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Cheap relief

Padres build top bullpen through smart shopping

Posted: Tuesday November 13, 2007 11:55AM; Updated: Tuesday November 13, 2007 12:44PM
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Heath Bell, acquired from the Mets last winter, went 6-4 with a 2.02 ERA and 102 strikeouts in 93 2/3 innings in 2007.
Heath Bell, acquired from the Mets last winter, went 6-4 with a 2.02 ERA and 102 strikeouts in 93 2/3 innings in 2007.
Brad Mangin/SI
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The $12 million the Phillies will give setup reliever J.C. Romero over the next three seasons should quell the collusion chatter just a wee bit. J.C. Romero? Isn't he the guy who pitched to a 6.70 ERA for the Angels in 2006 and was released by the Red Sox only five months ago?

Yes, that's Romero, who was brilliant enough for the Phillies over the final three months of the season to re-establish the kind of value he had in Minnesota as a reliable and durable lefthander. He is this year's Jamie Walker.

The risk of sinking $4 million a year over multiple years for a pitcher in his mid-30s (Romero turns 32, 33 and 34 over the contract) who doesn't start, win or close games, and has high mileage on his odometer is one you won't find Kevin Towers taking. The San Diego general manager is the industry expert at building a bullpen on the cheap.

Towers' philosophy is that relief performance tends to be fungible, and buying free agent relievers -- who tend to be older and overworked by the time they get to the market -- is the definition of buying a stock too high before the regression hits. Think Danys Baez, Arthur Rhodes, Kyle Farnsworth, Tom Gordon and Hector Carrasco.

"Free agent relief shopping is dangerous," Towers says.

In just a seven-month span in 2006, Towers obtained relievers Cla Meredith, Doug Brocail, Heath Bell, Kevin Cameron and Justin Hampson at the combined talent cost of Jon Atkins, Ben Johnson and Doug Mirabelli. None of those five relievers he acquired earned more than $500,000 last season. And San Diego's bullpen wound up with the best ERA in baseball (3.01).

Just as tellingly, Towers, in the middle of a pennant race, traded off his own version of Romero: Scott Linebrink, who was about to turn 31, and headed for free agency, a big payday and a likely regression.

Towers had picked up Linebrink on waivers from Houston in 2003. Over the next three seasons the Padres used Linebrink 73 times each year and paid him a total of $2.6 million. Just as the mileage-to-salary ratio was about to get out of whack, Towers turned Linebrink into his next budget-friendly reliever, Joe Thatcher, who posted a 1.29 ERA after his trade from Milwaukee.

Towers has also mined cheap bullpen talent over the years from veterans such as Rudy Seanez, Chris Hammond, Donne Wall and Jay Witasick, as well as international free agent Akinori Otsuka.

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