Malcolm On Base: Here’s a new idea for bullpens, plus Andrew Bailey retires, and more from my OOTP 1984 sim

Welcome to Malcolm On Base, a daily rundown of baseball as I see it. You’ll get (flowery) essays, (mediocre) statistical analysis, (crude) opinion and (oh get on with it) nostalgia.

1. Introducing the early-late pen concept

For those who haven’t heard, some teams are electing in 2018 to potentially carry eight relievers, which is one more than in the structure typically employed over the last few decades. This trend has been growing in recent years, but this season seems to be the tipping point. You’re now likely to see eight-man bullpens become the norm throughout baseball.

With most of these teams, there seems to be two major reasons for an eight-man pen: to keep arms fresh throughout the season and to more quickly rescue starters who have trouble in the middle innings. Most front offices have realized it’s difficult to establish a starting rotation of five effective pieces, so departing from that and focusing instead on building a dominant bullpen is a good way to proceed. But there’s another running theme with all of these teams: There seems to be two, maybe three, sometimes four spots in the bullpen undecided.

Think about it: Most decent teams head into spring training having four of their five rotation spots set, but here even good teams like the Dodgers aren’t exactly sure who will start the year in the bullpen. Of course, relievers are fungible and so you want the hottest hands in your major league bullpen, but if teams are placing more emphasis on having a dominant pen, why are they leaving multiple spots up for grabs between prospects, non-roster invitees, poor middle relievers and converted starters? Why are they not taking these spots more seriously before spring begins?

If a team was really serious about curating an eight-man bullpen, it may attempt to design pseudo-roles for its relievers, then target relievers who fit those pseudo-roles, rather than put a bunch of guys in a pool and see who survives. I’m not saying a team should sign eight relievers to expensive contracts before the season, but thinking more structurally about the eight-man pen, and executing in acquisitions that fit the structure, can be an advantage for a team out there.

This is the most widely accepted structure of the seven-man bullpen:

  • Closer (ninth inning with lead)
  • Primary set-up reliever (eighth inning or ninth inning)
  • Left-handed reliever (seventh or eighth inning)
  • Primary middle reliever (sixth or seventh inning)
  • Secondary middle reliever (fifth or sixth inning)
  • Secondary left-handed reliever (fifth or sixth inning)
  • Long reliever (converted starter)

As we know, the primary middle reliever is typically found on a one-year deal and bounces from good to bad seasons, while the secondary middle reliever is someone teams try to avoid using in even medium-leverage spots. So instead of adding another secondary middle reliever who can be placed into the fifth-, sixth- or seventh-inning mix, what if teams first structured their bullpens this way:

  • Late fireman (eighth or ninth inning high leverage)
  • Late righty reliever (eighth or ninth inning medium leverage)
  • Late lefty reliever (eighth or ninth inning medium leverage)
  • Early fireman (sixth or seventh inning high leverage)
  • Early righty reliever (sixth or seventh inning medium leverage)
  • Early lefty reliever (sixth or seventh inning medium leverage)
  • Swing set-up/fireman reliever (all innings, all leverages)
  • Swing starter/reliever (converted starter or sixth starter)

The idea is this: Let’s say a starter gives you five innings and leaves with a lead, but the heart of the opposing order comes to bat in the sixth. Here you use your early fireman in the sixth and your early righty or lefty reliever in the seventh (since you’d likely be back in medium or low leverage). For the eighth and ninth you can match up however you like; meanwhile, the swing set-up/fireman is a third potential closer.

To build this, you’d need three potential closers, two set-up-quality righties and two set-up-quality lefties, plus a spot starter or long man. It’s potentially costly, but the swing role could be a prospect with closer potential.

Let’s employ this on a team aiming to contend in 2018 and going with an eight-man bullpen – the Brewers:

  • Late fireman: Corey Knebel (1.78 ERA, 14.9 K/9, 4.7 BB/9)
  • Late set-up: Matt Albers (1.62 ERA, 9.3 K/9, 2.5 BB/9)
  • Late lefty: Josh Hader (2.05 ERA, 12.8 K/9, 4.2 BB/9)
  • Early fireman: Jacob Barnes (4.00 ERA, 10 K/9, 4.1 BB/9)
  • Early set-up: Jeremy Jeffress (3.65 ERA, 8 K/9, 5.5 BB/9)
  • Early lefty: Boone Logan (4.71 ERA, 12 K/9, 3.9 BB/9)
  • Swing set-up/fireman: Oliver Drake (4.44 ERA, 10.1 K/9, 3.8 BB/9)
  • Swing starter/reliever: Brent Suter (3.42 ERA, 7.1 K/9, 2.4 BB/9)

Now, if I’m building a pen by this structure I may be looking to upgrade my late set-up man, pushing Albers to the early set-up spot. And I’d be in the market for a surer thing as my early fireman, pushing Barnes to the swing spot. Otherwise this isn’t a bad configuration.

