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Lessons in bullpen roster decisions from the 2015 Orioles

The Orioles are spending a lot of money on ineffective relief arms this year. They should probably stop doing that.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Give Dan Duquette credit for this: Whether the Orioles can go all the way or not, he's willing to eat a sunk cost.  Just in the last week, Alejandro de Aza and Everth Cabrera were both sent packing, even though the team had invested over $7M in the two combined this offseason.  But even as the club has been willing to permanently cut ties with position players, they remain curiously devoted to their expensive, middling bullpen arms.

Fangraphs did some interesting payroll breakdowns this spring, and one of the findings that disturbed me the most was that the Orioles are middle of the pack in overall payroll (which is fine for a mid-market team), but 6th in bullpen payroll (which is not), and worse, have the highest bullpen payroll in the entire AL East.  For this investment, the Orioles have so far ended up with just about every vital bullpen stat (ERA, OPS allowed, K/BB, etc.) firmly in the middle of the division rankings.

And what's worse, the stats are largely dragged down by Tommy Hunter and Brian Matusz, making just shy of $8M combined and contributing a joint WAR of exactly zero to the team with their uneven, platoony performances.  Meanwhile, the team has gotten effective (albeit brief) performances from cheap unknowns like Chaz Roe and Cesar Cabral, as well as prospects like Oliver Drake and Tyler Wilson.  The only cheap reliever who's truly struggled for the team has been Rule 5 pick Jason Garcia (hey, it was worth a shot).

There's not much to be done about it in 2015, except perhaps to cut bait on Brian Matusz, especially if Wesley Wright can make it back healthy and productive.  More importantly, though, the club should take all of these lessons into account for 2016 planning.

Of course, the bullpen won't be the only area of upheaval between 2015 and 2016 -- the club will already be managing the potential departures of Chris Davis, Matt Wieters, Wei-Yin Chen and Bud Norris.  But more quietly, Matusz, Hunter and Darren O'Day will also be free agents, and the club shouldn't spend any sort of serious money to keep them or hire their replacements.

A franchise should be able to put together a solid bullpen for about $15M, not the over $20M that the Orioles have invested right now.  Relief arms are too volatile to make big investments on guys not in the class of a Kimbrel or Riveira.  We all thought the Orioles learned this after the expensive flops of Kevin Gregg, Mike Gonzalez and Steve Kline, and to an extent they did (this current crop mostly got expensive via arbitration, not free agency), but choosing this spring to believe that the replacement-level contributions of Matusz and Hunter couldn't have been provided by, well, replacement-level players with replacement-level salaries -- that was a mistake.

If the team could retain O'Day's services with a contract like the one he's on now (3 years/$9M), that could be a justifiable expenditure, but he'll probably earn a lot more on the open market after four consecutive effective years in a division full of hitters' parks and slugging teams.  Similarly, if Hunter's services come cheap after his struggles, he could be worth taking a flyer on again.  Matusz... just no.  The Orioles need to stop it with Brian Matusz already.  But the real point is, the team needs to commit to a bullpen pay cap, and get back to the Duquette strategy of finding a hundred no-name arms.  If the team is going to make up for all the hitting and starting pitching it's about to lose, the money will need to come from there.

For all the angst about the team failing to re-sign Andrew Miller, they were right not to seriously attempt to do so.  The bullpen would be better right now with him in it, yes, but the team would be painted even further into a corner, and for an even longer time.  Let the Yankees eat the back end of that contract.  Let the Orioles find ten more Chaz Roes and use the extra funds to get some bats.