Last June, during a 6-21 stretch of amateurish baseball that effectively put the brakes on the Braves' streak of 14 straight division titles, it wasn't hard to figure out exactly what was wrong in Atlanta. The bullpen, a huge worry for the team since spring training, was undeniably and unequivocally awful. That month, the 'pen had five blown saves, a 1-5 record and a 5.13 ERA.
The sudden tailspin into National League East oblivion inspired general manager John Schuerholz to jump into the trade market -- a little belatedly, some might say -- where he finally found an anchor for the bullpen in Indians closer Bob Wickman. The veteran Wickman saved 18 of 19 games and posted a 1.04 ERA after he landed in Atlanta in July. But it was just not enough. The Braves finished in third place, 18 games behind the Mets.
Schuerholz, who hasn't taken a whole lot of missteps in his career, is making sure that he doesn't make the same ones again this winter. Priority No. 1 in Atlanta this offseason has been to fix the bullpen, a goal that the Braves have now all but completed. And Atlanta isn't the only team that has decided a beefed-up bullpen is the way to get better.
The Indians have been busy this winter restocking their 'pen with a couple of name closers. The Orioles have completely revamped their bullpen. The Mets and Angels have both added four relievers, through trades and free-agent signings. The Rangers are taking a chance on one-time super-closer Eric Gagne. Other teams have loaded up, too.
"I think out pitching staff, in total, is much stronger," Schuerholz said Friday. "There is an interrelationship with the ability of starters to do their job and [manager Bobby Cox's] ability to manage what they do in their job, when he has that caliber of reliever. Bobby's going to have a lot of room to maneuver. It does make the entire pitching staff stronger."
Fortifying a bullpen may not be the best way of bettering a team's pitching fortunes. But there's little doubt that, done right, it is one way. And it's an important one, too. The Mets, Yankees and Dodgers all relied heavily on their bullpens to make it into the postseason last year. (In bullpen innings pitched, they all ranked in the top six.) The 2005 Padres won the NL West and led the league in bullpen innings.
Putting together a good rotation still is the goal of every team in baseball. Short of that, though -- and, really, how many good starting staffs are out there? -- a deep, versatile bullpen may be the next best thing. It takes pressure off the starters to pitch deeply into games. It can intimidate opponents. And, as every GM in the business knows, building a bullpen is a lot cheaper than building a rotation.
"Certainly, the cost of starting pitching went through the roof. So that might have been the philosophy of a lot of clubs," Schuerholz said. "You can say that, but it doesn't mean that it's easy to get the quality of bullpen that you need to get."
The Orioles spent some $31 million this winter on two relievers, Jamie Walker and Danys Baez, neither of whom is expected to be a closer this year. Gagne will earn $6 million this year, plus incentives, in Texas. Keith Foulke will make $5 million in Cleveland in 2007. That may sound like a lot of money. But all that put together doesn't match the $55 million contract that starter Gil Meche signed with the Royals.