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Paying and Not Paying for Relief

The Brewers are poised to begin the 2010 season with a payroll around $85 million.  Of that $85 million, about $77 million will be paid to players on the Opening Day roster or disabled list.  Of that $77 million, at least $20 million will be spent on relief pitching.  The breakdown is as follows:

  • Trevor Hoffman - $7,500,000
  • David Riske (DL) - $4,500,000
  • LaTroy Hawkins - $3,500,000
  • Todd Coffey - $2,025,002
  • Carlos Villanueva - $950,000
  • Claudio Vargas - $900,000
  • Mitch Stetter - ~$450,000
  • 7th Healthy RP - $400,000+

Obviously, the roster is not set and the names could change.  There is one very expensive wild card that could really skew the numbers, but those eight players alone total $20,225,002.  That means the Brewers will spend over a quarter of their Opening Day payroll on relief pitching.

This is not the first time during Doug Melvin's tenure the Brewers have spent a mint filling out the relief corps.  In 2008, the Brewers rivaled the Yankees for the priciest bullpen, paying over $3 million to Eric Gagne, Guillermo Mota, Salomon Torres, and Derrick Turnbow.  The team spent over $27 million on relievers, or one-third of the Opening Day payroll.

With that in mind, I thought it would be worth looking at the cheapest and most expensive bullpens relative to team payroll in recent MLB history.

First, some ground rules.  If you look at four websites, you will find four different totals for Opening Day payroll.  I have found each website purporting to have Opening Day payroll data flawed in one form or another, so for the sake of consistency I used the USA Today Salaries Database.  A few of this database's flaws: no buyouts, deferred payments, or incentive clauses are included in the numbers.  Additionally, players with guaranteed contracts released before the season are not included.  The most egregious example I can think of is Gary Sheffield's $14 million drag on the 2009 Tigers.  As a matter of personal preference, I have elected to keep players on the disabled list (determined through the transactions log) on the roster for payroll calculations.  Where the injured player is a free agent signing like David Riske, it is likely they would be on the roster if healthy.  Unfortunately, injured young and/or fringe pitchers (think Randy Choate in 2008) are also included, but I think it better to include a few extra cheap arms than to try and determine retroactively a team's bullpen given perfect health.  Finally, any pitcher who did not begin the year in his team's starting rotation was considered a reliever for this study.  I used articles from each team's official website news archive (example) to determine their starting rotation each year.  Occasionally, teams manipulating their roster through 4-man rotations and health issues caused some pitchers' roles to be called into question.  In these cases, I looked through news articles and made my own decision.  I will not claim this study is infallible; I have merely applied the same rules to every team from 2005 to 2009.

To start, the numbers of local interest:

Team OD Payroll OD RP Payroll RP % Relievers
2005 Brewers 39,934,833 2,817,000 7.05 Adams, Bottalico, de la Rosa, Obermueller, Phelps, Turnbow, Wise
2006 Brewers 57,568,333 5,841,000 10.15 Capellan, de la Rosa, Fernandez, Helling, Kolb, Lehr, Turnbow, Wise
2007 Brewers 70,986,500 12,404,167 17.47 Aquino, Cordero, Dessens, Shouse, Turnbow, Villanueva, Wise
2008 Brewers 80,938,500 27,154,000 33.55 Choate(DL), Gagne, McClung, Mota, Riske, Shouse, Torres, Turnbow
2009 Brewers 80,182,502 14,920,002 18.61 Coffey, DiFelice, Hoffman(DL), Julio, McClung, Riske, Stetter, Villanueva

As you can tell, the Brewers spent four years increasing their reliever payroll percentage before slipping in 2009 as most of the 2008 $3M+ club left town.  As discussed in the opener, the 2010 RP % should be at least 25.00.

For some leaguewide context, consider this:  the Brewers ranked 26th in RP % in 2005, 21st in 2006, 10th in 2007, 1st in 2008, and 12th in 2009.  Now, it is difficult to draw meaningful conclusions from only three seasons, but it is fairly clear to me that a veteran (read: pricey) bullpen is one of Doug Melvin's keys to contending.  Much of this can be explained by Doug Melvin's recent emphasis on expensive closers.  While Derrick Turnbow cheaply filled the closer's role in 2005 and half of 2006, Francisco Cordero made $5 million in 2007, Eric Gagne made eight figures in 2008, and Trevor Hoffman made $6 million in 2009.

While closers often soak up much of the money a team sends to the bullpen, another role also inflates the reliever payroll: ex-starters.  Brewers fans can name one such candidate in 2010.  A look at the teams with a RP % of at least 25 over the last five seasons and the most expensive reliever on each team will provide some more examples.

