Here's one way to describe the state of the Detroit Tigers: They'll have a payroll around $170 million this year. They've been active in the offseason, making deals for Alfredo Simon, Yoenis Cespedes, Anthony Gose and Shane Greene, while spending a lot of money to retain Victor Martinez. They're expecting to contend, and they might be the favorites in the AL Central again.
Here's another way to describe the state of the Tigers: They were embarrassed in the 2014 postseason after a bullpen cataclysm, and so far in the offseason, they've acquired Tom Gorzelanny and Alex Wilson. That's the cavalry.
How can a team spend so much without addressing the problem that ended their season last year? Joe Nathan is 40 and coming off his worst season as a closer. Joakim Soria looked like a deflated bag of assorted Joakim Soria parts by the end of last season, and relying on the erratic Al Alburquerque to be a bullpen pillar is dicey, at best. It's like Achilles switching his flip-flops out for Crocs at the last second. The boots, you fool! Buy the boots!
The Tigers aren't alone, though. The Nationals blew a crucial lead in their postseason run, too, and they just traded away their best reliever. The Brewers have a bushel of quality players, but their closer might end up being Jonathan Broxton. Even though pitchers and catchers report in a couple weeks, there are still teams sneaking around, hoping to add bullpen depth at the last second.
Let's humor them. If you wanted to build a bullpen from scratch on Jan. 21, what's out there? Here are the different ways teams can still build a bullpen at the last second:
Throw money at free agents
Ah, the simplest way! A power ranking of the remaining free agents:
- Casey Janssen
- Burke Badenhop
- Francisco Rodriguez
- Rafael Soriano
- Joba Chamberlain
- Alexi Ogando
- Jose Veras?
- J.J. Putz
- Wait, he's in a front office now? When did that ...
It is Christmas morning, you don't have anything for your kids and the only thing open is Safeway. It's time to be creative. You're not going to build a working robot out of avocados, but there are least a few things there that might limit the disappointment.
Some of the relievers up there were a part of the problem/solution for the aforementioned teams last year: Soriano with the Nats, Rodriguez for the Brewers and Chamberlain for the Tigers. They all come with red flags and warts, with some of the warts having tiny red flags sticking out of them. There's a drawing of a wart on the red flags.
But imperfect as these pitchers are, you know that at least one of them will have a bounceback season. Maybe two or three of them. Badenhop doesn't even need one of those, he just needs to keep pitching as well as he has over the last couple years. The free agent market isn't a panacea, but it's not a total void, either.
The prospects-for-relievers goof rarely works out well, but desperate times call for desperate deals. There are some teams that might not have designs on contending next year, and they might have an extra reliever or two. Find those teams.
Don't look at the Astros. They've spent all offseason acquiring relievers and building a deceptively deep roster. Don't look at the Twins. They're spending money because they fancy themselves contenders. The Mets have the starting pitching to surprise, so they're looking to add, not subtract. The Rockies are the Ralph Wiggum of baseball, so good luck figuring out what they're going to do.
The Phillies and maybe the Rockies, then. Possibly the Diamondbacks. Three teams that think they might fit into the classic template of a team that would be better off dealing its relievers in a rebuilding season. There should be more, but when a third of the teams in baseball make the postseason every year, it makes sense that more than two-thirds of the teams think they have a shot.
The Phillies are a fascinating example, though, as they have a proven closer (Jonathan Papelbon) and a young reliever who is basically becoming a cheaper Craig Kimbrel out of nowhere (Ken Giles). They would be wise to trade the former before something happens to him, and they would be crazy like a fox to look into trades for the latter. Would a team give up a starting pitching prospect for Giles? What about a young, hotshot position player prospect? The Phillies should at least explore the idea, even if you know they won't. They're the Chief Wiggum of baseball, so good luck figuring out what they're going to do.
The Rockies have a couple of interesting folks in their bullpen; the Diamondbacks do, too. And a team doesn't have to be at the back of the class to trade good reliever. Remember that the Nationals just traded their best reliever. Contending teams will want big league talent back, though, so a trade is trickier.
This probably isn't the way to build a bullpen on Jan. 21. Too many teams covet what they have. Too many teams think they're in some sort of race.
At the end of March, there will be roster crunches. Relievers will force their way onto bullpens, and still-talented relievers will pitch their way off rosters. An incomplete list of pitchers who are out of options:
- Josh Outman
- Brad Hand
- Carlos Torres
- Phillippe Aumont
- Justin De Fratus
- Cesar Jimenez
- Craig Stammen
That's just in the NL East, too. I'll guess that at least one of those pitchers will be exposed to waivers or dealt before the season starts. Except, while all of those pitchers have some sort of upside and value, they're not going to save a bullpen on their own. Teams worried about their bullpens probably have arms just like those already, and that's the problem. Maybe they'll work out, or maybe they won't. This is an issue of cost certainty, and that's not something teams will find on the waiver wire in March.
Here you go. Here's the best way for these would-be contenders to build a bullpen. Wait. In July, Craig Kimbrel might be available. The Twins could be out of the race -- stay with me, here -- and they could deal Glen Perkins.
Or, even better, internal options might work out better than expected. No one had heard of Ken Giles last year, and he became one of the best relievers in baseball. The Tigers have five minor leaguers who threw 100 mph or harder last year; maybe one of them springs up unexpectedly. Former starters take well to the bullpen, minor league veterans take a leap forward ... bullpens are wacky, convoluted things, and they're not for us to understand.
Looking to build a bullpen in January? Look at the options up there and figure out the sure things. They don't exist. Teams looking for relievers at the last second are probably hosed. Except every team has at least one or two majors-quality arms in their bullpen. There's something to be said about contending teams weathering the storm until they figure out what they have. Throwing money at the players at the bottom of the market probably isn't going to work. Looking for a trade this late probably isn't going to work. Expecting miracles on the waiver wire almost certainly isn't going to work.
Waiting, though. That might work. So here's a reminder to the GMs of teams like the Tigers, Nationals and Brewers.
(But no time like the present, guys. That Badenhop cat is pretty good, you know ...)