By Jon Weisman
After being exposed in the 2014 National League Division Series, the Dodger bullpen has a bull’s-eye on it.
But revamping the relief corps is not only going to require some dexterity, scouting and analysis from Team Andrew Friedman, it’s also going to require a fair amount of luck.
Using Fangraphs, I pulled together lists of the top 125 relievers ranked by Wins Above Replacement from the 2012, 2013 and 2014 seasons. (To see the entire chart in an Excel file, click here, or look at the end of this post.) This cutoff point is fairly arbitrary, but it tells a story: Nearly half of the top 125 from 2013 failed to make the same list in 2014.
How rare is it to find, let alone acquire, a durable elite reliever? Only 10 relievers, including the Dodgers’ oft-underappreciated Kenley Jansen, have finished in the WAR top 50 for three consecutive years. Only one of those 10 pitchers, 37-year-old Seattle closer Fernando Rodney (last seen at Dodger Stadium blowing a 6-3, ninth-inning lead for the Rays in August 2013) has changed organizations since 2011.
How rare is it to find a reliever that’s reliably decent? Only 36 relievers, barely one per MLB team, finished in the WAR top 125 for three consecutive years.
How about just banking on a good reliever from last year? Out of the top 125 relievers in 2013, 65 (barely half) repeated in 2014. The Dodgers had two of those players in Jansen and Howell, which puts them at par for the course, though certainly not at the head of the class. Baltimore and Oakland each had five.
A bit of the fluctuation results from relievers switching to or from the starting rotation. But there’s no escaping the level of inconsistency to be found in MLB bullpens — which makes sense, since nearly every reliever in existence would be a starting pitcher if he had a more dependable or varied arsenal.
Even though a reliever’s past credentials do count, there’s much to be said for making low-rent bets that maximize flexibility. In trading for a reliever, you risk giving away talent in exchange for a player whose quality, for the reasons outlined above, has an expiration date. Also worth noting is that 40 of this year’s top 125 haven’t changed teams since they were signed as amateurs. As Che Guevara of “Evita” said, “Get them while they’re young.”
Despite the calls for the Dodgers to improve the bullpen this past summer before the trading deadline arrived, it’s rare for quality relievers to change teams after the season begins. Only six of the top 125 relievers in 2014 were traded midseason, with three others available as free agents or on waivers.
So really, most of the work there is to be done on the Dodger bullpen — keeping in mind who’s already under contract for 2015 — has to be done before Opening Day. And it has to be done with a combination of risk-taking and restraint.
And then you hope for good luck.
Click to enlarge any of the files below.