Building a Better Bullpen: Theo Epstein and Free Agent Relievers

In the early weeks of the offseason, with trade rumors galore and free-agent names like David Price and Jason Heyward being thrown around, it is a bit difficult to get excited about the Cubs’ offseason bullpen options. But—make no mistake—the Cubs do have interesting questions in the bullpen that they will have to answer. From last year’s ‘pen, the only solid contributors who are guaranteed to be back are Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, Justin Grimm, and Travis Wood. Other returning players—like Neil Ramirez, Zac Rosscup, and Carl Edwards Jr.—will have to either prove that they are healthy or prove that they can be consistent before they become permanent members of the roster. This is a pretty good place to start, but there are clearly some serious holes that will need to be filled in. But how are the Cubs likely to go about filling them?

During the offseason, free agency is the most obvious way to add to the bullpen. So I decided to take a look at what we can learn from Theo Epstein’s history of offseason bullpen additions. What kinds of pitchers does he target? What kind of contracts does he dole out? And what kinds of signings have been most effective for him over the years and what might his front offices have learned from those moves?

I used MLB Trade Rumor’s Transaction Tracker to find each of Epstein’s offseason free-agent reliever signings, dating all the way back to 2003 with the Red Sox. He has signed 20 relief pitchers in total, about one and a half per offseason. Here they are, in chronological order:

Name Contract Years Total Amount Team Date of Signing
Mike Timlin 1 $850,000 BOS 1/6/03
Keith Foulke 3 $20,250,000 BOS 1/7/04
Hideki Okajima 2 $2,500,000 BOS 11/30/06
J.C. Romero 1 $1,600,000 BOS 12/15/06
Joel Pineiro 1 $4,000,000 BOS 1/4/07
Mike Timlin 1 $3,000,000 BOS 12/1/07
Takashi Saito 1 $1,500,000 BOS 1/10/09
Scott Atchison 1 $420,000 BOS 12/7/09
Matt Albers 1 $875,000 BOS 12/14/10
Bobby Jenks 2 $12,000,000 BOS 12/16/10
Dan Wheeler 1 $3,000,000 BOS 12/18/10
Hideki Okajima 1 $1,750,000 BOS 1/10/11
Alfredo Aceves 1 $650,000 BOS 2/8/11
Manuel Corpas 1 $1,000,000 CHC 12/22/11
Kerry Wood 1 $3,000,000 CHC 1/13/12
Shawn Camp 1 $1,350,000 CHC 11/19/12
Kyuji Fujikawa 2 $9,500,000 CHC 12//7/12
Wesley Wright 1 $1,425,000 CHC 12/16/13
Jose Veras 1 $4,000,000 CHC 12/27/13
Jason Motte 1 $4,500,000 CHC 12/15/14

This is kind of a lot to take in, but a few things about these signings strike me right off the bat.

First, and this was surprising to me, Epstein-led front offices have only signed relief pitchers to multi-year free agent deals four times over the last twelve years. This would be less surprising if Epstein’s Red Sox were a small-market team, but within their operating budget, I found it a bit surprising that his teams haven’t been “in” on top reliever free agents (who usually seek multi-year deals) more often.

Similarly, I was surprised by the relatively small amount of money that was generally handed out to free agent relievers. Keith Foulke–the largest bullpen free agent signing on Epstein’s ledger–still got less than $7 million a year AAV. Besides Foulke, only Bobby Jenks got more than $10 million total over the course of the contract. And Jason Motte’s (relatively-reasonable) $4.5 million deal was the highest-paying one-year deal of all.

This seems like a relatively-small bullpen investment on its face, and if anything it looks even lower when you look at these deals in the context of league-wide bullpen deals. Every one of the top-50 paying reliever contracts of all time (headlined by Mariano Rivera’s $15 million dollars AAV in 2008-12) have been signed while Theo Epstein has been active GM in the league. But Epstein has only signed one of these deals, and it is only because he front-loaded $7 million into the first year of Bobby Jenks’ deal in 2010 and then negotiated a settlement to release the Red Sox from the second year of the deal. And this Jenks deal is only good for 26th-highest of all time anyway. This, again, is especially notable because of the generally high payrolls that Epstein’s front offices have worked with throughout his career.

