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Fixing the Bullpen: Free Agency is Not the Best Answer

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The bullpen has been a real, glaring area of weakness in the Theo Epstein era, but this year it was especially concerning. Of the army of relievers we trotted out, only one had an ERA below 3 (Bard), and our closer had his worst year ever - the most blown saves and highest ERA. Naturally, improving it will be a focus in the offseason. But where will the help come from?

In the past, Theo has tried a number of strategies to 'fix' the pen. He's brought in free agents off an unusually good year (Julian Tavarez and Rudy Seanez). He's signed free agents with good track records (Brendan Donnelly, Takashi Saito). He's promoted players from within the organization (Papelbon, Manny Delcarmen, Dan Bard, Craig Hansen). He's sought help abroad (Okajima). He's even converted starters to relievers, so that they can throw harder (Joel Pineiro, 2007; Papelbon, 2006, Rich Hill and Boof Bonser this year) . Some of these moves have worked well, many have not.

The reality of relieving is that it is the most inconsistent discipline in baseball. Part of this is the especially small sample sizes involved. A mediocre reliever can have a solid season in 60 innings, get a big contract in free agency, and be absolutely horrible the rest of the way, just because the team judged him off 60 innings rather . The 200 innings a typical starter would pitch is generally more indicative of their talent.

Another factor is the nature of relief pitchers. In baseball, the most talented pitchers are turned into starters, leaving the rest of the field to compete for relief work. A small class of good pitchers are able to both start and relieve, but are more suited to relief work; Papelbon is one such player who jumps out.

Finally, the players who demonstrate real talent as relievers, and show consistency year after year, are snapped up by teams and made into closers. As a result, these players aren't freely available, as they're expensive in trade and free agency. Put all these factors together, and it's clear why most teams have issues building strong bullpens year after year. We've actually been lucky, as before 2010 the Sox had good or great pens from 2007 to 2009.

Building a bullpen is basically a crapshoot - you can't really expect most of the pieces to perform the same way as last year. So what's the best strategy? My inclination is to primarily build from within. You can waste a great deal of money on career year guys in free agency, the Rudy Seanezes of the world who are destined to come crashing down; and trading for relievers is usually either swapping dreck for dreck, or trading prospects at more valuable positions for established relievers. But the Sox can get the best results for the least cost by relying on help from within the organization. Papelbon, Delcarmen, and now Bard have provided good results for the team, and though plenty of relievers haven't made it (Hansen stands out), at least they didn't cost much.

Although good help can come from outside (witness Okajima before this year, Saito, even Foulke), the team should be very careful about anyone on one of Ben's lists of free agents (lefties and righties). I would rather see what Doubront or another young guy could do. And, if all else fails, we still have Bill Hall to throw a few innings...