Former front office type Tony Blengino has been a great addition over at FanGraphs. He's an analytical writer who can convey his message in a relatable way. He also talks quite a bit on how front offices should and do see players.
Look at his advice for building a better bullpen, but first read the whole article. Blengino does such a great job of breaking down how the playoff teams build their relief corps, it gives us insight into what works and what doesn't.
It does appear clear, however, that unless you have a chance to get one of the game's premier closers at the very apex of his career, you should not sink big money or assets into the free agent and trade markets when assembling your bullpen. Acquire accomplished starting pitchers or potential conversion candidates in the late rounds of the draft or the international amateur market, and do it each and every year to create organizational depth. Scour the minor league free agent lists and waiver wire for sleeper candidates. Convert "failed" starters into relievers, narrow their repertoires, and let them pin their ears back and fire away. Major and minor league pitching coaches are key - sometimes the slightest tweak can turn an underachiever into the latest John Holdzkom-esque success story.
Judging from the thread Tuesday on the Astros increasing payroll, many of you readers would like Houston to fix the bullpen. Two problems with that.
First, the Astros bullpen, while bad, was still better than it was a year ago. Houston lost eight less one-run games than it did in 2013. And, as Chris has pointed out multiple times, the bullpen group Houston finished the season with was actually quite good.
Who's to say the "fixing" didn't already occur? That a healthy Matt Albers (contract option for 2015) and Samuel Deduno as the long man might make that group work? If that group can help Houston get back to around .500 in one-run games, the wins will pour in.
Second, everyone wants to fix the bullpen. The Astros are not alone in this. The Dodgers now want to fix the bullpen. So do the Tigers and probably the Nationals. I'm sure the A's will try to upgrade the bullpen, as will the Pirates. Everyone needs relief help.
What does that do? It drives up the price. I was just a no-good liberal arts major who abhorred math classes in college, but I get enough economic principles to understand that when the demand is high and the supply is fixed, prices will rise.
That leads to players getting more money on the open market and, thus, lowering their marginal value. With a reliever, who's marginal value was already low, that could erase any benefit from adding a player to the team.
Go back and read what Blengino talked about. The only time free agency makes sense for a reliever is a shutdown closer in his prime. That guy doesn't exist on this market. Andrew Miller might seem like an option, but his rates will go through the roof. He will also not be that good, making the contract look terrible and possibly limiting the Astros in how much they can spend in other areas.
All this because relievers are inherently volatile. Performance normalizes over a bigger sample size than they are typically afforded. Thus, paying Jose Veras big money might look foolish in May. He's then cut, but resigns with another team, where he quickly returns to form. That money was then wasted, while the new team reaps the rewards of a minimum-salary player.
Building a bullpen can't be done with a checkbook. Houston tried that last year and it didn't work. Trying it again this winter will be a similar folly.
That doesn't mean they won't add arms to the relief corps. But, I doubt the majority of their free agent dollars get tied up in relievers. It also probably shoots down our theories of getting Jonathan Papelbon, too, unless the Phillies eat a good portion of his contract.
What the Cardinals have done to build a bullpen follows what Blengino lays out here. They have great depth and can identify guys who can be converted into solid relievers. When they do sign free agents, the impactful ones turn out to be guys like Pat Neshek, a minor league FA, who had success before but lost his Luck Dragons.
The Astros found their own version of Neshek in Tony Sipp. They've built a farm system loaded with arms, destined to produce a few "failed" starters. They have a pitching coach who can tweak things to help players become more effective.
They are already generating their next great bullpen. They don't need free agency dollars to fix it.
They just need time.