Major League Baseball’s 2014 Winter Meetings have come to a close, and the Colorado Rockies’ constellation of stars remain. Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez probably aren’t going anywhere at this point, as many of the teams that might have been good fits have already made moves in other directions this week. And while rumors continue to swirl regarding Justin Morneau (mostly to the Marlins) and Wilin Rosario (mostly to the Rangers), they, along with prime trade candidate Drew Stubbs, remain Rockies as well… at least for now. We have, however, seen some movement of lesser players, and the acquisitions of two relievers that I hope signal a better approach to bullpen building going forward.
The first move was the trade of Josh Rutledge to the Angles for Jairo Diaz, a 23 year old catcher-turned-reliever with a fastball that touches 100 MPH. Diaz raced through two minor league levels in 2014 on his way to a brief appearance with the big club late in the year. He’s got impressive stuff, and Diaz has a good chance to work at the back end of the Rockies bullpen right away, with lots of room to grow into a late inning role in the future. One concern with Diaz is that he hasn’t shown much at all prior to this year, but considering he started his career as a position player, it’s not so hard to believe he’s a genuine late-bloomer. Also, his success isn’t explained away by batted ball luck; it was driven by strong strikeout and walk rates – the sort of indicators that tend to predict future success relatively well.
Losing Rutledge isn’t insignificant. Shortstops with power and speed don’t grow on trees. However, he didn’t seem to take to second base all that well when given the chance to win the starter’s job at that position. And now, for better or for worse, DJ LeMahieu seems entrenched there; he’s a darling of the coaching staff and understandably so. Rutledge also sputtered as a utility player, and didn’t show the kind of defensive versatility required in that role. For these reasons, he became a poor fit on the Rockies roster, and I understand why the front office moved him.
The second move was actually a unified pair of separate transactions: the selection of Mark Canha in the Rule 5 draft, and subsequent flipping of Canha to the A’s for Austin House. The Rule 5 draft is complicated – see here for a full description – but the basic idea is this: teams should not be able to just “sit” on a quality prospect forever. At a certain point, partially in fairness to the player, and also to promote competitive balance, if a long-tenured prospect has not been placed on his team’s major league roster, that player is made available to other teams via a draft. The catch is that the new team must actually use that prospect, placing him on the active roster, and not themselves just stash the player in the minors. Canha was being hoarded by the Marlins, and while the Rockies decided they didn’t actually need him either, the Rockies high draft position allowed them to acquire Canha as a fungible asset, and then immediately trade him to the A’s, who offered House to the Rockies for their trouble.
House, like Diaz, is another hard-throwing reliever with impressive strikeout and walk rates. And House, like Diaz, also has a chance to open the season at the backend of the Rockies bullpen. He has less perceived upside than does Diaz, but a similar overall profile. The added bonuses for the Rockies are 1) House is not yet on the major league roster, keeping that spot open for another acquisition, and 2) they got House (through Canha) essentially for free. He adds depth to a position group that was perhaps the weakest on the team, and he cost the Rockies nothing.
Long Sidebar: But the mechanism that brought House to the Rockies sure did. In that same Rule 5 draft, the Rockies lost two potentially valuable assets: infielder Taylor Featherston and pitcher Daniel Winkler. Featherston, selected by Cubs but then immediately flipped to the hungry-for-middle-infielders Angels, probably won’t ever develop into a full-time player, but he could be the sort of utility player every team needs. The Rockies have a few or those guys in the upper minors, though, and leaving him off the major league roster was defensible in that light.
Winkler, however, is a different story. It’s also a complicated story, given his recent Tommy John surgery – meaning that his new team, the Braves, will essentially be paying him to rehab with no certainty of a pay-off – but Winkler is also the sort of prospect that the Rockies need more of, not less. Winkler had overcome low pre-draft expectations to emerge, finally, on the national prospect radar this year. Despite his domination of minor leaguers at every level, it may turn out that Winkler gets exposed in the majors. He may also turn out to be a different pitcher after his injury. For both reasons, he’s no sure thing.
But that’s true of all pitching prospects; they’re all lottery tickets. The Rockies, who need more pitching than almost every team in the league, and who have more trouble recruiting free agent pitchers than every team in the league, need as many of these lottery tickets as they can get their hands on. They lost one this week, and could have prevented it by simply adding Winkler to the roster instead of, say, Chris Rusin. I think the Rockies know that Winkler is more valuable than someone like Rusin; they likely chose to leave Winkler vulnerable to the draft as a calculated risk that he wouldn’t be selected. Indeed, there’s still a decent chance – maybe even a good chance – that Winkler eventually gets returned to the Rockies; the Braves may not be able comply with the conditions associated with a Rule 5 Draft selection.