Financially, if we were to go by average annual values of 2017-18 free agents, here’s how I would envision the valuation of such a bullpen for a championship contender:

  • Late fireman: $12MM-$17MM
  • Late set-up: $8MM-$10MM
  • Late lefty: $8MM-$10MM
  • Early fireman: $12MM-$17MM
  • Early set-up: $8MM-$10MM
  • Early lefty: $8MM-$10MM
  • Swing set-up/fireman: $500K-$2MM
  • Swing starter/reliever: $500K-$2MM

If we’re taking the high end of the range for the late group and the low end of the range for the early group, we’re looking at about $68 million for the entire bullpen. Front offices would need to be craftier about filling in the bullpen without hitting that kind of mark, but it’s certainly possible.

There is a way to expand bullpens while still being able to define roles for pitchers. My early-late-pen approach is one way it can be done.

2. Andrew Bailey retires

With shoulder issues lingering through the offseason and into 2018, Andrew Bailey announced his retirement Monday. The reliever was with the Angels but decided to stop playing and, instead, turn to coaching. He’ll join the Los Angeles staff during spring training.

Bailey, 33, is a big right-hander who burst onto the scene with Oakland. In his rookie 2009 season he collected a 1.84 ERA with 26 saves, striking out 91 and walking 24. He won the American League Rookie of the Year for that performance, following it up in 2010 with a 1.47 ERA, 25 saves, 42 strikeouts and 13 walks.

Injuries plagued Bailey during his entire career, as 2009 was one of just two seasons in which he managed to pitch without a disabled list stint. After being traded to Boston in 2011, the injuries worsened. He missed much of 2012 because of a spring training thumb injury, then he suffered a shoulder injury in mid-2013. In 2014 the shoulder issues continued while with the Yankees, for whom he didn’t pitch until late in 2015.

The Phillies gave him a shot in 2016, and he stayed healthy and relatively productive through the first half of the season. But once his ERA soared past 6.00, he was released before being picked up by the Angels. Almost immediately he turned his fortunes around, posting a 2.38 ERA and saving six games. He got in just four games in 2017 before the shoulder problems returned.

Bailey looked like a sure thing as a 25-year-old closer with the Athletics, throwing a spinning mid-90s fastball that rose up to 11 inches and generated whiffs because it was so deceiving. He paired it with a solid curve and cutter. As the shoulder pain grew the breaking pitches became too ineffective, rendering him nearly a one-pitch pitcher. Not to mention that with his rising fastball, he gave up plenty of fly balls, something that worked well in Oakland but not so much in Boston, New York or Philadelphia.

In the end, Bailey was a stud pitcher, perfect for a large park, who was denied a fruitful career thanks to the cruel consequence of his profession. Few pitchers endured such pains, and it’s unfortunate, because the tall righty’s skill was unlike many others’.

The most amazing thing about Bailey is that, serving as a relief pitcher who spent considerable time on the disabled list, his entire career of eight seasons is comparable to one Sam McDowell season.

Andrew Bailey, career – 274.1 IP, 16-14, 3.12 ERA, 276 K, 91 BB, 6.0 WAR
Sam McDowell, 1969 – 285 IP, 18-14, 2.94 ERA, 279 K, 102 BB, 6.6 WAR

Think about how many innings the top starters threw until the mid-1980s. Now think about Bailey, who we’ll remember as a good pitcher, but who also threw as many innings as one season of a McDowell, a Bob Veale, a Mickey Lolich.

Sorry about the shoulder, Andrew. Sorry about your timing.

3. Your weekly 1980s Phillies update

Let me preface this with a declarative: I love Out of the Park Baseball. You can hear me and Dan Walsh play it as the 2009 Phillies on our podcast Playing The Rube. Along with that game I’m currently playing another three games on OOTP, including a general manager/manager sim of the post-1983 Phillies, or as I like to call it, the Dead Years.

