added 8/8/2009 by Bob Hulsey
When he was in Philadelphia, Ed Wade acquired a reputation as a builder of bullpens. Now the Astros' general manager, Wade has continued that tradition. He seems to love crafting a bullpen the way he loves running triathlons.
When he first got the job in Houston, it didn't take Wade long to overhaul the relief corps. Gone were Brad Lidge and Chad Qualls. In came Jose Valverde, Doug Brocail, Oscar Villarreal and Geoff Geary. At the trade deadline last year, he added LaTroy Hawkins.
Wade believes in keeping your friends close and your bullpen closer. Early on, you could see his strategy: Have more relief pitching than you need because you never know which guys are going to tank on you from year to year. In 2008, it was Villarreal who suddenly lost it. In 2009, it's been a bad year for Geary and Brocail.
Generally, the philosophy has served Ed well but, in 2009, it has been a bit pricey. According to ESPN.com, the Astros are ninth in major league payroll at just under $103 million. After deadline trades, they may have slid to 11th but that evades my point.
Here's what the salary scale for the Astros' bullpen looks like:
Jose Valverde: $8 million
LaTroy Hawkins: $3.5 million
Doug Brocail: $2.5 million
Geoff Geary: $1.7 million
Tim Byrdak: $1 million
Chris Sampson: $449,000
Wesley Wright: $425,000
Jeff Fulchino: $425,000*
Alberto Arias: $425,000*
* - estimated.
By my fuzzy math, that comes out to $18.424 million. That's in the same ballpark as what the World Champion Phillies spend, the team closest in overall market size to what the Astros are.
Yet, if you look at some of the other contending National League teams, the bullpen cost appears to be above average. The Dodgers, even with George Sherrill recently added from the Orioles, has a bullpen costing around $7.2 million. St. Louis is spending around $6.2 million. The Braves spend about $12 million. The Giants about $13 million. Looking at that, you can understand why the Dodgers could afford to add Randy Wolf while the Astros couldn't.
To be fair, I don't think Wade planned it to work out this way. His idea last winter was to trade Valverde after he had already re-signed Brocail and Hawkins, probably believing the two would compete for the closer job in spring training. When the economy collapsed and no market seemed to exist for Valverde, last year's NL save leader, Wade decided it was smarter to keep him and bite the bullet financially.
That decision had a trickle effect that cost the Astros Wolf and Ty Wigginton. I'm not arguing here that Wade made the wrong decision, only that those were the cards he chose to play.
You would think with an $18 million dollar bullpen, they would pitch like gangbusters, but that hasn't exactly been the case. Through Wednesday, the Astros' relief corps has a 4.28 ERA. They are ninth in saves and next-to-last in blown saves and save percentage (only Washington is worse). All the key members have spent at least part of the season on the disabled list.
Part of the problem traces to Cecil Cooper, who seems to treat his bullpen pitchers like a drunk treats whiskey bottles. He goes to them early and often until they are all used up and, even then, he checks them periodically to see if he can coax one more drop from them.
Partly due to injury and partly due to a lack of confidence in his pitchers, Cooper rode Sampson and Hawkins hard for the first three months. By the All-Star Break, it was clear that both were running on empty and it was no surprise that both landed on the disabled list before July was over. Sampson, Hawkins and Byrdak lead the club in appearances but Byrdak has often been used to face just one or two batters. Sampson and Fulchino lead in relief innings pitched but Fulchino has often been the mop-up pitcher in blowout losses.
There are some baseball thinkers who believe spending starting pitcher money on a closer is a bad idea. Why spend so much on a guy who might get in 70 innings when a starter should amass close to 200 innings?
Good minds can disagree on whether it makes more sense to have four bullpen pitchers averaging $2 million a year or one starting pitcher making $8 million a year. Mistakes can be made either way (see Jason Jennings and Woody Williams as recent examples where spending on starting pitching didn't work out well).
Given the Astros' budgetary constraints, Wade needs to decide whether relief pitching counts more than starting pitching and spend accordingly. There doesn't seem to be enough in the till to feed the need of both the rotation and the bullpen.
Wandy Rodriguez is going to cost a lot more next year although Bud Norris could provide financial relief for a few years if he plays as well as his early results suggest. If Felipe Paulino or Yorman Bazardo earn a starting job, that will be two slots in the rotation than can be savings-friendly. If that works out, maybe the Astros can afford to keep Valverde for another year.
Keep in mind that Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn will be due nice raises for 2009 and Ivan Rodriguez will surely cost more if he comes back next year. Who knows if Miguel Tejada is staying and at what price? Through all of it, another $18 million dollar bullpen seems both unlikely and unreasonable, especially with the results they provided us this season.
Then again, this is Ed Wade's team and we know how much he loves bullpens.