So we know that Epstein’s free agent bullpen signings are usually on the thriftier side, but what types of these signing have worked out the best? We’re working with a fairly small sample here, so it would be incorrect to draw broad conclusions, but some things can definitely be said about this group of pitchers.

There are examples of good signings and bad signings for each type of contract. Though he struggled over the last two years of his deal, Foulke’s largish contract was probably worth it just from his performance in 2004: he put up 2.4 WARP as a closer and was an integral part of the Red Sox’ World Series team. Hideki Okajima might have signed Epstein’s best free agent deal–two years for only $2.5 million. Over those two years, he put up DRAs of 2.68 and 2.85 respectively and was a crucial part of the Red Sox 2007 World Series team. Jenks’ big deal, on the other hand, is a classic example of bullpen volatility gone wrong: he only appeared in 19 games, and was blasted to the tune of a 6.42 ERA. This might be a reason why Epstein has given just one free-agent reliever a multi-year deal since. Most of the signings are one-year deals, and these (predictably) have had extremely variable outcomes. For example, the Mike Timlin, Takashi Saito, and Wesley Wright signings worked out pretty well; the J.C. Romero and Jose Veras signings did not. For short, cheap deals, though, this is to be expected.

So what can we learn from this, and how can we apply it to this offseason? First, aside from hitting on the occasional short-term contract, Epstein’s front offices historically haven’t gotten a ton of value from free-agent bullpen acquisitions. This is likely by design: there are much (much) cheaper ways to produce good relievers. Look at the core of the Cubs’ current bullpen. Rondon was picked up in the Rule 5 Draft, and Strop, Wood, and Grimm were all acquired in trades (either when they were at a low point in value or when they still were thought of as fringe starters). This type of acquisition is much less risky than tying up 10-plus million dollars in one bullpen arm. Epstein has also historically built a bullpen from guys out of the minor-league system: Jonathan Papelbon might be the best example of this. And it is no coincidence that Papelbon walked when he reached free agency; the Red Sox had the (much cheaper) Daniel Bard ready to take his place. This doesn’t mean that Epstein wouldn’t be willing to sign a great reliever in free agency if he thought he was buying a sure thing—it’s just that in the bullpen sure things are few and far between.

The Cubs certainly need to add to the bullpen this offseason, but just because free agency is the most obvious way to add to it doesn’t mean that it’s the best. And if we look at Epstein’s history of offseason free agent bullpen acquisitions, it seems unlikely that the Cubs will be willing to pony up a long-term deal for a solid but expensive reliever like Darren O’Day or Joakim Soria. They will keep their options open and do their research (they always do), but if bidding reaches $30 or $40 million on a reliever, I’d expect Epstein to pass. This is especially true while they still need to save money on their payroll for a bigger free agent contract. Ultimately, I’d expect that the Cubs, true to form, will try to find one or two cheap upside relievers on a one-year deal, and then hope to supplement the bullpen with trades, organizational additions, or midseason moves (à la Trevor Cahill and Fernando Rodney) as the season and bullpen take shape. So don’t despair if the Cubs don’t add any big names to their bullpen this offseason. There are many ways to build a better bullpen, and Epstein has done it effectively for years without breaking the bank.

Lead photo courtesy of Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Related Articles

1 comment on “Building a Better Bullpen: Theo Epstein and Free Agent Relievers”

Chuck Morris

Well written. Perceptive analysis of Epstein’s free-agent bullpen strategy over his GM years.
In addition to relief help. the Cubs need a strong 3rd or 4th starter. Interesting that Samardzija is back in the mix of possibles.
Following the Cubs is for me an exercise in masochism. First Cub game I attended was the day they moved into first place to stay: August 19, 1945. So it’s been “wait ’till next year” for the past 70.

Leave a reply Cancel reply

Use your Baseball Prospectus username