The last time I wrote about this, my Phillies were 36-40, seven games behind the first-plate Mets, on June 28, 1984. But over the last three weeks my starting pitching excelled, and I received some improved hitting performances, and now, on July 18, 1984, I find my team at 48-45, just three games behind the Mets in a National League East dogfight. (The standings are absurd: the Cardinals are two behind New York, us and the Expos are three back, the Pirates are four back and the Cubs are five back and just one below .500.  Undoubtedly this is the best division in baseball, both with a good first-place race and a full collection of quality teams.)

So we went 12-5 with another 13 games to play before the trade deadline. Last week I wrote about likely being a seller at the trade deadline, focusing on dangling John Denny as a target, while still attempting to acquire a young, cost-controlled right fielder to fulfill owner Bill Giles‘ desire to upgrade at right field. While I’m not yet convinced that we should scrap selling anyone, the resurgence has me nonetheless thinking about finding a creative way to upgrade without depleting major resources.

Put it this way: If we’re still around three games back with five games to play before the deadline, I can’t turn around and trade Denny, considerably weakening my starting rotation for the short-term when there’s a possibility at a postseason berth. Giles does want to reach the playoffs, and we’re the only team in baseball currently labeled as a “Win now!” team, which makes sense because we’ve been a contender since 1975. But the problem is I don’t want to trade real prospects – at the very least, Darren Daulton, Kevin Gross and Jeff Stone, and to a lesser extent, Mike Diaz, Kelly Downs and Mike Maddux. Our organization is already 21st out of 26 in prospect rankings with only two 60+ potential prospects (Daulton and Stone). With plenty of age-34+ talent on the big-league roster (Jerry Koosman, Steve Carlton, Tug McGraw, Bill Campbell, John Wockenfuss, Garry Maddox, Mike Schmidt), I would be damaging my future by selling even one prospect.

This makes for a potentially tricky but fun trade deadline. How can I upgrade right now (especially with just $370,158 available in the budget) without sacrificing the present or future at all?

I’m told my biggest major league weaknesses are relief pitcher, shortstop, left field and right field. The bullpen has pitched well (third best bullpen ERA in the National League), but it hasn’t had to work all that much. We could use another standout right-hander, as the combination of Rich Surhoff (4.22 ERA, 5.5 K/9, 6.3 BB/9) and Steve Mura (3.47 ERA, 7.2 K/9, 3.7 BB/9) don’t elicit tons of faith in emergency situations. John Flinn (3.32 ERA, 8.3 K/9, 2.9 BB/9) has been fine at triple-A Portland, but he hasn’t had considerable major league experience since 1980. Jeff Gray, an advanced-A arm with a 2.70 ERA and 8.1 K/9 in 16.2 innings at Peninsula, could be moved to the majors, but that’s a heck of a leap and he just turned 21.

So I may be in the market for a decent right-handed arm, but I’d hope that cost nothing more than a 40 potential prospect, and I have a few possibilities in the 30s. That’ll come closer to the deadline. Right now, I’m looking heavily at a corner outfielder, preferably a right fielder.

My current right fielder is Sixto Lezcano (30), who’s hitting .243/.324/.366 with 0.3 WAR. He’s a 38/38 and a free agent after 1984. Basically I need someone hitting better than him (preferably with an eye and some power), and I’d rather have a more cost-controlled player who can play in Philadelphia past 1984. An upgrade now, and also for later.

(My current plan for 1985 is to shift Von Hayes to left field, as he’s carrying a -6.4 zone rating at center field this season, second worst in baseball among those with at least 60 games played. I’ll still have Glenn Wilson (on the disabled list until late August), but he has only proven to be a decent fourth outfielder at the corners. I’d likely keep at least one of Joe Lefebvre (28), Garry Maddox (34) or Tim Corcoran (31), and Jeff Stone (23) is likely to get a shot at some point. But it remains that I’ll need to add two good players for the 1985 outfield.)

Let’s go over this, then. Here are the teams likely to be sellers at the deadline:

  • Oakland Athletics – 39-56
  • Seattle Mariners – 39-55
  • Texas Rangers – 40-53
  • Cincinnati Reds – 40-53
  • Atlanta Braves – 40-53
  • San Diego Padres – 42-52
  • Minnesota Twins – 42-50
  • San Francisco Giants – 44-50
  • Milwaukee Brewers – 44-49
  • Baltimore Orioles – 45-48
  • New York Yankees – 45-48
  • Boston Red Sox – 49-45
  • Toronto Blue Jays – 51-43

The Tigers (62-31) currently have a nine-game lead on second-place Cleveland, oddly echoing real life 1984 but also putting that division out of reach for anyone after the Indians (the Jays are 11.5 back).

