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Ben Cherington and the Fungibility of Relievers

Oakland, CA, USA; Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Andrew Miller (30) delivers a pitch during the seventh inning against the Oakland Athletics at Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-US PRESSWIRE
Oakland, CA, USA; Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Andrew Miller (30) delivers a pitch during the seventh inning against the Oakland Athletics at Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-US PRESSWIRE

One of the central themes of the off season for new GM Ben Cherington and the Red Sox was shoring up the bullpen. With last year's two best relievers in Jonathan Papelbon and Daniel Bard moving to a new team and a new role, respectively, there were big shoes to fill. Teams with bad bullpens are often under-achievers, so even with the quality expected from the offense and starting staff, the Sox would need to find top quality relievers.

There are many ways to accomplish that goal, but Cherington opted to go through the trade market. He made two deals. The first was sending Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland to Houston for Astros closer and ex-Yankee set up man Mark Melancon. Melancon had been effective during his two seasons in south Texas, sporting a 2.85 ERA with 85 strikeouts and 34 walks in 91 2/3 innings. As a young guy with AL East experience under team control for four more seasons, well, he was an attractive target.

The results however have been less than stellar. Lowrie has an .803 OPS as a shortstop for the Astros, which places him third in that statistic in all of baseball among shortstops just behind Ian Desmond of the Nationals, and just ahead of Derek Jeter. Now we all knew Lowrie could hit when the Red Sox traded him, so that isn't a complete shock. It was his defense and health that were concerning. So far so good on both fronts, but that isn't to say that a grand piano won't fall on his shoulder tomorrow. Things like that seem to happen to Lowrie.

The real problem was Melancon, who got to Boston and forgot how to pitch. He wasn't injured, his mechanics weren't out of whack, he just forgot how to pitch. As a result he got shelled. After posting an ERA just shy of 50 (seriously) in four appearances he was shipped southward to Pawtucket. There he remained until the Sox recalled him in early June. Since that time he's posted an excellent 0.68 ERA, so maybe there is hope for the future, but even with that he has still been a sub-replacement level pitcher for the season according to Baseball Reference (-0.3 rWAR).

So, half a season into the deal, the Red Sox are the big losers. As for the second deal and what it all means...

Exactly two weeks after the Melancon deal, Cherington sent outfielder Josh Reddick, and prospects Miles Head and Raul Alcantara to Oakland for oft-injured closer Andrew Bailey and jean salesman/outfielder Ryan Sweeney. In this deal, Reddick played the part of Lowrie, turning in an All Star-level performance as soon as he began the season in his new uniform while at least Bailey had the common decency to get hurt rather than replicate Melancon's four digit ERA. The downside is that Bailey hasn't returned and suffered a set-back in his attempt to return. This latest set-back puts his expected return into the vicinity of mid-to-late August according to Baseball Prospectus's Corey Dawkins. That's assuming no more set-backs.

Sweeney has been better than expected which is to say not awful. Still, his .719 OPS playing in Fenway Park is leaps and bounds worse than Reddick's .880, the majority of which was posted in spite of Oakland's pitcher friendly dimensions.

To this point the Red Sox have traded two every-day players in Lowrie and Reddick for two relievers who combined to produce nothing whatsoever in terms of value to the team. Trades aren't for half a season so things could turn the other way and in any case, it isn't my intention to kill the deals on to-date performance.

No, instead, I'm here to kill the idea behind them. Both deals were, in essence, relief pitchers for every day players. That's a losing proposition in terms of value. Now, that doesn't mean you don't make that kind of deal from time to time. After all, neither Reddick nor Lowrie were candidates to take over Bard's role as set-up man when the season began. But when making trades, teams have to be very careful about knowingly jettisoning value for lesser value. This was my problem with the Kevin Youkilis deal. The Red Sox dealt the better player and knowingly received far less value in return.

Both off season deals were that way as well. Even if Bailey and Melancon stayed healthy and productive they couldn't have out-performed a healthy Reddick and Lowrie. Of course, championships aren't won on spreadsheets and as I indicated above, the Red Sox needed relievers. So what were they to do if not trade value for them?

I'm glad you asked. Look at the current Red Sox bullpen. The Red Sox have nine pitchers who have thrown ten or more innings from the bullpen this season. They are in order of innings thrown (most to least):

  1. Scott Atchison - free agent
  2. Alfredo Aceves - free agent
  3. Matt Albers - free agent
  4. Vicente Padilla - free agent
  5. Franklin Morales - purchased (traded for money)
  6. Clayton Mortensen - traded for Marco Scutaro
  7. Andrew Miller - free agent (also acquired in trade from Florida Miami for Dustin Richardson)
  8. Mark Melancon - trade
  9. Rich Hill - free agent

Six of those nine pitchers were picked off the scrap heap at no cost. I'm counting Miller in that because the Sox cut him after trading for him and he was available to any team to sign but nobody did. Morales was essentially cut by the Rockies too, so throw him on that pile as well. Mortensen wasn't nothing, but he was the other side of salary dump. Not exactly a big name.

You'll notice the other commonality as well: nobody cost the team anything. There is no Papelbon contract, there is no huge name who got traded for, and there isn't anyone who is on a long term contract. This is the construction of the fifth best bullpen in baseball, according to Fan Graphs WAR.

Bailey and Melancon are both good relievers when healthy and pitching right. But they're not leaps and bounds better than what the Red Sox have been able to pick up for free. All bullpens aren't constructed like this, and by it's very nature this kind of pen, like all pens really, is volatile. Signing all these guys to three year deals and then forgetting about the bullpen until 2015 would be a bad strategy. But by the same token, so would dealing for or buying name relievers at big cost, whether that cost is in the form of useful players like Reddick and Lowrie or free agent contracts like Papelbon's.

It takes some skill to assemble a good pen, and like the rest of baseball, it takes a lot of luck. Trading good players for relievers doesn't require the first and it discounts the role of the second. In the future, I hope Ben Cherington realizes his success building a bullpen without Melancon and Bailey and mothballs these kind of deals for good.