The 2013 Bullpen
When discussing a team’s core building blocks, we generally focus on the position players and starting pitchers. They produce a majority of the value on any given club, and because of the fickle nature of relief pitching, it’s foolish to think that your good relievers today are still going to be good relievers tomorrow. They’re inconsistent, they get hurt, and they’re just generally an unpredictable bunch. There’s a reason why so many teams treat their bullpens as fungible assets.
But, I have to say, I don’t remember any team in recent years putting together a bullpen that is both as good, as deep, and as young as the Mariners have right now. There are certainly other good bullpens out there, but the Mariners actually have so many useful relievers right now, they’re going to have to dump someone before the 2013 season opens, and figuring out who that should be isn’t exactly an easy task.
For reference, the average swinging strike rate of American League relief pitchers this year is 9.8%. The Mariners currently have eight relievers above that line.
Yes, that’s right, the team’s best reliever — the guy who throws 99 and has perhaps the best curveball in baseball — has the worst swinging strike rate of the regular relief corps. Of course, swinging strike rate isn’t the be-all, end-all of pitching, as there’s also throwing strikes, getting ground balls, and in Wilhelmsen’s case, freezing people with ridiculously good curves in the strike zone. However, getting swinging strikes is a huge part of a bullpen’s success, as outs are significantly more important than efficiency out of your relievers, and the ability to generate a swinging strike is a pretty good proxy for high quality stuff.
The M’s essentially have two types of relievers right now: flamethrowers (Wilhelmsen, Capps, and Pryor) and slider-heavy match-up guys (Luetge, Furbush, Perez, Kinney, and Kelley). This is, to some extent, an ideal bullpen, in that you have three guys who have the kinds of fastballs that should allow them to pitch full innings without worry too much about the match-ups, and then you have five specialists who are pretty tough on same-handed batters, and can be mixed and matched effectively when needed. Of course, eight relievers is one too many for April-August, so someone will have to go away before the start of next year. The best bets there would be either Oliver Perez (free agent) or Josh Kinney (arbitration eligible), though if Perez is willing to re-sign for $1 or $2 million, I’d rather have a third lefty with some velocity rather than a situational right-hander. Cost will likely be a factor there, though, and some other team might offer Perez enough money to make that decision easy for the Mariners.
Either way, though, the Mariners essentially have a full, deep, talented bullpen for 2013 ready to go. They don’t need to add any free agent veterans to help mentor the youngsters. They don’t need to go looking for a middle guy who can soak up innings. While it’s unlikely that each of these pitchers will perform as well next year as they have this year, the foundation is in place for a pretty terrific bullpen, and it’s unusual in that none of them are anywhere close to making any real money.
Kinney and Shawn Kelley are the only two under team control for 2013 who will be eligible for arbitration, meaning that the other five can all have their contracts renewed for something close to the league minimum. Kinney and Kelley probably won’t make more than $750,000 to $1 million, given their service time and MLB performances to date, so they won’t be far from the league minimum either. In reality, the Mariners should be able to put an entire bullpen together for next year at a total cost under $5 million in salary.
Lots of teams have put cheap, young bullpens together before. Lots of teams have put good bullpens together before. It’s a bit more rare to put a bullpen together that that is good, cheap, and young at the same time, however.
The Mariners still have a lot of work to do with their position players and in the starting rotation. However, when it comes to the bullpen, they’re essentially set, and this does give them a pretty nice advantage heading into the off-season.