The Tampa Bay Rays had the best bullpen in the American League in 2010 by some measures, leading the league in opponents' batting average (.228) and ERA (3.33) and WHIP (1.17) and K/BB (2.61) and fewest walks (150) and save percentage (76 percent).
They have one of the league's best pens again in 2011, leading the league comfortably in save percentage (82 percent) and sitting top five in nearly every other category.
Tampa Bay's top six relievers last year, in terms of appearances, were Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler, Lance Cormier, and Randy Choate.
The Rays' top six relievers this year are Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta, Juan Cruz, Cesar Ramos, Adam Russell, and Jake McGee.
Soriano and Benoit and Balfour and Wheeler left for big free agency deals. Cormier and Choate left for smaller ones.
The Rays were left to rebuild their bullpen, basically from scratch. They brought in Farnsworth and Peralta on reasonable free agent deals, Cruz on a minor league contract, and Ramos and Russell from San Diego in the Jason Bartlett trade, while graduating McGee from their farm system (he's since been optioned to get things straightened out).
They're paying those six relievers a combined $5.6 million in 2011. That's about what Detroit is paying Benoit alone this year (the first of three guaranteed seasons) - for what is now a 7.47 ERA - and a little more than half of the $10 million Soriano will get from the Yankees this year (a number that jumps in 2012 and again in 2013) while regularly committing arson.
The point is that bullpens can be overhauled, can be done so effectively, and can be done so inexpensively. Especially in the winter, but steps can be taken in the summer as well. As we noted back on April 22:
Who are Wilson Ramos, Joe Testa, Matt Gorgen, Matt Cusick, Andrew Shive, Andrew Lambo, James McDonald, Joe Martinez, John Bowker, Rick Vanden Hurk, and Daniel Turpen?
One organizational top 10 prospect (Ramos), one who was so ranked a year ago but isn't now (Lambo), and a bunch of journeymen and fringy minor leaguers.
That group was traded, last July 29 and 30 and 31, for closer Matt Capps, closer Chad Qualls, closer Kerry Wood, closer Octavio Dotel, and fellow veteran relievers Javier Lopez, Will Ohman, and Ramon Ramirez.
Texas may not have a completely different top six in the pen a year from now (the appearance leaders are Darren Oliver, Neftali Feliz, Arthur Rhodes, Pedro Strop, Cody Eppley, and Mark Lowe), but there will be changes this year and more after the season ends.
We're all pretty well versed in who the top prospects in the Rangers system are, and you're not going to trade Robbie Erlin or Jurickson Profar or Neil Ramirez or Mike Olt or either Perez to get any sort of bullpen arm, and there are probably another half dozen guys you could put on that list. But when you read Scott's daily farm recaps, there's reason to key in on the progress that second- and third-tier guys like righthanders Jake Brigham, Mark Hamburger, Tyler Tufts, Trevor Hurley, Kennil Gomez, Johan Yan, Zach Osborne, and Ryan Rodebaugh, lefthander Joseph Ortiz, catcher Tomas Telis, infielders Tommy Mendonca and Odubel Herrera, and outfielders Ryan Strausborger and Mike Bianucci have made this season, not to mention the possibility that Chris Davis and Taylor Teagarden might be getting scouts thinking again.
The importance of developing vertical depth in prospects like Brigham and Telis and Herrera and Bianucci - or as we saw last year, Michael Main and Ryan Tatusko and Omar Poveda - is that you don't have to move someone like Roman Mendez to get Taylor Buchholz, or Joe Wieland to get Tyler Clippard.
But before you start to map two or three deals out to revamp the Rangers' relief corps right away, recognize that there are, what, three, four, maybe five teams that might be ready to look to next year and sell?
To get the Padres to part with Mike Adams now, to signal to their clubhouse and fan base in late May that it's not happening this year, maybe they ask for Michael Kirkman and Engel Beltre and Ovispo De Los Santos, emboldened by the limited supply of teams willing to throw in the towel on 2011 and move big league pieces and seeing an opportunity to exploit the Rangers' desperation for bullpen help. But a month and a half from now, maybe the ask drops to Brigham and Telis, with more teams in sell mode and more relievers on the market.
Is that extra six weeks of Adams, maybe 20 innings of work in 20 first-half games, worth the higher price in prospects? It's all hypothetical, of course, but you get the point.
Just for kicks, let's assume Texas decides a guy like Koji Uehara, even at age 36, is worth Baltimore's current ask of, say, Robbie Ross (which I highly doubt, but go along with me for a second). If you also know that the Twins love Ross and might eventually listen on Francisco Liriano, don't you have to hang onto Ross, just in case he can be part of the package two months from now?
Stated another way, if the Rangers had traded Josh Lueke to San Francisco in the deal for Bengie Molina, who else would they have been forced to give Seattle a week later to get the Cliff Lee trade done?
There are always moving parts, and as badly as we all know the bullpen needs fixing, it takes discretion on the part of the people in charge of pulling the trigger on trades to do this right. Part of the job description in the front office is that those guys exercise some greater degree of patience than any of us watching can muster up, and a great part of the challenge is to balance the shifting nature of the cost against the opportunity to avoid sitting through one more late-inning situation with not enough bullets in the gun.
Before wrapping this one up, I want to share some things that are going on in Arizona while nobody's looking. Dozens of Rangers prospects are held back in extended spring training after camp breaks each year, many to get in their work in Surprise before the short-season leagues begin in mid-June, others for other reasons, and just as in March, games are scheduled between clubs so their players can get competitive experience in aside from the instruction that goes on.
