When you think of the best bullpens, you likely think of the Cincinnati Reds and Atlanta Braves first and foremost. The two teams featured, by measure of ERA, the highest-quality bullpens in 2012 behind 24-year-old closers Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel. As you may expect, both teams did very little over the winter to bolster their bullpens: the Reds signed Jonathan Broxton to a three-year, $21 million deal while the Braves acquired Jordan Walden from the Angels in a trade for starter Tommy Hanson.
Other teams spent a lot of money fixing up their bullpens. In total, nearly $206 million was spent on major league deals for 31 relievers, an average of about $6.6 million per player.
While the Chapmans and Kimbrels of the baseball world are few and far between, many more teams should be following the youth model. Aside from their star closers, the Reds and Braves featured the following players in their bullpens during 2012:
The Reds learned first-hand the risk of spending money on older relievers. They guaranteed $8.5 million to 31-year-old Ryan Madson, but he missed all of 2012 with an elbow injury. Nick Masset, 30, also earned $2.4 million last season and spent the year on the sidelines with a shoulder injury. In total, the Reds spent $21 million of their $88 million payroll on the bullpen, but the aforementioned six earned just over $10 million. The Braves spent $7.2 million of their $93.5 million payroll on the bullpen, with the aforementioned six earning $5.5 million of that.
Even the Washington Nationals, who handed out the most money to a reliever this offseason (Rafael Soriano: two years, $28 million), will be utilizing a young and cheap bullpen with Tyler Clippard (28), Drew Storen (25) and Ryan Mattheus (29) among those eating up high-leverage innings. At present, the Nationals have $106.6 million committed, but less than $25 million is devoted to the bullpen.
Staying in the NL East but looking at it from the other side, the Phillies illustrate how superfluous veteran relievers are. The Phillies featured the sixth-best bullpen in baseball by defense-independent standards (that is, looking only at strikeouts, walks, and the rate of groundballs and flyballs). Philadelphia Daily News writer David Murphy pointed out on Twitter that three of their young left-handers -- Antonio Bastardo, Jeremy Horst, and Jake Diekman -- ranked No. 2 through 4 behind Chapman in strikeout rate per nine innings among lefty relievers. Bastardo, who had commonly pitched in the eighth inning, was demoted when the Phillies added two veterans in Mike Adams and Chad Durbin over the winter, which also effectively pushed Horst and Diekman down a peg as well. Adams and Durbin posted strikeout rates well below the Phillies' three lefties last season.
While the Phillies aren't devoting as high a percentage of their payroll to relievers as some other teams, it is most of that money is very heavily weighted toward veteran relievers Jonathan Papelbon and Adams, meaning that they will be hoping they can stay healthy just like the Reds did with Madson and Masset -- gambling, more or less. In reality, the Phillies could have stood pat, invested no more money in their bullpen, and been in equal or better standing.
For one more example, look at the Oakland Athletics last year. They had the second-best bullpen ERA in the American League at 2.94. After 34-year-old Grant Balfour, the bullpen was comprised almost exclusively of players in their mid-20s. The only relievers they paid $1 million or more to were Balfour ($4 million) and 36-year-old Brian Fuentes ($5 million), who was injured and ineffective. They acquired exactly zero free-agent relievers over the winter and should be expected to have one of the better bullpens in the league once again.
One need not find and cultivate a Kimbrel or Chapman in the minors to have an extremely effective yet young and cheap bullpen (although the Tigers are hoping hard-throwing rookie Bruce Rondon turns into a young and cheap closer). Teams can feature a revolving door by devoting low-leverage innings to younger players early on, then promoting them into more important situations later in the season as their performance merits. This is a much more cost-effective, less risky method than simply signing a veteran and handing him high-leverage innings no matter what, simply based on their experience. Remember, even Kimbrel had to be auditioned as he pitched in the seventh inning or earlier in seven of his 21 appearances in 2010, the year he made his debut.
Teams are looking for edges any way they can, however small or seemingly insignificant. The bullpen is one very obvious area where teams can become smarter and more efficient.