Notwithstanding the pair of shutout frames that recently recalled right-hander Willie Eyre amassed against a confounded Orioles squad during Wednesday evening's historic series finale, the Texas Rangers' bullpen remains a clear impediment to their aspirations of a competitive summer run and perhaps an outside shot at the post-season spot that has eluded their grasp for nearly a decade.
The unpleasant early-season trials and tribulations endured by one of baseball's least effective relief corps to date predictably triggered a groundswell of criticism heaped upon general manager Jon Daniels and his front-office associates -- including owner Tom Hicks, who evidently refused to allocate the funds necessary to adequately address the problem via free agency -- for not being more proactive in their pursuit of capable relief depth and instead permitting Texas to enter the regular season with a perceived automatic weakness on the pitching side.
Tossing about the name of flamethrowing right-hander Juan Cruz as if he would have settled in as the Rangers' eighth-inning savior by default strikes me as somewhat disingenuous (although his standing as the Rangers' second- or third-best reliever from the outset of the regular season would have been all but assured), and because the idea of undertaking a Mike Hindman-inspired review of baseball's best relief pitchers has been rattling around in my head for what seems like months, there may never be a better time to attempt to connect the dots and re-examine the age-old question: "Does spending money on free-agent relievers make any sense whatsoever?"
Listed below are Major League Baseball's top 40 relievers of the 2008 regular season, ranked by tRA* -- more on this latest journey into the world of statistical esoterica in a moment -- and listed with their 2008 teams, salaries and methods of acquisition; as far as tRA* is concerned, no single number can completely define a ballplayer's effectiveness, but insofar as tRA* is more reflective of a pitcher's true talent level in a given season than perhaps any other publicly available pitching metric, we can safely ditch the far more conventional and mainstream ERA and WHIP for this exercise:
[Click here for more information on the linear weights-based tRA from which tRA+ and tRA* are derived.]
I went into this assessment with no preconceived notions on how the 'Acquired Via' column might break down, but the message upon completion was both crystal-clear and completely unsurprising: the most efficient and most cost-effective way to construct a big league bullpen is through smart, aggressive talent acquisition domestically (Jonathan Broxton), procedurally (Joakim Soria) and abroad (Carlos Marmol), shrewd trades (Joe Nathan) and low-risk minor league pickups (Takashi Saito):
Amateur Draft: 5 | Amateur Free Agency (International): 6 | Free Agency: 5 | Minor League Free Agency: 5 | Rule 5 Draft: 2 | Trade: 16 | Waivers: 1
Just five of these 40 recognized hurlers were obtained via major league free agency, but collectively they banked a cool $26.1 million and inked their contracts before the bottom fell out of the economy, and the inherent year-to-year volatility of relief pitchers could conceivably leave their employers on the hook for bargain performance at a premium price going forward.
It is not my intention to decry the signing of any outside relief pitcher to a major league deal (indeed, an enterprising front office can identify such a useful commodity and snap him up before the market has a chance to adjust), but such signings are generally high-risk gambits that seemingly squander precious resources and backfire in horrific fashion more often than not, and from that standpoint the Rangers' decision to eschew Juan Cruz was a smart one.
But feel free to draw your own conclusions.
Quick Hits: The Fort Worth Star-Telegram's Jeff Wilson has published the latest iteration of his weekly mailbag ... Jamey Newberg has issued the second weekly version of his MLB.com Top 20 Rangers Prospects list ... MLB.com's T.R. Sullivan has published a protracted write-up closely examining team physician Dr. Keith Meister's Texas Metroplex Institute for Sports Performance ... TexasLeaguers.com's Trip Somers has dissected the pitching mechanics of right-handers Neftali Feliz and Tae-Kyung Ahn ...