Assembling a bullpen is a little bit like disassembling a Jenga tower. ("Actually, it's nothing like that," I hear you say, which is exactly why I stopped returning your calls a long time ago.) It's not just about having the right pieces, it's also about knowing which pieces to move at what time. This would be a fantastic time to go on a rant about how Brad Ausmus managing a bullpen is exactly like a guy trying to play Jenga after consuming his body weight in Dos Equis, but that's not the point of this little exercise, as the next header clearly proves.
The point of this exercise is to prove that bullpens are like pants
Al Avila wants to try a little old-fashioned DIY bullpen project this year. He saw a video on YouTube titled "Grow your own bullpen easily with this 1 weird old trick," and he thinks he can make it happen. He acknowledged that he's going to need to supplement his homegrown 'pen with a couple of free agent signings, which is obvious to anyone who saw the Sadness Train of Ian Krol, Tom Gorzelanny, and Neftali Feliz come chugging in from left field in 2015.
So, let's play a little game: we're going to try on a few different bullpen variations and see which ones fit, and which ones remind us that, seriously, no more snacking after 8:00 at night. Here are the ground rules: pick eight bullpen arms, only two of which can be filled from outside via free agent signings. That leaves six spots to be filled with relievers currently in the organization. Too much to ask? Let's find out.
Option #1: familiar faces
Alex Wilson, Blaine Hardy, and Al Alburquerque are locks. Assuming that Shane Greene sees a lot of bullpen time in 2016, possibly as a long reliever to keep him semi-stretched out without also over-taxing his freshly en-surgeried arm, that gives us four of the eight necessary arms. Throw in Bruce Rondon and Drew VerHagen as "ehhh, ok, maybe we won't use them as much" picks, and now it comes down to two free agent signings: Joakim Soria and Antonio Bastardo.
That's actually not a terrible bullpen, but it requires following the owner's manual closely. Soria, Bastardo, and Wilson are the go-to guys for the late innings in that Perfect World scenario where the starting pitcher gives you six solid innings of three runs or fewer, and the offense has given you a lead. Hardy can spell Bastardo every couple of games, and every so often, Shane Greene can throw the seventh and eighth innings to give everyone a rest. Alburquerque and Rondon are your choices when you need some quick strikeouts.
It's a terrible bullpen if you permanently stick Soria and Rondon into the "closer" and "eighth inning guy" roles, only use Bastardo and Hardy in limited, LOOGY-type situations, and only use Alex Wilson in mop-up duty for long relief.
It's all in how you arrange the pieces. Funny how that works.
Option #2: spend high, screw the matchups
Same core as before (Wilson, Hardy, Alburquerque, Greene, Rondon, VerHagen), but this time, the free agent signings are Darren O'Day and Joakim Soria. That only leaves one left-handed reliever in the pen, but you know what? Al Alburquerque has nice career splits against left-handed batters. He dispatches lefties better than a lot of left-handed pitchers do. Opposing left-handed hitters have only hit .224/.317/.341 against Al-Al across 425 plate appearances.
And how is that for depth? Knowing that the late innings are going to be handled by some combination of Wilson, Soria, and O'Day might actually reduce the usage of Rolaids and Jack Daniels in homes all across Tigerdom. It certainly comes closer to Ausmus-proofing the bullpen, except that even in this version of reality, he'd probably end up using Rondon too much in the seventh or even the eighth inning. ("He'd never use Rondon over Soria in the eighth," you yell, just as I show you video tape evidence from 2014 that you'd conveniently blocked from memory.)
The problem with this pair of pants, despite how nicely they fit, is that there are a limited number of good relievers on the open market this year, and everybody and their damned mother is interested in Darren O'Day. I tried ordering a pizza online the other night, got very lost in the difficult-to-use ordering system, and I'm pretty sure I accidentally submitted an offer for Darren O'Day. [Ed.: So that explains the pizza that mysteriously showed up at my house.]
He's going to be tough to get. Christmas might be ruined this year. Just warning you now.
Option #3: no roles, just good arms
In this scenario, it's the same core, but there is no "proven closer" being signed in free agency. No Joakim Soria, no Darren O'Day, just a couple of strikeout ninjas in the previously-mentioned Bastardo, plus Shawn Kelly (whose 11+ strikeouts per nine innings in the past few years is super sexy, and whose 2.45 ERA finally caught up with his excellent FIP in 2015). Some projections have these pitchers making around five or six million per year over two or three years, so it should be slightly cheaper than a Soria/O'Day combo.
The real beauty here is that there are no pre-determined closers. No pre-branded setup men. That would all have to be decided in spring training, which is exactly what should happen, and the end result is that you have some generally excellent and reliable pitching in Bastardo, Kelley, Wilson, and Hardy, no matter where you slot them.
The real point is just to get rid of the crappy arms
There's something written somewhere about bad apples and spoiled bunches. Look at this combination of names:
Wilson, Hardy, Alburquerque, Rondon + Gorzelanny, Feliz, Krol, Chamberlain
That should make you want to power-vomit and go watch the Detroit Lions for a bit of stress relief. But try this combination:
Soria, Bastardo, Wilson, Hardy + Alburquerque, Rondon, VerHagen, Greene
Or this combination:
O'Day, Kelley, Wilson, Hardy + Alburquerque, Rondon, VerHagen, Greene
The buffet looks so much more palatable when you remove the plates of steaming suck and let the gourmet dishes take center stage. Casting guys like Al Alburquerque and Bruce Rondon as the bejeweled centerpieces makes everything look bad, but put those guys on the "B List" where they belong, put your old "B List" in the trash, and suddenly it's ok to have these arms in your toolbox.
It may not take the moving of heaven and earth plus eleventy-trillion dollars to fix the bullpen after all. Unless, of course, your manager is trying to play Drunk Jenga again. But that's another topic for another time.