July 24, 2019

Was Standing Pat with the Bullpen the Right Call This Offseason?

The Braves went into the offseason of 2018-2019 needing relief pitching. Everyone knew it. Yet, they did not add any significant pieces to the bullpen and their bullpen has had its struggles this season, particularly early on.

They did add Anthony Swarzak and Jerry Blevins early in the season and they moved Sean Newcomb to the bullpen. But in the offseason, they opted to spend big on one season of Josh Donaldson, $23 million for 2019.

Was Alex Anthopoulos blind to the Braves’ needs? That’s unlikely. Anthopoulos has been an executive for a long time. It was wise to spend big on Josh Donaldson as opposed to saving that money, going with Johan Camargo at third base, and spending on relief pitching instead.

Relievers just can’t make that much of an impact. If we’re going by Fangraphs WAR (fWAR), the most valuable relievers in baseball last season were worth around 3.5 fWAR. In his best season, Josh Donaldson was worth almost 2.5 times that much (8.7 fWAR). Even if Donaldson merely finishes 2019 as good as he was in 2017, his last season with the Blue Jays, the last season in which he played over 52 games, he’d be worth 5.1 fWAR, about 1.6 times more than the top relievers were worth in 2018. And, remember, we are talking the most valuable relievers.

The highest-paid free agent relievers from this past offseason are making about half of what Donaldson will make this season. So, if one of those relievers has a great season, the value of the contracts (at least for 2019) would work out about right. However, relief pitchers are unpredictable and volatile. Zack Britton is the highest-paid free agent reliever for 2019. Yet, the Yankees took a gamble with him (probably because they can afford to). He’s been under 1 fWAR in the previous 2 seasons and it looks like he’ll finish the season with around 1 fWAR in 2019. The Yankees paid the most money for the promise that maybe Britton will put up seasons similar to his 2016 season.

Josh Donaldson was rather risky too, mind you, coming off an injury-plagued season in which he only played 52 games. But, the Braves knew that if he was at all healthy, he would provide more value that most relievers, even good ones. And if everything went right, he’d put up an MVP-level performance or something darn close. There’s little-to-no chance of getting that out of a reliever, even a great one.

Also, in case you haven’t heard, the Braves have a lot of young pitching. There wasn’t and still isn’t any guarantee that all of the Braves’ young pitchers were going to be and will be effective. But, there were plenty of options to cycle through to try and build an effective bullpen, another reason to avoid spending big on a bullpen piece that wouldn’t provide the bang for the buck as a Josh Donaldson.

So, this is why the Braves did not acquire relief pitching in the offseason and have not acquired much relief pitching up to this point in the season. If relief pitching isn’t all that impactful and usually doesn’t provide much bang for the buck, will it be worthwhile to acquire relief help at the deadline? Well, in the postseason, with more rest days, teams can ride a few relievers, and they can have an out-sized impact, compared to the regular season. At this point in the season, the team has had more time to evaluate their own relievers and those who might be on the trading block. It’s not like in the offseason when you hope what you saw in 2018 will carry over to 2019.

I think the Braves will acquire a relief pitcher, maybe two. Obviously, a team should try to improve where they can, even if an area isn’t nearly as impactful as other areas. But, I think they will be cautious in terms of the price they’ll pay for the relief pitching they might acquire. And I could see them adding other pieces that could make more of an impact for a similar or lower cost.



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