Here are a couple things that we know:
- The Rays and the A’s are lower-budget baseball teams
- The Rays and the A’s have good ideas of what they’re doing
I suppose we can’t really prove the second one, but to the extent that results can serve as indicators, it’s hard to argue with how successful the teams have been despite their considerable financial disadvantages. Both front offices are thought of as intelligent, forward-thinking, analytical, and efficient, and they’re efficient out of necessity, because neither team can afford to flush money down the toilet. They need to try to get the most out of every dollar they spend.
Here’s another thing that we know: over the offseason, the Rays and the A’s have poured some millions into building up their bullpens. Relievers are often thought of as being lousy investments, and it seems easy enough to cobble a bullpen together on the cheap, so when the Rays and the A’s invest in late-inning vets, it gets attention. The temptation is to believe they’re exploiting some kind of inefficiency. The temptation is to believe we’ve been wrong about relievers for a while. Basically, the temptation is to believe that they’re on to something. And, you know, maybe that’s true. Maybe they’ve figured something out. Or maybe people are just looking for patterns in the sand. Maybe there’s nothing weird going on at all.
The Rays have picked up Grant Balfour and Heath Bell, while the A’s have picked up Jim Johnson, Luke Gregerson, and Eric O’Flaherty. There have been some other moves, but they’ve been minor, and these guys are the evidence people point to that the Rays and the A’s are up to something. And again, maybe they are, but you could make the argument this is more or less business as usual. You could make the argument the teams are just trying to invest wisely.
We can begin with Balfour, because, why not? What Balfour is is a veteran, proven closer. You might not think of the Rays as being the sort of team to target that sort of player. But if you look past the labels, you see that the Rays got him for two years and $12 million. When it looked like Balfour was going to the Orioles for two years and $15 million, Dave thought it was a fine deal. The Rays, then, wound up with a better deal. That is, so long as you’re not worried about his failed physical with Baltimore. Prior to signing Balfour, the Rays had a fairly mediocre relief corps. The last three years, he’s been worth 2.6 regular WAR, and 5.7 RA9-WAR. Relievers tend to beat their regular WARs, especially when they get strikeouts and fly balls, so Balfour deserves some benefit of the doubt. He projects to be pretty excellent.
Bell looks weird on the Rays, because he was a salary dump. But for one thing, the Rays are on the hook for only a fraction of his salary. For a second thing, Bell’s coming off his best park-adjusted xFIP since 2010, having significantly increased his strikeouts and reduced his walks. So he might be undervalued, if you assume last year’s dingers were mostly noise. And for a third thing, the Rays didn’t seek Bell out, exactly — he came over in a trade that also brought Ryan Hanigan, who the Rays immediately extended. In order to land a regular catcher, the Rays agreed to take on some millions instead of give up real prospect value. Bell can’t be looked at in isolation.
And now we can move to the A’s. It’s strange to have Johnson as the second-most expensive player on the team. It’s especially strange given that Johnson for one year will cost $2 million less than Balfour for two. But the A’s wouldn’t have known how low Balfour’s price would go, and the A’s also would’ve known that Balfour wouldn’t want to re-sign for one season. With Johnson, there’s no long-term commitment. It’s 2014, and then free agency. What the A’s happen to have, and what they had at the time, was a roster difficult to upgrade otherwise. They’re solid almost everywhere, and improving further could’ve come at a real long-term cost. Johnson came with no associated cost, and he’s been worth 3.5 regular WAR over three years. He’s also been worth 6.1 RA9-WAR over three years. Johnson stands to make the A’s better, throwing important innings, and they didn’t have to lose any future resources.
Gregerson was picked up in a trade that cost the A’s Seth Smith, who didn’t really have anywhere left to play. Now, granted, the A’s could’ve just non-tendered Smith, so they did in effect volunteer to pay Gregerson his $5 million. Over three years, he’s been worth 1.8 regular WAR, and 3.0 RA9-WAR. He was better in 2013 than he was in 2012, and he was better in 2012 than he was in 2011. For the fourth time in five years, he allowed a contact rate under 70%. And this is the same A’s team that isn’t easy to upgrade anywhere other than the bullpen. The bullpen was already strong, but it could be made stronger at no real long-term cost. Other positions, not so much.
Finally, there’s O’Flaherty, who’s something of an unknown given that he’s coming off Tommy John surgery and given that he won’t be available until May at the earliest. The A’s guaranteed $7 million over two years, with a much higher price in 2015. Since O’Flaherty reached the majors, he’s been one of the most effective pitchers in baseball against left-handed hitters. He’s also been able to hold his own against righties, and as a healthy pitcher between 2010-2012, he was worth 2.5 regular WAR and 6.4 RA9-WAR. He’s made a career of limiting hits and dingers, and for relievers that can be more of a skill. If O’Flaherty comes back healthy this season, he ought to provide surplus value over his $1.5-million base. And the A’s got him for two years, while Joe Smith, Javier Lopez, and Boone Logan signed for three. O’Flaherty got the same guarantee Matt Thornton got from the Yankees.
Absolutely, it’s interesting that both the Rays and the A’s will spend so much on the bullpens, at least relatively speaking. But the more that I think about it, the less I think there’s something unusual to it. The less I think they’ve found something out about relievers. I think they’ve just stuck with trying to build the best teams possible, without sacrificing longer-term resources. None of these guys really cost anything but money, and none of them cost money after 2015. Bell, Johnson, and Gregerson are gone after 2014.
The shorter the deal, the lesser the risk. The Rays and A’s have assumed little risk, and you figure that in order to get a short deal, you might have to pay something of a premium, to offset the lack of player security. Additionally, I’ve gone this far without even mentioning the win curve. The Rays should be right in the thick of things in the AL playoff race. The same goes for the A’s, and both teams are capable of winning their divisions. Because of their respective budgets, they in theory can’t afford market rates of $/WAR. But at the same time, each win is worth more to them, given their high-leverage positions. Each additional win provides a significant boost to their playoff chances, and that’s the whole point. So it makes some sense to invest in good relievers, because it makes sense to invest in good players.
We’re always watching the Rays and the A’s, on high alert. We look for them to provide signals of what might be undervalued in the given current market. After all, if there were something to exploit, those are the teams you’d expect to be all over it. But in this case I think some people might be staring at wallpaper thinking it’s a Magic Eye. I don’t think we’re being told anything new about bullpens. I think a couple baseball teams just wanted to get better.
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