What Percival Taught Friedman

The architect of one of the biggest defensive turnarounds in modern baseball history, Andrew Friedman was given another tough task this offseason: build an entire major league bullpen with limited financial flexibility. In an offseason where relievers banked over $200 million, the Rays signed three relief pitchers (Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta, J.P. Howell) to major league deals totaling around $6 million. Given the volatile nature of relief pitchers and bullpens, it is a sound strategy for a small revenue team like the Rays to put their dollars into different areas of the team. However, not only is Tampa Bay budget-conscious, but also stingy when it comes to guaranteed years.

A large side note of 2008 defensive makeover was the improved bullpen. Friedman used trades to acquire spare parts like J.P. Howell and Grant Balfour and signed some veterans to fill out the staff including closer Troy Percival. Even at the time of signing handing a two-year, $8-million contract to a former retiree was a bit excessive; however, at that point the Tampa Bay franchise was seen as a perennial cellar-dweller and had to potentially overpay in both dollars and time to land a free agent target.

Friedman’s broad stroke has painted many masterpieces in a short time. Troy Percival was not one of them. The first month or so went fantastic until Percival’s age and injury history caught up with him. By the time the Rays went on their magical World Series run, the surly closer was back home in California. With a second year guaranteed, Percival returned to the team the following season, tossed 11.1 innings and sailed off into the sunset while still collecting checks.

Whether it was a direct causation of the failed signing or coincidence, the Rays have been very cautious navigating the relief market waters since Percival. They have not completely sworn off commitment; however it is clear they rather date than marry. After the Percival deal, the Rays have signed seven major league relievers to contracts. Each has been a one-year pact. The two relievers he acquired via trade last season Rafael Soriano and Chad Qualls were both free agents at seasons end. The Rays have even gone year-to-year* with arbitration eligible candidates like Grant Balfour.

*The one reliever who received an extension from Friedman was Dan Wheeler and that too was prior to the start of the 2008 season.

Instead of guaranteeing years and millions to established relievers, Friedman spent the winter acquiring unproven, cheap, and controllable bullpen arms via trade and a few minor league free agents. Names like Adam Russell, Brandon Gomes, Cesar Ramos, Cory Wade, Dirk Hayhurst, and Rob Delaney along with several in-house bullpen candidates like Jake McGee, Matt Bush and groundball sleeper Dane De La Rosa, give the Rays plenty of cheap, viable options for not only the 2011 team, but bullpens of the future.

Of course, this will not allow the Rays to completely ignore the free agent market in the future. Meanwhile, having cheap and controllable arms allows the team to reallocate funds elsewhere. Not all the names mentioned above will turn into success stories. On the other hand, the cost in terms of dollars and risk is minimal given the potential for varying degrees of reward. Like the rotation that has become the team’s lifeblood, the Rays’ bullpen may become a self-replenishing entity with little need for outside help.

And it’s all Troy Percival’s fault…or to his credit.

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Tommy Rancel also writes for Bloomberg Sports and ESPNFlorida.com. Follow on twitter @TRancel

13 Responses to “What Percival Taught Friedman”

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  1. Telo says:

    Go Dirk!!!!!!!

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  2. Drakos says:

    Oh man. Why do you have to bring up Matt Bush?

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  3. david says:

    That’s pretty much the same approach the San Diego Padres have used in putting together among the best bullpens in the league for four of the past five years…

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  4. MrKnowNothing says:

    There are 30 teams. If they each spent $6MM that’d be $180MM. Less than the $200MM spent, but it’s not like the Rays are THAT cheap on average.

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    • Brendan says:

      take a look at what the rest of the division spent to fill far fewer bullpen spots

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    • 300ZXNA says:

      I would also be curious as to what $/WAR the Rays are getting vs league avg, or say the Yankees who have spent a ton on the BP, even if it is on quality players.

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    • cubfanraysaddict says:

      Most teams did not lose all but one of their BP arms either.

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  5. Tommy Rancel says:

    The Braves also did a nifty job of building bullpens on a year to year basis. Without the room to absorb sunk costs because performance or injury, you almost have to operate on a year to year plan or pile up a bunch of pre-arb eligible arms and hope a few work out.

    Ahh Matt Bush. Definitely one of the more interesting arms in camp. I’m not sure he’s seen as a candidate for opening day 2011, but if healthy, I think he can be a useful BP arm pretty soon. Same for Ricky Orta and perhaps Dane De La Rosa.

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  6. deadpool says:

    I don’t know if the Braved analogy is apt. Bobby had a history of running arms into the ground, so the revolving door was pretty necessary. The question is which is the cause and which is the effect.

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    • Relievers have a really short shelf life, though, regardless of whether Bobby Cox is their manager. But the Braves have generally managed to put together good bullpens, and they’ve often been willing to look relatively far afield for their reclamation project success stories — from Rudy Seanez to Kerry Ligtenberg, Juan Berenguer to Chris Hammond, Alejandro Pena to Greg McMichael.

      If only the 2010 D-Backs could have found an anonymous guy off the scrap heap who could have performed like those guys did, Josh Byrnes would still have a job and Dan Haren would still be a Snake.

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  7. Dwight S. says:

    As a Tigers fan it’s too bad Percival didn’t teach Dave Dombrowski this same lesson when he flamed out after Dombrowski gave him a 12 million dollar contract.

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  8. Isaac says:

    5 of the rp listed pitched for the padres in the minors. Looks like they went after padre relief pitchers.

    I think Gomes is going to be good.

    Look at Matt Bush’s pitching numbers… they were pretty good but he’s an idiot. When he was drafted he was viewed as a top 10 pick as a ss or pitcher.

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