Friday, July 15, 2011

Relievers as currency

Might the Padres trade not one, not two but three relief pitchers this month -- closer Heath Bell, setup ace Mike Adams and middle man Chad Qualls?

The answer -- sorry to go Adam Smith on you here -- is that the marketplace will shape that outcome between now and Aug. 1. But if it does happen and surprises you, then you've not been paying attention.

Jed Hoyer flips relievers like IHOP flips pancakes. Late last fall alone, the Doogster dealt five relievers -- three to get his shortstop, two more to get his center fielder.

Hoyer, to be clear here, didn't come up with the idea that relievers are renewable currency for the Padres, anymore than you or I came up with the notion that San Diego is a sunny place.

'Twas obvious and likely still is.

As valuable and expensive as Bell is now -- an All-Star three times running on the cusp of free agency that will command him, say, $36 million guaranteed over the next three years -- any team  could've acquired the Loveable Kook for not a lot five summers ago. Adams, same thing, the Padres getting him by sending Brian Sikorski to the Indians in July 2006. How did the Indians get Adams? Eleven days earlier, they claimed him off waivers from the Mets, the same club that was eager to give away Bell.

Don't twist this as some Animal Farm message that all the barnyard animals are equal when we all know they aren't. Time and time again, however, the Padres have gathered soon-to-be good or even great relievers, cheaply -- whether it was Scott Linebrink off waivers; or Akinori Otsuka after 29 teams declined to bid for him; or Red Sox minor leaguer Cla Meredith as a throw-in for the redoubtable Doug Mirabelli. Let us not forget, too, the late Rod Beck, who signed with the Padres during the 2003 season and promptly cashed all 20 of his save chances. The Shooter begged the Cubs to let him come here, and the Cubs didn't even ask for a case of Gatorade from the Padres.

Isn't it reasonable to assume the Padres can continue to find good cheap help for their bullpen? And if a reliever has the arm for the job but needs some confidence, wouldn't Petco National Park and the National League be inviting places for him?

Past performance at bullpen building doesn't guarantee future success, of course, in part because the industry isn't static. Teams may now be valuing and evaluating relievers better than they did in, say, 2006. Take the Mets, who didn't appreciate that Bell's actual ERA was less indicative of his worth than his true ERA. Under the Alderson Gang, the Mets will know the difference. (It was Paul DePodesta who pushed for the Padres to get Adams, not to say that DePo batted 1.000 in his talent evaluations.)

In truth, the Doogster has some proving to do at bullpen construction. It was the Gunslinger who acquired the aforementioned relievers. The National League-best bullpen here in 2010 was his doing, too, plus the bulk of San Diego's current bullpen; and the Gunslinger's additions last offseason for the back of Arizona's bullpen are a big part of why the Garden Snakes are vastly improved. But it's not like the Padres started building good bullpens when the Gunslinger took over in late 1995, or that he always got it right. Thanks to Randy Smith, many of the relievers were in place for the '96 bullpen that led the NL in ERA and win probability added.

Putting it another way, while it shouldn't be assumed the Padres can whip up good bullpens on the cheap whenever they wish, other jobs more difficult are confronting them, and will confront them.


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