2011 Dodgers Proving That The Best Bullpen Is Often Times An Inexpensive One

During the 2010-2011 off-season, the Dodgers aimed to improve on what was an effective unit in 2010 (3.80 FIP/8th In MLB). With all their veteran relievers making their Los Angeles exit, the rest of the potential returning cast consisted primarily of pre-arbitration players making the major league minimum, with only Jonathan Broxton locked into a high paying salary for 2011. The predominantly untested nature of the bullpen didn’t sit well with the Dodgers, so they went out and re-signed Vicente Padilla as a reliever, avoided arbitration with Hong Chih Kuo, traded for Blake Hawksworth, gave Mike MacDougal and Lance Cormier minor league contracts, and made a long term commitment to Matt Guerrier.

While handing out millions to seemingly solid and steady veteran relievers is rarely going to play poorly in the media or among fans, they often prove to be unnecessary and costly additions to the roster. Now the Dodgers bullpen in 2011 has been quite effective as a whole, ranking 8th in the MLB in FIP at 3.58, but were the expensive veteran members all that important to the 2011 unit’s success?

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*50% fWAR (FIP) & 50% rWAR (ERA)
*5,000,000 Dollars Per Win
*Salary Data From True Blue LA
*SV=Surplus Value

Guerra, Jansen, Elbert, Lindblom, and Troncoso are all pre-arbitration farm system arms who have combined for $11,134,000 in SV. MacDougal was given a minor league contract with a mere $500,000 major league option and netted the Dodgers $2,750,000 in SV. Hawksworth, despite his -$676,000 total, was acquired in a trade that rid the Dodgers of Ryan Theriot, who is currently putting up a 0.1 WAR at a $3,300,000 salary for a -$2,800,000 SV, so feel free to credit Hawksworth with that.

Guerrier was the big money free agent signing, and he was actually decently productive in 2011. Unfortunately, the only reason he clocks in at positive value is because of the deferred nature of his overall contract (4 Y/12 M), so he’ll have to get better in a hurry if he wants to continue breaking even. The more likely scenario is that it ends up being a neutral to poor overall transaction.

The four pitchers who rank the lowest happen to include three of the top bullpen salaries, with Broxton, Kuo, and Padilla combining for -$17,725,000 in SV. Also clocking in at the bottom of the pile is Cormier (-$4,050,000 SV), who inexplicably made $800,000 in the majors and was inexplicably allowed to pitch 13.2 innings before the Dodgers realized how terrible he was.

Overall, it’s quite clear where the value lies in the Dodgers pen, as the data demonstrates that the most productive and most valuable members of the 2011 bullpen have been the farm system arms, and more specifically, those making 500k and below, basically around the major league minimum.

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While the status quo maintains that locking down relievers with track records of success to million dollar deals will lead to overall bullpen stability, it would do the Dodgers and their fans well going forward to remember that money spent hardly guarantees productivity and success, especially with a commodity as volatile as bullpen arms.

Over the course of the 2011 season, the Dodgers relief corps has proved that bullpen arms are indeed a fickle and fungible group, with production to be found from a multitude of sources, and that the most value out of the pen is commonly derived from those making the least. Sticking with cheap team controlled building blocks in the bullpen can be highly effective, and the money used to sign costly relievers can frequently be better used elsewhere.

Published @ True Blue LA as well.

About Chad Moriyama

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