The game schedule in extended has been in full swing for over a month now, and the Rangers squad is dominating, sporting a record of 22-6-2 and apparently not just winning games but consistently doing so in convincing fashion. Among the standout pitching performances:
Righthander David Perez has fanned 17 and walked one in 11 innings (two runs on eight hits)
Lefthander Victor Payano has allowed one run on five hits and one walk in 11 innings, striking out nine
Righthander Luke Jackson (who made his minor league debut last night: see Scott's report) gave up one run on eight hits and one walk in 10 innings, punching out 11
Righthander Jose Monegro has fired nine scoreless innings of relief, scattering two hits and two walks while setting a dozen down on strikes
Righthander Cody Buckel threw six scoreless innings (three hits, no walks, six strikeouts) before a promotion to Low A Hickory
Before righthander Ben Henry moved on to Hickory, he punched out 13 in 10 innings, allowing six hits and two walks while permitting one unearned run
Righthander Ovispo De Los Santos has fanned six in six scoreless innings, allowing two hits and four walks
Righthander Ezequiel Rijo has racked up 6.1 scoreless innings of relief, yielding four hits and two walks while punching out seven
The two most interesting conversions, catcher Leonel "Macumba" De Los Santos and third baseman Matt West, have had intriguing lines: Macumba has yielded one run on four hits and one walk in 6.2 innings, fanning six, while West, who has reportedly touched 99 mph on the gun, has been hittable but has nine strikeouts and just one walk in 8.2 innings of work - West's eight appearances in the squad's 30 games to date are tops on the staff
Although the numbers are sort of incidental for rehabbing veterans, Scott Feldman fanned 11 and issued two walks in 13.1 innings before going out on his rehab assignment, while Brandon Webb has set four down on strikes in five frames, walking none
Highlights from the offense, which has a collective slash of .295/.371/.460:
The extremely versatile Drew Robinson (about whom I wrote in the 2011 Bound Edition: "I'm trying to resist the idea that Texas might be developing its own Ben Zobrist here, but that's the obvious comp, and it's exciting") was destroying extended spring training pitching before he was sidelined by a broken right ring finger, hitting .405/.479/.833 in 42 at-bats with four home runs and more walks (six) than strikeouts (five); he's been playing primarily at third base in Surprise - his fifth-most frequent position (out of six) on the field last summer
Infielder Alejandro Selen, versatile in his own right, was sitting at .338/.395/.662 with a team-leading six home runs (68 at-bats) before a promotion to Hickory this week
In 56 at-bats, catcher Jorge Alfaro is hitting .400/.411/.618
Middle infielder Edwin Garcia (.273/.455/.303) has drawn 11 walks while fanning only four times in 33 at-bats
Hit machine Hanser Alberto and January signee Rougned Odor, less flashy as shortstop prospects than Profar or Luis Sardinas, sit at .309/.333/.485 and .351/.422/.474, respectively; Odor has more walks (six) than strikeouts (four) in his 57 at-bats
Hirotoshi Onaka is hitting .378/.549/.649 in 37 at-bats, with 14 walks
Slight outfielder Kendall Radcliffe has three home runs in his first 24 at-bats
In five games before transferring to Frisco, center fielder Leonys Martin was 7 for 16 with three walks and one strikeout (.438/.550/.438)
A number of those player fit this conversation.
We sit here bemoaning the fact that our right-handed closer has faced 27 right-handed batters in 2011 and has yet to strike one of them out, and that there's no clear eighth-inning guy, and that the club is having to rely on several relievers who were thought of in camp as emergency options.
And we know, given this front office and the depth of this team's farm system and the reality that, in spite of everything that's gone wrong to lead to 23-22, Texas sits atop the division with lots of reason to believe things can only get better, that the Rangers will make summer trades to address needs on the pitching staff.
But at the quarter pole of the season, you're going to have to overpay for a pitcher as the few teams that are ready to sell look for ways to exploit the barrenness of the early market, to take advantage of a seemingly desperate situation for the defending American League champs.
The reassuring part of all of this is that while in past generations of this franchise, it might have been necessary to overpay in that way right up until the trade deadline because the Rangers system just didn't have very much depth (Robb Nen and Kurt Miller for Cris Carpenter comes to mind), that's not the case these days - just like it wasn't the case last year when Texas traded Lueke, Main, Poveda, Tatusko, Justin Smoak, Blake Beavan, Matt Lawson, Chris Ray, Evan Reed, Tanner Roark, and Joaquin Arias to get a number one starting pitcher (tonight's opposition, in fact) and a handful of position players - plus one injured relief pitcher (Lowe) who wasn't being counted on to impact the pennant race at all. The Rangers added a ton of pieces on the way to the World Series without moving any more than one core prospect to get it all done.
While the bullpen was stable in 2010 and left alone through the trading season, it's got to be priority one in 2011, sitting front and center on the whiteboard and maybe with more than one target in mind. We know that groundwork is constantly being laid, and that there will be turnover, and but the timing on when that effort gets rolling is dependent on decisions being made in multiple war rooms, as teams begin to move in their own minds from competitive to forward-looking, and the cost of locking that determination in once and for all starts to come down to a point at which it's palatable for the other team, the one that's looking to shore things up and turn its bullpen from a nightly trouble spot back into some sort of weapon you can feel good about taking into a fight.