Thursday, July 14, 2011

Trade Deadline Targets: Relief Pitchers

Grant Balfour Reliever Grant Balfour #50 of the Oakland A's reacts after giving up a two-run home run to tie the game for the San Francisco Giants in the eighth inning at AT&T Park on May 22, 2011 in San Francisco, California. The Giants won 5-4.
2009, Billy Wagner, Regular Season: 15.2 innings pitched, 3 runs allowed; Post Season: 1 inning pitched 2 runs allowed
2007, Eric Gagne, Regular: 18.2 IP, 14 R; Post: 4.1 IP, 3 R
2006, Javier Lopez, Regular: 16.2 IP, 10 R
2006, Bryan Corey, Regular: 21.2 IP, 11 R
2005, Chad Bradford, Regular: 23.1 IP, 10 R; Post 1.1 IP, 0 R
2005, Mike Remlinger, Regular: 6.2 IP, 14 R
2004, Jimmy Anderson, Regular: 6 IP, 4 R
2004, Terry Adams, Regular: 27 IP, 19 R
2003, Byung-Hyun Kim, Regular: 50.1 IP, 24 R; Post: 0.2 IP 1 R
2003, Scott Sauerbeck, Regular: 16.2 IP, 14 R; Post: 0.1 IP 0 R
2003, Scott Williamson, Regular 20.1 IP, 15 R; Post: 8 IP, 1 R

Above is the list of relief pitchers Theo Epstein has acquired by mid-season trade in his tenure as Red Sox GM. I haven’t seen a list this uninspiring since I looked at M. Night Shyamalan’s IMDB page post-Sixth Sense. Assembling a bullpen is extremely unpredictable. Trying to do so mid-season can be downright reckless as you can see by some of the pitchers on this list. Gagne, Lopez, Corey, Bradford, Remlinger, Anderson, Adams, Kim, Sauerbeck and Williamson were all disasters down the stretch after the Red Sox acquired them. In fact, of this list of 11 pitchers, only Wagner pushed the needle in the right direction. That is a 9% success rate! While it seems like every team could use bullpen help this time of year, trading for relievers does not seem to be the answer. Still, I would expect the Sox to probably add a piece (hopefully just a lefty specialist) either by the deadline or perhaps through waivers. Here are some names you will probably hear over the next couple months, categorized in honor of the master of shit (and the Shyamalan twist), M. Night Shyamalan.

The Sixth Sense (the big names, could have impact)

Heath Bell, Padres; Joakim Soria, Royals; Kerry Wood, Cubs; Huston Street, Rockies

Bell, Soria and Street are all well established closers who post big save totals. Wood is the former Roger Clemens clone who has rediscovered himself in the back end of the bullpen. All would fit nicely as a 7th/8th inning guy and Street and Soria could be kept around for next year to replace Jonathon Papelbon. Personally, I wouldn’t trade for any of these guys, and it’s not because “they’ve never done it in Boston, and closing in Boston takes a special type of mentality that you just don’t have when you close games in middle America” (an approximate quote from long time baseball writer Tony Maserotti yesterday, conveniently forgetting that ’04 World Series hero Keith Foulke was brought over from Oakland). The reason I wouldn’t trade for any of these guys is because I think it would take far too much to get them relative to their worth. It seems as though most Major League GMs agree with this assessment as there have been very few big name closers traded mid-season lately*. It is just not worth it to give up a prospect with a decent chance of becoming a big league regular for a guy who may give you 20 regular season and 5 post season innings. I would not expect to see any of these guys in Boston this year (though watch out for Bell next year, even though I’d rather keep Pap around).

*Francisco Rodriguez was recently traded to the Brewers. This is a completely different situation because of the Mets’ money woes and K-Rod’s $17.5M option that vests next year if he finishes 55 games. The Brewers gave up little to get him because the Mets just wanted to shed most of his salary.

Unbreakable (not well known but every bit as good as the big names, could be had for much less)

Luke Gregerson, Padres; Mike Adams, Padres; Rafael Betancourt, Rockies; Sean Marshall, Cubs; Randy Choate, Marlins; Grant Balfour, A’s; Brad Ziegler, A’s; Koji Uehara, Orioles

All of these pitchers are having strong seasons for non-contending teams. Because they do not pitch the 9th inning with a lead of 3 runs or less they become undervalued. They all sport strong strike out to walk ratios, which is what you look for most in a reliever. They would all be the 3rd or 4th best reliever on the Red Sox if acquired, but like The Sixth Sense group, their impact would be minimal (sensing a pattern yet?). Marshall and Gregerson would probably be the most difficult to pry away from their teams; Balfour, Choate, Uehara and Betancourt would probably be the easiest. They could probably be acquired for a C prospect like Jeremy Hazelbaker plus a really raw, young pitcher from one of the Sox rookie teams.

The Last Airbender in 3D (saves in baseball=3D in movies, both are totally pointless)

Matt Capps, Twins; Leo Nunez, Marlins; Kevin Gregg, Orioles; Brandon League, Mariners; Jonathan Broxton, Dodgers

Capps tricked the Twins into giving up a top prospect (Wilson Ramos, now a regular for the Nationals) because they needed a new closer who had “done it before”. Nunez is some average reliever who was essentially the lesser of all evils for the Fish. Gregg is the magician who has lured 4 teams now into allowing him to close despite walking 4.5 batters per 9 innings over the last 5 years. All Star Brandon League has a 3.85 career ERA. Broxton actually used to be a really good reliever but injuries and wildness have submarined his career. Trading for one of these guys is like paying an extra $5 for a 3D version of a movie just because 3D (like saves) is supposed to be this wonderful, magical thing.

What the Red Sox should do

Trade for Choate. The one weakness in the Red Sox bullpen is a lack of a lefty specialist. In the greater scheme of things, a guy who has only pitched 18.2 innings this year won’t make much difference between winning and losing. However, if the Sox are up 1 in the bottom of the 7th in Game 7 of the World Series against the Phillies and Chase Utley and Ryan Howard come to bat, it is going to mean a lot to have a guy who can shut down lefties. This year, Choate has held lefties to a .250 OPS. Not average. Not OBP. Not SLG. A .250 OPS.

I would heavily advise them against trading for anyone but a lefty specialist at this point in the season. Guys from The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable groups would certainly be upgrades over current members of the bullpen. However, I believe the Sox can make the playoffs with what they have in the bullpen right now and once they are in the playoffs, the relievers would mean even less. Because games are so spread out now, Papelbon and Daniel Bard can pretty much pitch in every close game and pitch for more than 1 inning. The team will also have Matt Albers, Alfredo Aceves, Dan Wheeler, Andrew Miller, Tim Wakefield and maybe Bobby Jenks if he can get straight to fill in the gaps. Unless a game goes 14 innings, the only bullpen guys who are really going to matter are Pap and Bard and I don’t think anybody on this list could or should replace them this year.

What the Red Sox will do

Trade for Balfour. Balfour is a high strikeout pitcher who fares equally well against lefties and righties. He has had success in the AL East when he pitched for the Rays the last few years. He also is signed for $4M next year and was supposed to be part of a strong A’s bullpen that would help them reach the playoffs. Since they are last in the AL West, Billy Beane is probably not too thrilled about paying this kind of money for a bullpen pitcher. He should be pretty easy to pry away, and though he is not a lefty specialist, he would give Francona more flexibility than Choate. The same flexibility that Jenks was supposed to provide when Theo envisioned the three closer bullpen in the offseason.

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