As major league teams rained money on the heads of free-agent relief pitchers earlier this month, it was only natural to question the wisdom (if not the sanity) of baseball executives throwing so much cash at pitchers who contribute in increments of three outs or fewer.
Skeptics abound. But few of them have experienced the demoralizing sensation of looking on helplessly while a bad bullpen sinks spirits in the clubhouse and undermines a team's season.
Chicago White Sox manager Robin Ventura is familiar with that routine from the 2014 season, when the team's pen ranked 14th in the American League with a 4.38 ERA and blew 21 saves -- tied for third most in the league. So when general manager Rick Hahn spent $46 million on a four-year contract for closer David Robertson and $15 million on a three-year deal for lefty setup man Zach Duke, Ventura was in no position to lobby for fiscal restraint.
"In the last couple of years we've lost a lot of games late in the eighth and ninth inning," Ventura said. "After a while you sit there and think, 'We have to have somebody who can come in and do this.' Everything has its risks -- and this is one of them -- but we're pretty confident we got a guy [in Robertson] who we can put in the bullpen and be a leader."
Amid highly-publicized deals for Jon Lester, Pablo Sandoval, Hanley Ramirez and other top free agents, relievers have quietly cashed lottery tickets this offseason. Andrew Miller, who has one career save (and 490 strikeouts in 492 2/3 MLB innings), signed a four-year, $36 million deal with the New York Yankees and will go to spring training as an ace setup man and potential closer competition to Dellin Betances. The Astros, baseball's quintessential new-age thinkers, spent a guaranteed $31 million on multiyear deals for Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek. That left Sergio Romo, Jason Grilli and others as the next in line to try to board the gravy train.
The big expenditures fly in the face of the conventional wisdom that says reliever performance can vary widely from one season to the next and teams have better, more productive ways to allocate their money than on pitchers who'll contribute 60-70 innings a year. Monster deals for closers were in vogue 8-10 years ago when Toronto spent $47 million on B.J. Ryan and Cincinnati shelled out $46 million for Francisco Cordero, but contracts of that magnitude have become less fashionable in recent years with the exception of a Mariano Rivera here and a Jonathan Papelbon there.
Why the windfall for relievers? It's natural to suspect a bit of a copycat mentality after the Kansas City Royals won the AL pennant with a Nasty Boys redux combination of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland at the back end, and San Francisco thrived as usual with a deep bullpen orchestrated by the maestro, manager Bruce Bochy. But it's a stretch to think everybody suddenly got religion because of the success of the two World Series teams.
The answer might ultimately come down to this: Teams have a lot of money to spend with baseball's revenues at $9 billion, and relievers benefited from the concept of supply and demand this winter.
"Obviously, the Giants have a very good bullpen, and the Royals had a dominant bullpen," Hahn said. "Those are the freshest images in our mind. But I don't think the performance of those two clubs has changed how any of the 30 clubs approach their roster-building. We all want that type of bullpen. You just happened to see on display [in the World Series] how beneficial it can be."
For many clubs with contender aspirations, it's about the comfort level that proven commodities bring. For every Craig Kimbrel or Greg Holland who slides into the closer's job with relatively little big league experience, there's a corresponding Bruce Rondon who keeps getting injured in Detroit or an Addison Reed who looks wobbly in the transition as Arizona's resident ninth-inning guy.
Robertson showed his ability to handle life under a microscope and the rigors of the AL East with 39 saves and a 1.06 WHIP as Mariano Rivera's successor in New York last season. His 92.6 mph fastball velocity is pedestrian by closer's standards, but he still struck out 13.4 batters per nine innings while relying on his cutter and knuckle curve. Robertson's command and resourcefulness are good enough that the White Sox think he'll continue to thrive even if his fastball dips by a mile per hour or two over the life of his new contract.
Miller falls more in the "overpowering" end of the spectrum with his 94-95 mph fastball, wipeout slider and rangy 6-foot-7 frame. Before the free-agent courtship process, his agent, Mark Rodgers, assembled a 20-page booklet chock-full of nuggets attesting to his dominance. Among other things, potential suitors learned that Miller and Kimbrel were the only two MLB pitchers to allow a sub-.475 OPS against both lefty and righty hitters in 2014.
Gregerson's representative, Tom O'Connell, pitched teams on his client's durability and track record of consistent performance. Gregerson has a career 2.75 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP, and he leads MLB relievers with 435 appearances since 2009 even though he ostensibly puts strain on his arm by throwing his slider more than 50 percent of the time on average.
The Red Sox, Blue Jays, Giants, Rockies, Cubs and White Sox all expressed varying degrees of interest in Gregerson before he signed with Houston. He is guaranteed $18.5 million over three years and can increase his compensation to $21 million if he's the Astros' primary closer. Gregerson and Robertson each earned $5 million-plus in their fifth year of service time before filing for free agency, so it's not as if they were paupers before this winter. O'Connell attributes the big financial leap for Robertson, Miller, Gregerson and Neshek this offseason to talents that were recognized and appreciated within the industry even if they're not all widely known.
"It was kind of a perfect storm," O'Connell said. "You're talking about several guys with swing-and-miss stuff who are very good at preserving leads. I'm not surprised at all [by their contracts]."
When teams take the plunge into hardcore bullpen-building, they assess the potential fallout beyond the positive impact on a manager's blood pressure. The White Sox were mindful that Jose Quintana, their projected No. 3 starter behind Chris Sale and Jeff Samardzija, is a career 24-24 with a 3.50 ERA in three big league seasons. Quintana leads the majors with 39 no-decisions since 2012, and he holds the White Sox's franchise record with seven career starts of seven shutout innings resulting in a no-decision.
"With as many no-decisions as this guy has had, at some point it's going to break him down to where he loses that will to fight," Ventura said. "He wants a W in his column, and so do I. We want to give him the ability to go out and be able to hand the ball off and feel confident that he's going to get a win."
Time and attrition will tell if the White Sox, Astros and Yankees made prudent moves with their new investments or took a leap of faith they'll eventually regret. Late-inning peace of mind rarely comes cheap these days in baseball.