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A free-agency lesson LCS teams can teach us

Is this the best way to build a championship bullpen?
October 16, 2018

The changing attitude about MLB front offices -- about age, about longevity, about long-term contracts, about free agency in general -- has changed how we are looking forward to the 2018-19 Hot Stove season. What once looked like an unprecedented amount of impending spending now looks like ... well, one

The changing attitude about MLB front offices -- about age, about longevity, about long-term contracts, about free agency in general -- has changed how we are looking forward to the 2018-19 Hot Stove season. What once looked like an unprecedented amount of impending spending now looks like ... well, one wonders if it will look a little like last offseason.
But one place, at least theoretically, in which evolving attitudes in baseball should benefit some free agents is the increasing reliance on bullpens. Starters, wins, "quality starts": All of these are decreasing in value as teams try out new strategies with "openers" and "bullpen games" and swingmen.
If there were ever a time when free-agent relievers should be valued and ready to cash in, it would be now. There are plenty of excellent ones out there, after all, from Craig Kimbrel and Adam Ottavino to Zach Britton and Andrew Miller to Player Page for David Robertson and Joe Kelly. Those guys all have to be looking at how this postseason has been managed, particularly by the Brewers, and salivating. The long-ignored middle reliever has never been more valued.
Complete list of free agents this offseason
But is free agency really the way to build a championship-quality bullpen? Should teams open up their wallets for these guys? After all, the big spenders on relievers this past offseason were the Colorado Rockies, who spent $106 million on Wade Davis, Bryan Shaw and Jake McGee, who had ERAs of 4.13, 5.93 and 6.49, respectively. You could find endless Minor League kids to give you better than that, and they're cheap, too.
So what's right? Let's look no further than the four teams in the League Championship Series and see how they built their bullpens. Did they buy arms, build them or trade for them? What's the right strategy? How do you get this far?
Boston Red Sox
Via trade: Richard Hembree, Joe Kelly, Craig Kimbrel, Rick Porcello, Eduardo Rodriguez
Via Draft: Matt Barnes, Brandon Workman
Via free agency: Ryan Brasier
Via waivers: None
Porcello and Rodriguez have only been relievers this particular offseason, and they will go back to starting next season. (And maybe again in these playoffs.) Barnes and Workman haven't been in another organization this decade. Brasier is the only free-agent signing, and he's a little bit of the exception that proves the rule. He pitched in Japan last year and hadn't pitched in the Majors since 2013 until July. The Red Sox signed Brasier to a Minor League contract in Spring Training and promoted him in July. He won't even be arbitration-eligible until 2020, so while he was technically signed as a free agent, he was never sought after on the open market like your typical Hot Stove free agent.

Houston Astros
Via trade: Roberto Osuna, Thomas Pressly
Via Draft: Josh James, Lance McCullers
Via free agency: Hector Rondon, Tony Sipp, Joe Smith
Via waivers: Collin McHugh
More than any other team left, the Astros have embraced free agency as a way to help out their bullpen. Both Rondon and Smith were signed this past offseason, within days of each other. Smith was the higher-priced addition, at two years at $15 million, while Rondon got two years at $8.5 million. They were both perfectly fine this season, if not spectacular, and it's worth noting that James, Osuna, Pressly, McHugh and McCullers were all better and are probably higher on the bullpen depth chart at this particular moment. Sipp, the other free-agent signing, has been outstanding this season, with a 1.86 ERA as the team's lefty specialist. That's the good news. The bad news is that Houston signed him to a three-year, $18 million contract before the 2016 season ... and he was lousy in both 2016 and '17 before finally turning it around this year. Sipp was left off the postseason roster for all three rounds during the Astros' World Series run last year. He, so far, has only faced one batter this offseason. (He did get him out.)

Los Angeles Dodgers
Via trade: Dylan Floro, Ryan Madson, Alex Wood
Via Draft: Caleb Ferguson
Via free agency: Pedro Baez, Kenley Jansen, Kenta Maeda, Julio Urias
Via waivers: None
This is where the moniker "free agent" loses some of its utility. Urias, Baez and Jansen have pitched with only the Dodgers their entire careers, and they were all international signings as teenagers. They are technically considered free-agent signings, but only technically. (Though Jansen, of course, signed an extension.) Maeda was signed out of Japan in January 2016. Jansen is probably the only pitcher who counts as a free agent here, and it's arguable if he ever really hit the open market.

Milwaukee Brewers
Via trade: Xavier Cedeno, Josh Hader, Jeremy Jeffress, Corey Knebel, Freddy Peralta, Joakim Soria
Via Draft: Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff
Via free agency: None
Via waivers: Junior Guerra
And here we have the most damning argument of all against signing big free-agent relievers. The best, most innovative bullpen in either LCS was constructed by a front office that steadfastly avoided big-ticket items. Hader was acquired as one of the lesser names in the Carlos Gomez trade and has blossomed into the best relief weapon in the sport. Someone's going to sign Kimbrel and Ottavino to massive, lengthy contracts this offseason. It's not going to be Milwaukee. It's already covered its bases elsewhere ... both more cheaply and more efficiently.

Will Leitch is a columnist for MLB.com.