Going Cheap Pt 1: Can you find cheap bullpen options?

Today I was out picking up some Christmas presents when I decided to stop off at the store and grab some cereal.  I typically have one major rule when it comes to choosing a cereal: anything with a cartoon character on the box.  Since I still have a somewhat healthy cereal option (frosted shredded wheat) I decided to go for a “I probably shouldn’t be eating something with marshmallows for breakfast, but it’s delicious so I will” cereal.  I landed on Lucky Charms as my cereal of choice.

The only thing is, I didn’t buy Lucky Charms.  I bought Marshmallow Matey’s.  What are Marshmallow Matey’s, you ask?  They’re Lucky Charms, only the generic brand.  For the same price as a box of Lucky Charms I get twice the amount of Marshmallow Matey’s, and the truth is that it’s the exact same product as far as quality goes (although the shapes of the cereal are different).

It’s become obvious that Neal Huntington prefers a Marshmallow Matey’s approach when it comes to building the Pirates’ bullpen.  We’ve seen that by his refusal to spend $2-4 M for a relief pitcher.  We’ve seen that by the Pirates non-tendering Matt Capps this past week.  We’ve also seen that in the way Huntington has built his bullpen so far.

While the bullpen is far from set going in to 2010, the three guys who seem to be locks all came from low cost additions. Evan Meek was a Rule 5 selection.  Joel Hanrahan came over from Washington with Lastings Milledge in the Nyjer Morgan/Sean Burnett trade.  Steven Jackson was acquired via waivers from the New York Yankees last season.  Those three just happen to be three of the top relievers from the 2009 Pirates, and the top three when you remove Sean Burnett and John Grabow.

Fans typically want to go with the Lucky Charms approach with relief pitchers.  They know the brand names, they’ve seen them on TV, and the Lucky Charms relievers are who the fans trust.  So does the Marshmallow Matey’s concept of getting twice as much of the same quality for the same price exist in the relief pitching market?  I took a look at the best relief pitchers from the 2009 season in order to find out how many were Lucky Charms pitchers, and how many were waiver wire additions, minor league free agents, draft picks, or involved in trades, aka, the Marshmallow Matey’s.

Before I begin, I want to clarify my definition of the “best relief pitchers”.  I grade relievers based on the following concepts:

-A K/9 ratio of 6.0 or better
-A K/BB ratio of 2.0 or better
-A HR/9 ratio of 1.0 or less

The “best” relievers must have all three requirements met.  There’s a reason for this.  In 2009 there were 138 relief pitchers who pitched in a minimum of 50 innings.  Here are the ERAs of those pitchers based on the number of the above conditions they met:

As you can see, the numbers get better as more conditions are met.  Pitchers who met none of the requirements ended up with a combined 4.32 ERA in 2009.  There were only five such pitchers, although I guess it’s rare for a pitcher who doesn’t strike out a lot of guys, and allows a good amount of walks and homers to rack up 50 innings in a season.  Pitchers who met one of the conditions saw their ERA improve to 4.10.  Pitchers who met two of the conditions saw their combined ERA end up at 3.64.

The reason I consider the best pitchers to be the pitchers who possess all three traits is obvious.  The pitchers who did this in 2009 combined for a 2.99 ERA.  So where did these pitchers come from?

