Do you know Ryan Cook? Sure you do. Long before Cook was acquired from Oakland for the lifelong journeyman Player To Be Named Later, he was a knockout reliever with the Athletics, dominating the AL with a mid-90s fastball and near-unhittable slider. He was the midseason darling of your fantasy team in 2012, and a perennial closer-in-waiting who waited more than he closed.
But you know him, too, because this is what the Red Sox do. Long before Cook, there was Andrew Miller, and Rich Hill, and all manner of once-promising pitchers who had tools that did not match their results (or health). It’s hard to say the strategy hasn’t worked, and that might have been true even if all the team had to show for it was Miller and Eduardo Rodriguez.
This is the organization flexing some financial muscles; Cook may be due a few million in arbitration for 2016 — more than a budget footnote for a team like the Athletics, but occupying nothing more than a consistent “experiment” place on Boston’s 40-man. Large-market teams are taking advantage of these chances. After Andrew Friedman watched Boston sign the Erik Bedards of the world year in and year out, he turned around and snagged Brandon Beachy this offseason, as he rehabbed his way back from a second Tommy John surgery. Just like money spent in the draft, the return is potentially significant, even if these projects rarely come with more than a couple years of club control.
This isn’t anything you don’t already know, but we must think about the “why” of it all. It’s not hard to spend fringy talent or meaningless dollars on an Alejandro De Aza if one is needed. If a team can afford the pick of the litter for bench players, that team can target the mediocre players with the largest discrepancies between what they can and can’t do, assuming one can set up Jonny Gomes against lefties. The Red Sox need not spend wildly to plug holes; they will always be able to do that. All that really matters is plugging holes well.
Which brings us back to the bullpen. The class of Chances Boston Can Afford are all priced where they can be afforded. Part of plugging holes well is making sure holes don’t get plugged badly. If they’re unlikely to be kept with merely below-average results, maybe they don’t get signed in the first place.
Not only are struggling relievers with options fungible, they can easily be sent down with at least 10 days to try to fix whatever it is that needs fixing.
It may be that the best bullpen possible is an expensive bullpen. But it may also be true that the worst bullpen possible is an expensive one, as well. With all of the volatility that plagues relief crews across the league, having the option of replacing a reliever is worth value just on its own. Adding a Ryan Cook is a great way to add a potentially plus option — but the best options may be actual options, the ability to assign a pitcher to the minors without losing club control. Depth is crucial.
Relievers rarely get the same opportunities to fix things that other players do. A hitter can work on something in the cage, get a day to do extra work when a backup player might need a start anyway. A starter has side sessions, which can focused on command of a particular pitch, etc. But relievers are either tapped out or one of the freshest arms in the ‘pen, more likely than not, and there just isn’t an opportunity to do side work. That’s where options can become doubly helpful.
It may be time, then, to start thinking about the draft and the minors a bit differently. While the team got sometimes-elite pitching out of Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, it’s been a long time since the Red Sox developed an ace, and, Tankapalooza 2015 notwithstanding, it may be a long time yet. While no strategy other than “best player available” will ever be popular in the draft, there may be opportunities to draft pitchers with two strong pitches and only distant hope of a third, over and above a three-pitch guy with a similar ceiling as a starter.
The real swerve, though, could be in pulling the ripcord earlier with the players the Red Sox develop. The value of three option years with a learning but potentially dominant reliever is worth a ton, and with options possibly more valuable in that part of the roster, spending money on Bobby Jenks and those of his ilk may be even less attractive to the Red Sox than to many other teams in the league. We’re taught to be allergic to the idea of “wasting” a Matt Barnes in the bullpen if he could be even a number-four starter, but the Red Sox don’t need number-four starters. It’s much better, maybe, to have Barnes in the bullpen and Justin Masterson in the rotation. As Allen Webster continues to struggle in the Arizona organization, is it worth wondering whether he could have become a four-pitch reliever in the Eric Gagne vein?
As the organization reviews the way that it has spent money in recent seasons, the bullpen could end up being the thing that gets changed the most. And that’s okay — even if entrusting the late innings to young, homegrown pitchers doesn’t always work, it should always be fairly easy to fix.