How To Build a Bullpen

Last year at this time, the story was how Doug Melvin prioritized the bullpen and spent big bucks bringing in reinforcements.  He signed Gagne, Riske, and Mota, and traded for Salomon Torres, all the while making threatening phone calls to rival GMs who were thought to also be upgrading their bullpens.

Thanks in large part to Gagne's $10 million contract, the Brewers went into the season with either the most expensive or the second-most expensive 'pen in the majors.  (Both battlekow and TheJay wrote about it last year, and their math came out slightly differently.)  The bill: about $27 million.  For reference, the average bullpen salary (for the top 7 guys) is in the $13 million range.

This year, of course, things are different.  We're still paying Riske the (relatively) big bucks, but Mota left and Torres retired (frowny face) and Gagne is back on a cheap contract.  The big pickup was a $6 million deal for Trevor Hoffman, but after that, we're looking at a bunch of high six-figure deals.

By my rough calculations, the 7-man bullpen is likely to come in between $15 and $18 million, and probably closer to the low end.  Here's the upper limit (barring signings or trades):

  • Hoffman: $6.0
  • Riske: $4.25
  • Gagne: $3.5 (if he makes 60 appearances)
  • McClung: $1.66
  • Julio: $1.55 (base of $950k, can make $600k in incentives based on appearances)
  • Coffey: $0.8
  • Villanueva: $0.41
  • Total: $18.17

Of course, there's no guarantee Gagne will make the team and certainly no lock he'll make 60 appearances.  Nor is Julio a lock, either for a roster spot or appearances.  While the team is on the hook for Julio's and Coffey's contracts whether or not they are on the opening day roster, it's easy to construct a 7-man bullpen with the available parts for much cheaper:

  • Hoffman: $6.0
  • Riske: $4.25
  • McClung: $1.66
  • Villanueva: $0.41
  • Stetter: $0.4
  • Swindle: $0.4
  • DiFelice: $0.4
  • Total: $13.52

That's a bit extreme, but it's certainly possible.  And it's the closest we'll get to a league-average bullpen payroll.  I suspect we'll go into the season with one or more of Julio, Coffey, and Gagne on the roster, pushing that number up to between $14 and $18 million, depending on how the season goes.

Building a Bullpen

The most glaring problem with the lists above is Riske for $4MM -- it's not huge, but if Melvin had a 2 year, $8.5MM option on Riske this offseason, he almost certainly wouldn't have taken it.  If a team offered a C+ prospect for Riske and took all of the contract, I think I'd be glad to make that move.

The moral of the story: There are basically two kinds of relievers.  Awesome ones, and fungible ones.  I guess there's a third type: fungible ones who can also start, like McClung and Villanueva.  They are certainly more valuable than equivalent pitchers who can only go one or two innings, but as far as bullpen construction is concerned, there isn't a big difference.

Riske, at this point, is a fungible one.  Melvin made the mistake last year of thinking Gagne and Riske were awesome ones, so we end up with an expensive bullpen consisting of Torres and a decidedly mixed bag.

What is a lot more appealing about this year's 'pen is that Melvin seems to have recognized that he could build just as good of a bullpen without drawing too heavily on free agent parts.  Essentially, he's guaranteed spots to Hoffman, Riske, McClung, and Villanueva and is holding an open tryout for three more jobs.  (If something happens to a starter and McClung moves to the rotation, we're talking four jobs, not three.)

As we discussed when comparing Melvin to Jack Z a while back, this is really Doug's strength.  He wowed fans and insiders alike with one bargain-bin pickup after another, but you can't build a perennial 85+ win team out of styrofoam, duct tape, and Scott Podsednik.  You can, however, assemble an excellent bullpen for $10 million.  But it's a lot easier when you don't start by giving Eric Gagne $10 million of that.

I talk a lot about how many starters it takes to get through a season, but it's worth noting how many relievers it takes, too.  Last year, 14 guys (not counting Bush and Parra) pitched out of the Milwaukee bullpen, and you don't have to look very hard to find teams who needed many more.  Those 14 included desperation pickup Julian Tavarez, odd September pickup Todd Coffey, and prospect-everybody-knew-wasn't-ready Zach Jackson. 

This year, not everyone who loses the open tryout is going to stick around (Morlan and Gagne are the most obvious examples) but some guys will.  For instance, we'll hold on to whichever of Stetter and Swindle doesn't make the team.  Much like the Looper signing ensured we're not going to go Jeff Weaver shopping anytime soon, this type of bullpen-building approach makes it much less less likely we'll be looking for Julian Tavarez coupons.

Most of all, I'm just glad to be talking about a bullpen payroll that starts with a "1" instead of a "2."  It's awfully hard to put together a good mid-payroll team when you're spending $28 million on relievers, and it's just as hard to find $28 million worth of relievers to spend it on.  We can continue to debate whether Hoffman is worth $6 million or not, but even if you think it's a waste, remember that he's the only one.

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