Midway through June of 2012, I took a look at the quietly effective Dodger bullpen, noting that a group which was made up entirely of low-cost homegrown players like Kenley Jansen, Scott Elbert, Ronald Belisario, Javy Guerra, & Josh Lindblom, along with two relatively inexpensive veteran imports in Jamey Wright & Todd Coffey, had become one of the better outfits in the game. Since we’d been spending the better part of a year decrying the silly Matt Guerrier deal and far longer prior to that discussing how long-term deals to non-elite relievers almost never work out, seeing the inexpensive relief corps succeed was a nice validation of that theory.
The bullpen that ended the season looked a lot different than the one we saw in June, but the premise remained the same. Lindblom was traded to Philadelphia while Elbert, Guerra, & Jansen dealt with injury problems, and Shawn Tolleson, Paco Rodriguez, & Josh Wall arrived from the farm system to take their places. On the veteran side, Coffey blew out his arm, but Brandon League & Randy Choate were acquired via trade to join Wright and the youngsters. Other than Guerrier, who missed nearly the entire season due to injury, no Dodger reliever made more than the approximately $1.7m League had remaining on his contract after coming over from Seattle on July 31.
Despite all the turnover, the relievers remained successful. No group in baseball allowed fewer homers per nine innings; they finished 7th in FIP and tied for 7th in ERA, along with the 10th-most shutdowns and the 10th-fewest meltdowns. The Dodger relievers were not only effective, the entire group came at a cost less than what Jonathan Papelbon alone was making in the first year of his big new contract with the Phillies. So you’d think that the success of this group and the long, ugly track record around baseball would finally Ned Colletti that bestowing multi-year deals to relievers like Guerrier was rarely a risk worth taking.
…and then this week we learned that not only was Colletti attempting to retain both Wright & Choate, but that he was in discussions with League’s agents on a three-year contract to keep him in Los Angeles. As you can imagine, the initial response from the Dodger blogosphere has been pretty negative. Chad Moriyama summed it up with “yikes” and “downright frightening”, before going into full detail on how many failed multi-year deals to relievers we’ve seen in recent years, while Cee Angi, guesting at True Blue LA, argued that such a deal “would be nothing more than the Dodgers buying into the hype that they need someone in the bullpen who has worn the closer crown”.
I tend to agree with them, as I’m sure you do, but there’s not a lot of nuance there other than wanting to roll up a newspaper and smacking Colletti in the nose with it while saying, “no, Ned, bad.” Of course three-year deals aren’t ideal for relievers, and of course I would prefer not to have to hand one out. Yet I think that after the way League ended 2012, he’s going to get that kind of a deal somewhere, and if it’s Los Angeles, is it really such a given that this would end so poorly?
First and foremost, we have no idea how much the potential contract would be worth. Angi suggests it’d be in the $10m-$15m range, which A) seems really, really low and B) sign me up, if so. (League made $5m in 2012 without the leverage of free agency, so I’d have to think he’s looking for a raise, which over a three-year deal would work out to something more like $20-$25m.) In a world where Papelbon is picking up $51m over four years, that seems like a pretty fair price for a good-but-not-elite reliever.
And that’s exactly what League is. Over the last four seasons, League’s FIP numbers have been 3.58, 3.91, 2.78, 3.19. That’s a worthwhile reliever, and it comes along with the added potential, however unlikely, that the mechanical changes League made after coming to the Dodgers is something he can sustain into next season. He’s also not even 30, which is certainly preferable to Guerrier, who turned 33 in the middle of his first season as a Dodger.
It’s hard to argue that there’s not a fit for someone like League in the bullpen, anyway. I love Kenley Jansen and so do you, but there’s no guarantee that his continued cardiac problems are solved by this month’s procedure. Even if they are, we’ve long talked about how the “closer” role is silly, so how nice would it be to have Jansen freed up to enter in the seventh or eighth to shut things down when the game is really on the line? And while we liked the Dodger bullpen this year, there’s still a lot of uncertainty aside from Jansen. Elbert is coming off elbow surgery. Paco Rodriguez graduated high school like twenty minutes ago. Who knows what Javy Guerra ends up being. And Ronald Belisario is Ronald Belisario.
Again, I’m not saying I love the idea of giving three years and over $20m to League, just because relievers are so volatile. But you have to keep in mind that these aren’t the McCourt Dodgers. While there’s obviously going to be a point where a payroll limit is reached – at least, in theory – I care a lot more about optimal usage of roster spots than I do about the budget, and one of the biggest complaints about Guerrier was, “well, there’s $12m that won’t be available to go to a player who could actually help.” The Dodgers are already on the books for about ~$200m next year, so $5-7m for League is barely a splash. If they want to go out and get Zack Greinke or someone like him, League’s deal isn’t going to stop them.
Having a huge budget is not the same thing as accepting foolish spending, of course, and that’s part of why the deals for Guerrier & Juan Uribe stunk so badly: tight budgets or not, they were never going to provide value, because they’re just not that good. League’s no Hall of Famer; he’s also a lot more likely to contribute than those two were.
So it really comes down to this, for me. Do I want to give League three guaranteed years? Not really. But do I think he’ll be worth a roster spot in at least two of them? Yeah, I do. So as long as this deal isn’t something absurd like making him a $10m/year player, I could get on board with it.