What is the best way to build an effective major league bullpen? With starters pitching fewer and fewer innings that question is one that general managers struggle with every season.
Do you spend big money for big-name veterans? Do you stockpile veterans who might not have great stuff, but who have guile and experience? Do you collect young, relatively unknown power arms and just keep churning through them until you find pitchers who are effective?
The Yankees have tried all of these approaches, and have moved toward the latter method of bullpen building the past couple of seasons.
Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus heartily endorsed the new philosophy.
The Yankees received a lot of attention this past offseason for the vast sums of money that they committed to improving their lineup and starting rotation. What might be most improved, however, is a part of the team that had no attention paid to it or much money spent on it at all: the bullpen.
Other than re-signing 2008 trade acquisition Damaso Marte to a three-year, $12 million deal, the Yankees made the statement, however implicit, that they are committed to their homegrown relievers in 2009. One of the bright spots in the team's first October-free season since 1994 was the emergence of hurlers such as Edwar Ramirez and Jose Veras, who combined to strike out 126 men in 113 innings with a 3.74 ERA. By the end of the season, Phil Coke and David Robertson were making contributions in low-leverage situations. Add in free-talent pickups like Brian Bruney and Alfredo Aceves, and the Yankees have more than enough effective relievers to go around, whether you've heard of them or not.
Staying out of the reliever market is a good idea for the Yankees, who have spent most of the decade trying and failing to recapture the magic that was Mike Stanton and Jeff Nelson in the seventh and eighth innings. The set-up tandem from 1997 through 2000 contributed to three division titles, four playoff appearances, and three World Championships. ...
Attempts to rekindle that effectiveness, and even re-assemble the duo—both pitchers eventually found their way back to the Bronx, albeit not at the same time—have never quite taken, and at great cost. The Yankees have committed, almost annually since 2001, to free-agent relievers coming off of career seasons that would never be repeated. ...
Other than the signing of (Tom) Gordon, the Yankees' excursions into the relief end of the pitching pool available on the market have been a waste of time and money, costing the team cash from its coffers and wins on the field. Now, however, they're swearing off outside help for the first time in years, and attempting to win using the players on hand. It's the best plan they've had.
I would agree. Non-closing relief pitchers are probably the least predictable segment of any big-league team. Performance can vary wildly from year to year and big-money investments in set-up type relievers is rarely rewarded. The Yankees have seen that time and again during the past few seasons.
What the Yankees have now is a collection of inexpensive pitchers with good arms, most of them young. They have also stockpiled enough arms that they can confidently reach down to their minor-league system for fresh arms to replace injured or ineffective pitchers as the season progresses.
Of course, the right approach does not guarantee success. We can only hope, though, that the bullpen performs as well this year as it did in 2008. Otherwise, a return to the days of Paul Quantrill, Kyle Farnsworth, Chris Hammond and others will follow.