Why Is Billy Beane Buying Relief Pitchers?

Over the last decade or so, the A’s have traditionally been out in front of the undervalued asset markets. They were buying on base percentage before it was cool, then transitioned to putting good defensive teams on the field once the market’s focus shifted too heavily to hitting. Oakland was also one of the first teams to do the Rent-a-Type-A strategy, making moves for guys with one year left on their contract in order to collect the draft picks when they walked. Given the moves that Billy Beane and company have made over the last few days, should we assume that relief pitchers are the new market inefficiency?

Last week, the A’s gave Grant Balfour a two year, $8 million contract, and because he was a Type A free agent, the A’s surrendered their second round pick in order to sign him. Yesterday, they agreed to terms with Brian Fuentes on a two year, $10 million contract, and the combination of moves gives the team a pair of new setup men to bridge the gap to closer Andrew Bailey. Given that they have also signed Rich Harden and Brandon McCarthy earlier this winter, stating that one or both could end up in the bullpen if they don’t make rotation, and the A’s have brought in a hefty dose of relief pitching this winter despite the fact that they already had a strong, deep bullpen.

Returning to the team from last year’s group are Bailey, Brad Ziegler, Craig Breslow, Michael Wuertz, and Jerry Blevins. Those five already offered the A’s a strong bullpen, including a quality closer and two good setup men from each side. In fact, it’s hard to distinguish between Breslow and Fuentes, as they essentially have the same skillset – extreme flyball lefties with mediocre command who miss enough bats to strand a bunch of runners. Fuentes duplicates what they already had, and Balfour is pretty similar to Wuertz as well.

So, what’s the deal? Why are the A’s spending so much time and energy on their bullpen?

It looks like they didn’t have much of a choice. They began the winter by winning the bidding for Hisashi Iwakuma, but couldn’t agree to terms with the Japanese hurler. They then made another run at Adrian Beltre, but once again he showed little interest in joining the A’s. They shifted their attention to Lance Berkman, but found out that he really didn’t want to DH, and lost out on bringing him to the Bay Area as well. All three of these players would have required a fairly significant financial commitment, but the A’s had money to spend and a desire to improve their roster.

Being spurned by their top choices simply forced the A’s to move on to Plan D, so they turned their attention to Josh Willingham and Hideki Matsui, cheaper alternatives who they could actually acquire. Having gone cheaper on the position player side of things left the A’s with money to burn as the winter began to wind down, and the only area with much talent remaining on the market was relief pitching.

To me, this looks much more like the A’s are determined to spend their allowance to upgrade the roster this winter than a premeditated shift towards relievers as an undervalued asset. If the A’s had their druthers, they’d have spent their cash on Iwakuma and Beltre and likely headed into 2011 with a similar bullpen to what they had last year. They couldn’t get Plan A to come together, and even Plans B and C fell apart, so they moved down the list and eventually decided to spend money on bullpen depth. I’d guess this isn’t how Billy drew up the off-season when it started. Stocking up on middle relievers is likely to be one roster management trend that doesn’t catch on everywhere else, I’d imagine.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.