A proposed blueprint: Build around the bullpen
Relief corps responsible for higher percentage in record than payroll
Let's say you have an imaginary friend with an endless amount of money and he wants to give you a gift for your 50th birthday. Now, you being the diehard baseball fan you are, the first thing that comes to your mind is: "I want to get a baseball team and create our 'Field of Dreams' team." "Ok," your friend will say. "You got it; now tell me what's going to be your first acquisition?"
What's going to be your key acquisition that will determine the future success of your team? Or in other words, what should big league managers look for as the anchor of their franchise? Should it be a big bat that will produce runs? Or should it be a great pitcher that will give you 20 wins a year?
Come to think of it, this is the "million dollar question" -- or maybe the "2 billion dollar question," representing the recent purchase value of the Los Angeles Dodgers. How should you prioritize your player acquisitions?
I would like to propose a different view than the traditional one. This is a layman's opinion, and by no means a word of advice to any GM in the majors. However, being that baseball is such a "numbers sport," I think that this opinion is not so far-fetched.
If I had the opportunity to start a baseball team at the Major League level, I would first invest in building the best bullpen in the league. Before setting my rotation or acquiring a big bat, I would find the best relief pitchers for each situation, and then build my team around them.
Examining the Dodgers' numbers will make my reasoning clearer. As of July 22, Los Angeles' record was 50-47. Out of those 97 games, the bullpen has earned a decision in 35 games, with a record of 18-17. That means 36 percent of the team's record is an outcome derived from the bullpen's performance. More than that, out of the team's 346 earned runs, 124 runs were allowed by the bullpen (again, about 36 percent).
I don't plan to do the same analysis with all the teams, but I have a hunch that the results will not be that far from this figure. If so, then the question is: Does the Dodgers' bullpen's salary equal 36 percent of the team's payroll? I don't know, but I'm sure the team's front office should check into it, because as a fact, that is what the bullpen is worth to the team's achievements.
If these are the numbers, then why aren't relief pitchers hot commodities comes Trade Deadlines or during the offseason? What's the point in spending so much money, and then not making the playoffs because of your bullpen? If you take 36 percent of a team's final record, it is equal to 58 games. This is a large chunk to jeopardize.
I guess general managers take into consideration more factors then just win-loss ratio, and defining a successful year is not just about results on the field. In this era, a baseball franchise is first and foremost a business, and its results are evaluated in this scope. How many season tickets can you sell if you sign a relief pitcher? How many jerseys of Rafael Soriano did the Yankees or the Nationals sell since either signed him?
If this is the case, then I think my analysis has a point: Investing in getting the best bullpen is a long-term investment. It will not ensure you short-term income (season tickets or merchandise sales), but it will ensure you a winning team that eventually will bring more fans to its games. And in this case, it is a win-win situation both for owners and fans.