Darren O’Day and Bullpen Market Inflation

The modern bullpen has become, quite possibly, the biggest key to success in today’s league. What used to be 2-3 arms back there ready to put out the fire that a starter got himself into – i.e. the term “fireman” being coined for closers – has now become 7-8 arms, all with highly specialized roles.

I really hope someone corrects me on this, but for my money the modern bullpen was engrained in baseball by Tony La Russa, and made even more imperative during his Cardinals’ 2011 World Series run – highlighted by the NLCS, where Cardinal relievers threw more innings than Cardinal starters.

I remember hearing stories about, specifically, the Oakland A’s of the early 1970’s, and how Rollie Fingers would be sitting off in the bullpen with maybe one or two other guys. His job? Put out any fire that star pitchers Vida Blue, Catfish Hunter or Ken Holtzman got into. Other than Fingers being the closer, there were no defined roles. They just came in when manager Dick Williams told them to.

I am a massive proprietor of the modern bullpen. I love how important it has become, the jobs it creates, the careers it saves, and the strategy it produces and emphasizes. But I bet you if Dick Williams had himself a specified ‘long man’ or ‘LOOGY’ he would have no idea what to do with them.

And he might be especially confused if the team told him that they were paying that ‘long man’ or ‘LOOGY’ over $4 million. But obviously a lot has changed in the 40 years since Williams was managing, and the bullpen has been intensely inflated – in both importance and market value – to the point where spending on your bullpen has become less of an afterthought and more of a priority that must be adhered to.

At the start of the offseason I pegged out what the Cardinals needed to do to put out a successful on-field product in 2016. One of the main things was that they needed to spend on the bullpen. I’d be willing to bet that the phrase, “spend on the bullpen” wasn’t in the vocabulary of baseball executives even 5 years ago.

But today, I look up and see Boone Logan – he of the aforementioned ‘LOOGY’ species, and he of a career 4.55 ERA – making $16 million over 3 years. A guy that is on your team to, more often than not, pitch less than one inning every few days is making comparable money to guys that will go out there and play every single day.

Logan
Boone Logan. Photo courtesy of the New York Post

Why do I bring up the topic of bullpen inflation on this particular occasion? Because one of the specific targets that I had in mind for the Cardinals to pursue at the beginning of this offseason is requesting quite a bit of money.

Darren O’Day wants between $28 and $36 million over 4 or 5 years. To give you a sense of the kind of contract that O’Day is asking for, let’s pretend that he got 4 years for $36 million, an average of $9 million a year.

O'Day
Photo courtesy of the Baltimore Sun

Now compare that to the 6 year, $52 million contract that Matt Carpenter signed two years ago. O’Day would be making an average of about $300,000 more than Carpenter per year. Carpenter, in 3 full major league seasons has accumulated 14.4 total WAR, while in 8 full major league seasons, O’Day has accrued 14.1 total WAR.

Darren O’Day is asking for more money than a guy who plays every day and provides remarkable value every day; which isn’t his fault, but is a perfect example of the kind of near hyperinflation that the reliever market has experienced.

With the current state of bullpens, a guy with 14 career saves in 8 years can command the type of money that a guy like Matt Carpenter makes. I bring up the saves statistic because the highest paid relievers in the game – Papelbon, Andrew Miller, Mariano, Kimbrel – are all established closers. But a 7th or 8th inning guy making that kind of money? Game changer

Granted, O’Day is tremendous in his role, and can provide shutdown relief that can bridge the gap to your highly compensated closer, but is there nothing more important that your $9 million can be put towards?

But, alas, such is the current market. Relievers are in higher demand than ever, and O’Day will get his payday. Could he really every be worth $9 million? In my eyes, no, but for a team like Los Angeles or now Boston that has a dominant closer but porous bridge relief, O’Day could be the savior of their bullpen.

So the bullpen is at a crossroads. It’s added strategy, it’s added excitement, and it’s saved careers; but is your bullpen really worth nearly $43 million like the Dodgers’ pen was? I’m not so sure…

Thanks for reading…

-Ryan

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Darren O’Day and Bullpen Market Inflation

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