Rank Team Wins OD Payroll OD RP Payroll RP % Most Expensive Reliever
1 2006 Padres 88 69,896,642 24,212,142 34.64 Chan Ho Park ($15,505,142)
2 2008 Brewers 90 80,937,500 27,154,000 33.55 Eric Gagne ($10,000,000)
3 2007 Pirates 68 38,537,833 11,755,833 30.50 Shawn Chacon ($3,825,000)
4 2008 Rays 97 43,820,597 13,355,897 30.48 Troy Percival ($3,897,797)
5 2009 Twins 87 65,299,266 18,587,000 28.46 Joe Nathan ($11,250,000)
6 2005 Devil Rays 67 29,992,567 8,467,000 28.23 Danys Baez ($3,750,000)
7 2008 Marlins 84 21,811,500 6,001,500 27.52 Kevin Gregg ($2,500,000)
8 2009 Reds 78 74,368,500 20,363,000 27.38 Francisco Cordero ($12,125,000)
9 2009 Rays 84 63,313,034 17,220,366 27.20 Troy Percival ($4,445,000)
10 2008 Orioles 68 67,196,246 18,213,332 27.10 Danys Baez ($6,166,666)
11 2009 Blue Jays 75 80,538,300 20,427,600 25.36 B.J. Ryan ($12,000,000)

A few things jump out here.  First, teams like paying Danys Baez.  Second, spending a lot on relievers has been popular the last two years.  Third, these teams are all in the middle to bottom of the payroll spectrum.   It's not hard to guess why: a closer making eight figures pulls down at least 12.5% of each team's payroll, skewing the numbers by themselves.  A team paying over $100 million is less affected by one or two expensive players.  Finally, while the 2008 Brewers and 2009 Twins finished with nice records and expensive closers, it's worth noting the other .500+ teams on the list had relatively cheap relievers (excluding relegated-to-the-bullpen Chan Ho Park).  All in all, I look at this list and think that a) there may not be a direct correlation between RP % and wins and b) despite this, putting a quarter of the team payroll in the bullpen doesn't bode especially well for the 2010 Brewers.

Of course, for every top eleven, there is a bottom eleven.  Ten teams in the last five seasons spent less than 7% of their payroll on relievers and the eleventh team on the list has a local feel.

Rank Team Wins OD Payroll OD RP Payroll RP % Most Expensive Reliever
1 2007 White Sox
108,671,833 3,498,500 3.22 Mike MacDougal ($1,500,000)
2 2005 Astros
76,779,000 2,796,000 3.64
John Franco ($700,000)
3 2005 Angels
94,467,822 3,760,822 3.98 Esteban Yan ($1,000,000)
4 2005 Diamondbacks
63,329,166 3,005,000 4.75
Mike Koplove ($825,000)
5 2008 Dodgers
118,588,536 6,276,000 5.29
Takashi Saito ($2,000,000)
6 2008 Mariners
117,666,482 6,772,500 5.76
J.J. Putz ($4,400,000)
7 2006 White Sox
102,750,667 6,104,000 5.94
Dustin Hermanson ($3,150,000) (DL)
8 2005 Mets
6,411,500 6.30
Felix Heredia ($1,800,000)
9 2007 Dodgers
108,454,524 7,091,000 6.54
Mark Hendrickson ($2,925,000)
10 2008 Giants
76,594,500 5,150,500 6.72
Brad Hennessey ($1,600,000)
11 2005 Brewers
39,934,833 2,817,000 7.05
Ricky Bottalico ($800,000)

The 2005 Brewers went almost as cheap as possible in the bullpen.  Their most expensive Opening Day reliever was released in July.  That didn't stop the Crew 'pen from putting up a 3.89 ERA, fifth in the National League, and playing an instrumental role in the team's first non-losing season since 1992.  In non-Brewers news, I like the 2008 Mariners' bullpen: J.J. Putz and bunch of guys at the minimum.  Their record, on the other hand, leaves something to be desired.  Speaking of records, note that six of the top eleven and six of the bottom eleven teams finished above .500.

Looking at the two lists, it is possible to succeed by utilizing inexpensive relievers or by paying for relatively pricey free agents.  Certainly, going the cheap route takes luck and young pitchers (or journeyman waiver claims) doing well under pressure.  I can understand why teams with a small window to contend do not want to pin their hopes on mostly unknown and/or untested commodities.  It would be a pity to see a contending club fall short because of a relief corps that isn't up to the task.  But looking at the first list again, many of the teams that did well with a high RP % had one very expensive cog in the 'pen surrounded by relatively cheap parts.  The Brewers' front office seems more focused on paying multiple relievers moderate salaries.  This may seem like six of one, half dozen of another, but giving three or four relievers relatively large sums of money is a waste of resources when other teams willing to pay handsomely for a closer can find cheap arms to fill out their bullpen.  That is hardly an original or revolutionary thought, but it is one that seems consistently lost on the denizens of One Brewers Way.

A parting thought: when Trevor Hoffman notches save #600 during the 2010 season, take a minute to reflect on the fact the Brewers are paying him alone nearly three times what they paid their entire Opening Day bullpen in 2005.