As the Winter Meetings are underway, one of the major issues for the Orioles once again is how to resolve their bullpen troubles. Only five teams saw their bullpen deliver a worse FIP than the Orioles' relief corps in 2009: the Nationals, Royals, Indians, Pirates, and Tigers. Not coincidentally, four of those five teams joined the Orioles as the worst teams in baseball. With many GMs anticipating that the Orioles will be spenders this offseason, many people have anticipated that the Orioles will pursue a free agent to shore up the bullpen. It is also anticipated that Koji Uehara will be moved from the rotation to the bullpen.
First, let's take a look at how exactly the Orioles 2009 bullpen failed so badly. The most notable statistic is their collective K/9 of 6.53. This was the lowest in the majors, by a decent margin compared to the second-worst Nationals, who struck out 6.76 batters per nine innings. The Orioles' bullpen was one of only four in baseball who struck out fewer than seven batters per nine innings. Our bullpen simply didn't strike anyone out. The worst culprits? Among regular relievers, the lowest K/9 was Danys Baez at 5.02, followed by Cla Meredith with 5.34 and Brian Bass with 5.63. Our bullpen leaders in K/9 were Kam Mickolio with 9.22 (in a very small sample), the departed George Sherrill with 8.49, and Chris Ray with 8.10. Dennis Sarfate was our next best, with 7.83.
Baez is gone, and Meredith as an extreme ground ball pitcher isn't intending to strike out many. But clearly Brian Bass ought to be replaced; he doesn't bring enough more to the table to justify his inability to strike out batters. On the converse side, the return of Chris Ray's control will be a major factor in helping our pen improve. We can also see why Jim Johnson's weakness was exposed in his run as closer - his 6.30 K/9 ranked in between Jamie Walker's 6.57 and Mark Hendrickson's 6.05. When Jamie Walker strikes out more batters than you do, you probably shouldn't be pitching high leverage innings. Finally, we can observe that Koji is unlikely to be much of an answer - his K/9 of 6.48 can be expected to improve in relief, but not so much that it will alter the problems of our pen.
On the other hand, as a group, our bullpen didn't give up too many free passes. Our BB/9 is squarely in the middle of the pack at 3.79 - better than the Angels, Red Sox, Cardinals and Phillies who all made the playoffs. Our HR/9 of 1.04 wasn't great, but the difference between our numbers and those of teams ten places higher on the list was merely 0.10. Unlike K/9 and BB/9, this numbers is also largely determined by ballpark - which is part of why the Yankees' pen had the worst HR/9 in all of baseball.
Finally, the Orioles' bullpen had collectively the third worst batting average on balls in play in baseball, at .322. This is probably more a testament to a poor defense than anything else (the two worse teams were the Braves and White Sox), as well as from ground ball pitchers like Meredith and Johnson (high gb% pitchers give up a lower HR/9 but have a worse BABIP than flyball pitchers). Giving up fewer home runs in a fair trade for giving up more hits, but shoring up our infield defense by adding a Pedro Feliz for example would help in this area also.
So, in short, the biggest problem for our bullpen to solve in 2010 is to strike out more batters. The question is how to do so.
One solution was mentioned above - if Chris Ray can return to form and pitch more innings, his quality K/9 will be of more value to us. Another good move might be to put David Hernandez in the bullpen. In Hernandez's minor league career, he missed a lot of bats with a K/9 of over 10 in A+, AA, and AAA the past three years. In the majors, his rate fell to 6.04, but in his only relief appearance this season, he struck out four batters in 2 2/3 innings against the A's. In short, there is reason to believe that our bullpen could be improved more by moving Hernandez to the pen than moving Koji could.
But what about free agency? Surely a team like the Orioles with money to spend can improve the bullpen that way?
Maybe. There are good arms on the market. But let's take a quick look at who the best relievers in 2009 were. The relief leaders in FIP for 2009 were: Phil Hughes, Jonathan Broxton, Chan Ho Park, Mike Wuertz, Heath Bell, Matt Thornton, Luke Gregorson, Brian Wilson, Rafael Soriano, Andrew Bailey, and Kiko Calero. The first thing that jumps out about that list is how few of those names were expected to be among the best in the league at the beginning of 2009. Of the group, only Broxton, Bell and Soriano were closers and only half of them had a history of dominance or top prospect status. Only Hughes and Broxton were heralded prospects as well, and Calero was signed by the Marlins to a minor league deal. And only Park had be signed as a major league free agent by the team he performed for.
Going a but further down the leaderboard shows that this trend continues. We see many of the elite closers in the game, like Soria, Hoffman, Nathan and Rivera. But we also see names like Kevin Jepsen, Kris Medlen, C.J. Wilson and Juan Guitierrez. Looking at the 2008 numbers is also helpful. At the top of the leaderboard are the expected names like Papelbon, Rivera, and Broxton, as well as names like Brad Lidge and Kerry Wood, top arms who had poor 2009 seasons. But we also see names like Grant Balfour, Jose Arredondo, Ramon Ramirez and Carlos Villanueva. In other words, nobodies. And what do they have in common? High strikeout rates. In 2008, Balfour had 12.65 K/9, Ramon Ramirez 8.79, Jose Arredondo 8.11; in 2009, Gregorson struck out 11.16 per nine, Calero 10.35, Jepsen 7.90. Many were hard throwers, but some like Calero were not. All had posted similarly high K/9 numbers in the past, either in the majors or minors.
To summarize, there is a small group of elite relievers, mainly closers, who show repeated success over the limited sample size of a reliever's season. The other elite relief performances are usually produced by unheralded and generally unexpected performers, whose shared attribute is a high K/9. The top bullpen performances therefore come from teams which have one of the league's few elite relievers or from teams who give chances to unheralded arms with high strikeout rates. Therefore, I believe it makes sense to pay only for one of those elite, proven relievers, and to otherwise improve the bullpen by giving chances to unheralded options either within or outside our organization with a history of high strikeout rates.
There is one of those elite, proven relievers who was a free agent, and the Orioles had expressed interest in him: Rafael Soriano. However, Soriano accepted arbitration from the Braves, so he will not be available as a free agent. However, since the Braves had already signed Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito to expensive contracts, they may be willing to move Soriano cheaply in a trade, which Soriano might accept if he had the opportunity to close. Soriano, among the top 20 qualifying relievers in FIP each of the last two seasons, has demonstrated that he is likely among the group of the elite, proven relievers and is a good bet at the $8m for a single season he will likely get at arbitration, and would also be a valuable trade asset at the deadline on a one year deal.
But with Soriano off the market, there isn't an arm like that out there. With these numbers in mind, I think that secondary options like Kevin Gregg are simply a waste of a bullpen spot that could go to some strikeout machine that would be available for millions less. It is likely that several of our bullpen spots will be filled with pitchers who don't have high strikeout totals in Meredith, Uehara, and Johnson regardless. Spending money to add another would be foolish and compound our weakness.