After narrowing down the list to players who are at least a 45 overall and a 45 defensively in right field, there are 42 options (this isn’t black-and-white, but it’s hard to find an upgrade from Lezcano going beyond these parameters). After eliminating teams unlikely to be sellers, there are 21 options. Beyond that, there are 10 players who either are injured past the trade deadline or aren’t good in right field, despite their 45 ratings (I need good defense at Veterans Stadium, which has a spacious outfield).

Of these 11, there are quite a few with whom either the demand is too high or there is nothing I can trade that works for me (or they have a 10/5 rule that vetoes a trade). Those players include Tony Gwynn, Jesse Barfield, Kevin McReynolds, Dwight Evans and Gerald Perry. So we’re looking at six choices:

1. Jack Clark (San Francisco, age 28, 70/74) – .314/.420/.604, 2.4 WAR. Clark has a big contract ($8.94M through 1990) that pays him through his age-35 season, so that’s not exciting for me, plus he’s “fragile,” never playing a full 162 games in his career. I’m starting most of these deals with Lezcano, both to shed salary and give the other team some right field insurance for the rest of 1984, so Clark would cost him, plus Marty Bystrom and Charlie Hudson, but I’m not in love with trading a 25-year-old starter at this point in the season. Remember, I can’t sacrifice the present.

2. Chili Davis (San Francisco, age 24, 51/71) – .251/.327/.356, 1.8 WAR. I’m surprised the Giants would deal Davis, who’s entering his first year of arbitration. He can play both center and right, which is a plus going forward. The numbers aren’t great this year, and he hasn’t yet broken out offensively. He’d cost Hudson and a filler minor leaguer, which sounds great, but Davis isn’t necessarily an upgrade right now over Lezcano.

3. Dave Winfield (New York Yankees, age 32, 71/71) – .296/.351/.481, 3.1 WAR. A free agent after next year, Winfield would be a clear upgrade who would instantly solidify the 1985 lineup. He does make $1.3 million (but only $1 million next year), so we’d be dancing a little with the payroll if we want to make further upgrades. The Yankees would do Lezcano, Hudson and a filler prospect, which isn’t terrible for 1.4 years of Winfield, but again, is it worth risking it with the rotation down the stretch?

4. Dave Parker (Cincinnati, age 33, 53/53) – .247/.272/.370, 0.2 WAR. Parker hasn’t been very good over the last few seasons, far from the batting champion and power threat he was in Pittsburgh. He’s making $800,000, which is less than Lezcano, and Cincinnati is over budget, so they would take a lesser deal. Bystrom and Joe Lefebvre would work, as would Mike Diaz alone. But Parker, like Davis, isn’t a sure upgrade, but for different reasons altogether. Plus he’s signed through 1986. Woof.

5. Ken Landreaux (Baltimore, age 29, 45/51) – .240/.283/.366, 0.3 WAR. Traded to Baltimore from the Dodgers in May, Landreaux is basically one person’s trash at this point. The guy doesn’t strike out, but he doesn’t walk much and isn’t a solid enough hitter (career .270) to be valuable long-term. He’s also a free agent after 1987, which feels too long for him. Lezcano and Bystrom would get it done, which makes sense from the Orioles standpoint.

6. Larry Parrish (Texas, age 30, 51/51) – .261/.330/.433, 0.9 WAR. Parrish makes $960,000 through 1987, meaning he’s a 3.4-year commitment in right field. He’s a career .264/.317/.431 hitter, which is good enough as a No. 3 outfielder, and typically gets close to 2.0 WAR per season. Again, good enough as a No. 3 outfielder. A small upgrade over Lezcano. A trade of Lezcano, Bystrom and a filler minor leaguer would do the trick.

The best answer for 1984 is Clark, who is having a career season, but he’s also an enormous commitment, and I don’t feel good about anything going beyond 1987. Davis (the only one who would actually fulfill my goal of acquiring a young, cost-controlled player) is interesting but not proven yet, while I’d rather keep Lezcano than bet on Landreaux or Parker.

That leaves Winfield and Parrish. The former is proven and not a major commitment, but he would cost one of my regular starters (as of today). A Winfield trade leaves my rotation at Steve Carlton, Denny, Koosman, Gross and Bystrom, which isn’t terrible but not ideal. A trade for Parrish, meanwhile, wouldn’t touch my rotation, but he’d also be on board for the next three seasons with a 45 eye and one position.

I’m currently leaning toward Winfield and am hoping to work with the Yankees on something that doesn’t hurt the pitching staff. I’ll let you know next week what transpires (and if I make a deal at all).