of the pen is commonly derived from those making the least. Sticking with cheap team controlled building blocks in the bullpen can be highly effective, and the money used to sign costly relievers can frequently be better used elsewhere.

This is especially true because relief pitching is one of the few areas that the Dodgers are relatively deep in as far as young arms on the way up. In addition to Jansen, Guerra, Guerrier, Scott Elbert, & Josh Lindblom, all proven at the big league level (we’ll have to get back to whether Hong-Chih Kuo gets tendered a contract another time), the organization is full of nearly-ready names like Shawn Tolleson, Steven Ames, & Cole St. Clair, moderately useful filler like Blake Hawksworth (if tendered) and Jon Link, plus who among us doesn’t believe that Mike MacDougal and his shiny ERA will be back? That’s a pretty full bullpen right there, and it’s not like this team doesn’t have a dozen other holes to fill in the upcoming offseason.

Now, if signing a veteran bullpen arm means another scrap-heap type like MacDougal, then fine, since for all his warts he made just $500,000 this year. Colletti does seem to be able to find at least one arm like that every year. If it means handing out another multi-year deal to one of the members of this year’s non-elite reliever free agent class – I’m looking at you, Jon Rauch, Mike Gonzalez, Jason Frasor and Chad Qualls – then we could be in trouble.

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