We can safely say that the Rule 5, waiver claims, and minor league free agents are Marshmallow Matey’s.  I’m also counting the international free agent and draft options, as those are internal means of finding a cheap reliever.  Maybe the player
wasn’t cheap when he was drafted, but in terms of that year, he was a cheap bullpen arm.  A prime example of this is Sean Burnett.  Burnett was a first round pick and cost a $1.65 M signing bonus.  However, in 2008 and 2009 he emerged as a cheap option in relief, as the Pirates could use him for the league minimum, rather than spending big money on a left handed free agent reliever.
I’m removing the following players from those cheap sources, since they have since gone on to bigger salaries: Mariano Rivera, Jonathan Papelbon.
This leaves two sections that need to be broken down: trades and free agents.  Not all trades are cheap additions.  For example, the Padres added Heath Bell a few years ago in a small deal, after Bell put up a 4.92 ERA in 108 innings in three seasons (it should be noted that Bell met two of the three requirements above, even with that ERA, with his only miss being a high HR/9 ratio).  That’s a cheap addition.  On the other hand, the Braves traded Adam LaRoche, fresh off a 32 home run, .285 average, .915 OPS season, to get Mike Gonzalez, an established closer.  That’s not a cheap addition.  Basically if the player is the key focus in the trade, I’m not going to consider him a cheap addition.  If the player is one of the third or fourth players in a big trade, or if he was acquired in a minor trade, I’m going to consider that a cheap addition.
Here are all 21 players, and my verdict on whether it was a cheap addition or not:
Burke Badenhop: Acquired by Florida in the Miguel Cabrera trade to Detroit.  Wasn’t one of the key pieces of the deal.  Verdict: Cheap.
Chad Qualls: Acquired by Arizona from Houstin in the Jose Valverde trade.  Was a focus point in the trade, and was an established reliever. Verdict: Not Cheap.
David Aardsma: Has been traded several times. Recently acquired for lower level fringe prospects. Verdict: Cheap.
George Sherrill: Added by the Dodgers after being the closer in Baltimore. Added by Baltimore as a key piece in the Erik Bedard trade. Verdict: Not Cheap.
Grant Balfour: Acquired by Tampa Bay for Seth McClung in a minor deal. Verdict: Cheap.
Heath Bell: Acquired with Royce Ring from the Mets for Jon Adkins and Ben Johnson. Verdict: Cheap.
J.P. Howell: Acquired by Tampa Bay for Joey Gathright and Gernando Cortez. Verdict: Cheap.
Jason Frasor: Acquired from Los Angeles for Jayson Werth in 2004.  Werth had just 94 at-bats in the majors with a .234/.298/.383 line.  Frasor had yet to pitch in the majors. Verdict: Cheap.
Joe Nathan: Acquired from San Francisco with Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser for A.J. Pierzynski. Has since been extended and made over $11 M in 2009. Verdict: Not Cheap.
Joel Hanrahan: Acquired in a swap for Sean Burnett in the second part of a Lastings Milledge/Nyjer Morgan swap.  Was removed from closer role twice before traded, and had a 7.71 ERA at the time of the deal. Verdict: Cheap.
Jon Rauch: Acquired by Arizona in exchange for Emilio Bonifacio in 2008, then traded to Minnesota in August 2009 for Kevin Mulvey, the Twins #8 prospect. Verdict: Not Cheap.
Jose Valverde: Acquired by Houston from Arizona for Chad Qualls, Chris Burke, and Juan Gutierrez. Verdict: Not Cheap.
Juan Gutierrez: Also involved in the Valverde deal, but a minor part of the deal. Verdict: Cheap.
Luke Gregerson: Acquired as the PTBNL in a Khalil Greene trade made in December 2008.  Was St. Louis’ 29th best prospect. Verdict: Cheap.
Matt Thornton: Acquired from Seattle for Joe Borchard in a minor trade. Verdict: Cheap.
Mike Gonzalez: Acquired for Adam LaRoche in 2007. Verdict: Not Cheap.
Mike Wuertz: Acquired from Chicago for two minor league players before the 2009 season.  Was established in Chicago with a career 3.57 ERA in 262.1 innings. Verdict: Not Cheap.
Nick Masset: Acquired from Cincinnati with Danny Richar for Ken Griffey Jr.  Griffey is a big name, but it was a minor deal and Masset didn’t have major league success yet. Verdict: Cheap.
Rafael Betancourt: Acquired by Colorado for a prospect.  Was an established reliever but reaching free agency.  Made $3.35 M in 2009. Verdict: Not Cheap. (Although he signed as a minor league free agent with Cleveland in 2003, which was a cheap move, but his salary puts him on the “Not Cheap” side for these purposes).
Rafael Soriano: Acquired in a cheap move for Horacio Ramirez, but was given $6.1 M in 2009. Verdict: Not Cheap.
Tony Pena: Acquired from Arizona in a minor trade in 2009.  Originally signed as an international free agent. Verdict: Cheap.
As for the free agents, all seven options signed for $1.5 M or more, so I’d put all of those players in the “Not Cheap” category.
The 53 “best” relievers break down like this:
18 of the 53 relievers were not cheap, or “Lucky Charms”.  However, there were 35 “Marshmallow Matey’s”, or cheap options.  The Lucky Charms relievers had excellent numbers, although I think anyone would take the Marshmallow Matey’s in their bullpen.  We also see that the average salary for the cheap relievers is $695 K per season, with the median salary being $420 K.  The Lucky Charms pitchers cost an average of $4.594 M per pitcher, with a median salary of $3.4 M (with guys like Mariano Rivera and Joe Nathan driving up the average thanks to their eight figure salaries).  So in most cases you could get double the quantity of the same value, all for the same price, or maybe even a lot less.
It’s safe to say that you can find cheap relievers.  The question becomes, how easy is it to find these cheap relievers?  Is Neal Huntington on the right track looking at guys like Vinnie Chulk and Justin Thomas?  Tomorrow I will review the 53 best relievers from the 2009 season to see if their seasons were just a fluke, or if their seasons could have been predicted by some sort of trend either earlier in their careers, or in their minor league careers before hitting the majors.
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Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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