The acquisitions of Diaz and House are both modest – especially in comparison to what the Dodgers did at the Winter Meetings. Most Rockies fans would like to have seen more action, and they may still get it – there’s no rule that all meaningful transactions must take place at the Winter Meetings. But regardless of what happens and when, as cliché as it sounds: it’s absolutely true that it’s often the moves a team doesn’t make that are the most valuable. And if adding guys like Diaz and House to the bullpen depth chart helps the Rockies avoid acquiring an expensive reliever via trade or the free agent market, then that alone makes Diaz and House valuable commodities in my book.
Consider the case of Boone Logan, the showcase bullpen acquisition of last offseason, coming with a price tag of $16.5M over 3 years. Given the fact that Logan pitched worse than an AAA pitcher last year (-1 WAR according to Baseball Reference), that contract looks horrible in retrospect. The bigger problem, though, is that it looked horrible even before this season. Nobody figured Logan would be as bad as he was in 2014, and there is good reason to believe that Logan will produce better results in 2015. There was some injury and plain old bad luck involved last year. Actually, almost everyone in the Rockies bullpen, including Logan, deserved better bottom line numbers then they got last year. But even with better-than-average luck, Logan isn’t worth his salary. That’s really not even a knock on Logan; few relievers ever pitch well enough – or enough, period – to earn that kind of salary. It was foolish of the Rockies to allocate their limited financial resources in this way, even if Boone Logan panned out (and even if he still sort of does).
Of course, Boone Logan isn’t the only example. Furthermore, the Rockies aren’t the only team with these kinds of pitchers on the books. Relievers are getting big dollar and big year commitments from plenty of teams this offseason, too. Sure, David Robertson is better than Boone Logan, but he got paid even more, too – and as good as Robertson has been in the past, and as good as he’ll probably – probably – be at least in the near future for the Astros, there are few analysts in baseball who don’t expect that contract to work out. Because they almost never do.
Part of the reason is that relievers just don’t pitch that much; about 80 innings on the high end. However, I think there’s room for a fair amount of debate on the quantity front. Relievers pitch infrequently, but they tend to pitch in disproportionately high-leverage situations. Some sabermatericians discount that aspect, because they don’t believe things like “clutch” and tend to discount or outright ignore non-quantifiable aspects of the game (i.e. how the deflation of a team’s psyche following a late-inning, come-from-ahead loss might effect on-field performance). I’m unwilling to outright discard any of these “soft” factors, and I honestly believe that a good reliever produces value well above what can be measured in a quantity-dependent measure like WAR. The pure $/WAR calculation favored by many analysts – a calculation that makes almost every big-money reliever look bad – is not why I hate my team paying big money to relievers.
I hate paying big money to relievers because it’s almost impossible to know if they’ll actually be, you know, good. All baseball players are unpredictable to some degree, but due to small sample sizes and increased injury risk, relievers are the most unpredictable dudes in the sport. Every player transaction is a bit of a dice roll, but relievers are the biggest dice roll there is, and it seems to me that this risk ought to be priced in to the acquisition cost more than it ever actually is.
However, to the contrary, glamour boy relievers have perhaps never been more fashionable. The Royals, after all, just played in the World Series based largely on the strength of their elite bullpen. It makes sense that every team would want one of those, and be tempted to spend big in the process. But the Royals bullpen was simultaneously an example of the both the importance of a good bullpen, and the futility of chasing one.
This is a random pursuit folks. And if it’s going to be random no matter how you approach it, you might as well spend less in the process (and use the money elsewhere, of course!). Diaz and House fit perfectly in that mold. Testing cost-controlled failed starters – Christian Friedrich, Yohan Flande, and so on – makes good sense too. All relievers are failed starters, after all; some just give up earlier in their careers than others. They all lack something – stamina, durability, deception, a third pitch, something – that prevented them from being what they all really wanted to be: a starting pitcher. All relievers, even the good ones, are walking reclamation projects in that sense. Some of them pay off, and some of them don’t. Some of them sustain success, and some of them don’t. Maybe the Rockies bullpen will be bad again next year, and maybe it won’t. Either way, I don’t want my team spending too much of its budget chasing bullpen glory.