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A Mightier 'Pen: How the Phillies Should Approach Building Their Bullpen in 2013 (and Beyond)

Injuries and budget constraints forced the Phillies to turn to their own cheap young arms to fill out the bullpen in 2012. It turns out that might have been the wisest approach anyway.

High Cinq
High Cinq
Frank Victores-US PRESSWIRE

In 2008, the Phillies won the World Series with a bullpen in which the youngest contributor of significance was 27-year-old Ryan Madson. That's a stark contrast to this season's bullpen, which consisted mostly of pitchers who weren't even born when Back to the Future was released. The Phillies finished 17 games out of first place this season, and that's led to criticism of the Phillies' Kiddie Corps approach, with some wondering if a bullpen overhaul should be prioritized for this offseason.

The World Series bullpen in 2008 was a mix of rising stars, big-league veterans, and geriatric fossils. As measured by Fair Run Average they were not only the second-best bullpen in the league that season, but one of the most successful bullpens the Phillies have assembled in the past ten years. That year, being Brad Lidge was a thing of pride, as the then-31-year-old closer got all of the attention and $6.35 million in compensation. Chad Durbin was 30 and reasonably priced, making big contributions for just $900,000 that year. Much of the rest of the bullpen was aging rapidly, overpaid, or both. Midseason acquisition Scott Eyre was 36 and making $3.25 million, J.C. Romero was 32 and making $3.25 million, Rudy ‘Action Traction'* Seanez had been around since the Civil War, and 40-year-old Tom Gordon made $5.5 million and was no longer young enough to be called Flash without a tinge of irony. The Phillies spent around $25 million on relievers in 2008, which in hindsight is a lot to pay for relievers -- but at least it worked.

*Nicknames in the 2008 Phillies bullpen: Flash, Action Traction, Mad Dog, and Lights Out. Baseball Reference has Seanez has "Action Traction."Many Phillies fans have told me they have no recollection of said nickname, but some research tells me that Christina Kahrl of Baseball Prospectus began calling Seanez "Traction Action" in 1998, a trend that continued throughout his career in Kahrl's articles, which I'm assuming is a reference to his multitude of injuries and the fact that he spent 691 days on the disabled list between 1991 and 2008. So, while that nickname never caught on (at least not beyond Baseball Reference getting it backwards), it's still an interesting Kahrlism that is too good to omit.

This year, instead of building in a similar fashion to 2008, the Phillies spent money on three pitchers -- Papelbon, Chad Qualls, and Jose Contreras -- and filled the rest of the roster spots with a rotating cast of minor leaguers vying for long-term security in the bullpen. The veterans disappointed; Qualls was traded to the Yankees after an abysmal first half, and the 40-year-old Contreras slipped away to the 60-day disabled list, leaving virtually every reliever in their minor-league system a shot at pitching for the Phillies this season. The Phillies ended the season on such a sour note that the success of the bullpen gets lost in the shuffle: the bullpen finished the season with a 4.06 Relief FRA, their best performance by that measure since 1971.

The youth approach for the Phillies wasn't intentional; it was forced by payroll. The Phillies entered 2012 with an Opening Day payroll just shy of $175 million, which meant a trade-off between spreading money among veteran relievers or an all-in approach on Jonathan Papelbon. When the Phillies chose the latter, making him the highest-paid reliever in the game not named Rivera*, it meant there wouldn't be any more money for the bullpen for the next few seasons, especially since the team is in desperate need of offensive upgrades in the outfield and at third base. Staying the course and using young pitchers in the bullpen not only seems inevitable at this point, but it could also be one of the best approaches for the Phillies anyway.

*Brett Myers was paid more this season than Papelbon, but his contract was negotiated when he was still a starter.

It's important to note that using younger relievers isn't all that unusual, especially in recent seasons. For some teams that's likely a cost-saving measure, but for others it may mean that they're finally getting smart. In Baseball Prospectus's latest book Extra Innings, Ben Lindbergh looked at the top 50 relievers, as measured by WARP, in each season from 1980 to 2010 and found that 60 percent of the top 50 turns over in a single season, and the pace of turnover is accelerating as teams use more roster spots for pitchers. Even with relievers you would think of as well established, there are no guarantees; success over multiple seasons is incredibly rare. According to Lindbergh, in 2010 just four pitchers appeared in the Top 50 for the fourth consecutive season: Mariano Rivera, Jonathan Papelbon, Jonathan Broxton, and Heath Bell.

While we can debate the merits of paying Papelbon $13 million a season for the three next years, at least the Phillies spent on one of the few consistent relievers out there -- though there's no guarantee that Papelbon's trajectory doesn't mirror that of Heath Bell's before his contract ends. Still, even though Papelbon was expensive in 2012, the entire bullpen cost around $17 million. The Phillies are in a good spot, not obligated to more than the league minimum on most of their relievers. Not only is that money that can be spent elsewhere, but because of the variability of relief pitchers, it's better spent that way.

From 2010 to 2012, there have been about 18 team-seasons in the National League, including the 2012 Phillies, which could count as bullpen youth movements, with several relievers younger than 27 playing a significant role. In 2012, half of the National League teams fit into this category with mixed results: Half finished above league average, and half below, which is a product more of the pitchers they had available to choose from in the minors than age.


Relief FRA

Rank in NL

Atlanta Braves



Chicago Cubs



Colorado Rockies



Florida Marlins



Los Angeles Dodgers



Philadelphia Phillies



San Diego Padres



St. Louis Cardinals



When the Cardinals won the World Series in 2011, their roster was built around veteran starters and a bullpen full of young talent. It took some mid-season retooling, but by the end of the year, younger pitchers like Fernando Salas, Marc Rzepcynski, Eduardo Sanchez had outperformed old-timer counterparts like Trever Miller (38), Miguel Batista (40), Brian Tallet (33), Arthur Rhodes (41), and Ryan Franklin (38). The only successful veteran in the bullpen at season's end was major-league pinball Octavio Dotel, who came over midseason from the Toronto Blue Jays. The Phillies seem to be following a similar model of spending on starters while going cheap and young in relievers (even if they did buy into the closer myth), but that's both the beauty and the frustration of bullpens: There really is no model to follow, no guaranteed path to success.

Despite the carefully constructed seasons of the past, the Phillies have been all over the place success-wise in the last 10 years (see table below). Going young might not be as sustainable for them as it has been for the Braves, Nationals, or Cardinals, not unless someone on the roster emerges as the next Craig Kimbrel or Drew Storen, but the accidental success of this season's bullpen is just another reminder that success is really dependent on a number of factors, and pedigree is only one of them.



Rank in NL by FRA


































The biggest challenge in Phillies' bullpen construction this offseason will be figuring out which pitchers are ready to start the season on the big-league roster since so many auditioned yet have a small sample size in the majors. Josh Lindbolm, Antonio Bastardo, Jeremy Horst, and Phillippe Aumont seem like a lock for roster spots, but it's a toss up for guys like Justin De Fratus, Jake Diekman, Joe Savery, Michael Schwimer, and other prospects who will all fight for spots in the spring. There's still a chance that the Phillies decide it's important to sign one more veteran, particularly for the set-up role, but that's going to cost money; perhaps the Qualls-implosion of this season will serve as a cautionary tale that nothing is certain when it comes to relievers.

Bottom line, reliever money is almost always money that's better spent elsewhere and teams continue to prove that each season as they squeak into the playoffs with homegrown talent. While we're still several years away from rendering all overpaid-veteran relievers extinct, we're certainly getting closer as teams like the Phillies get smarter -- even if they hadn't planned it that way.

Cee Angi is one of SBN's Designated Columnists, one of the minds behind the Platoon Advantage, and the author of Baseball-Prose. Follow her at @CeeAngi.