When the San Francisco Giants won the World Series in 2010, the team's bullpen was constructed in a way that most successful bullpens are: cheaply. Aside from Jeremy Affeldt, none of the Giants relievers on that 2010 team were signed to a multi-year contracts as free agents. Only Afefldt and Brian Wilson (through arbitration raises) were making seven figures per season. That Giants pen also featured cheap, scrap heap pickups like Santiago Casilla, Javier Lopez, and Guillermo Mota, along with a blossoming pre-arbitration stud named Sergio Romo.
The Giants won the World Series again in 2012, and the bullpen was primarily the same, just a lot more expensive. Affeldt, Casilla, Romo, Lopez, and Mota were all still on the team, making a lot more money than they did two years ago. Wilson was also making more money, and was nontendered after the season due to another impending arbitration raise and a lost 2012 thanks to Tommy John surgery. But instead of learning from his 2010 bullpen and trying to save money for 2013, Giants GM Brian Sabean essentially did the worst thing you can do when building a bullpen: he paid everyone a lot of money.
When I saw the news last night that the Giants had re-signed Casilla to a three year deal for $15 million, with a vesting option for a fourth season, I about passed out. The Giants signed Casilla to a minor league deal prior to that 2010 season, the very definition of a scrap heap pickup. He was entering his final year of arbitration this winter, and was coming off of a season where he contributed a negative fWAR to the Giants. He's 32 years old, and has a career walk rate over 4.00. Guys like Casilla are essentially a dime a dozen on the minor league free agent market, so of course, you have to give him a multi-year deal for a total of eight figures. There's probably more of a chance that the hard throwing Casilla gets hurt and doesn't live up to his contract than there is that he provides the Giants with three wins of value over the next three seasons.
Casilla's re-signing comes on the heels this winter of Sabean giving the 33-year old Affeldt a three-year deal of his own worth $18 million following the best season in his career as a reliever. Last year, Sabean gave Lopez a two-year deal for $8.5 million. Lopez, of course, is a 35-year old LOOGY who has never had a one win season that the Giants acquired two summers ago at the trade deadline for spare parts. In those three pitchers, the Giants have over $15 million in salary committed to players who threw a total of 162 innings in 2012. By contrast, the Royals (who never do anything right when it comes to pitching), will be paying a total of around $2 million in 2013 to Tim Collins, Aaron Crow, Greg Holland, and Kelvin Herrera, who threw 286 innings last year and provided more than three times the value of the Giants trio to the Kansas City bullpen.
I'll never understand why general managers are paying for middling relief talent. Looking at the top ten relievers in fWAR for the 2012 season, the only ones signed as major league free agents were Fernando Rodney (who made $2 million on a one year deal) and Joe Nathan (two year contract after a horrible 2011). Aroldis Chapman was signed by the Reds as an international free agent, and Matt Belisle was signed by the Rockies initially as a minor league free agent in 2009. Going crazy in the major league free agent market has a lot higher chance of going bust than it does going boom.
Look at the best bullpens in the league over the last few years: the Braves, Padres, Giants, Nationals, and Rays. Atlanta's only two significant free agent signings were Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito, who both got one year deals before departing. The Braves top three relievers were all homegrown (Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters) or picked off the scrap heap (Eric O'Flaherty). The same is true for the Padres (Mike Adams, Heath Bell, Luke Gregerson, Joe Thatcher), the Giants (before re-signing everyone for millions of dollars, of course), the Nationals (Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen, Sean Burnett, Craig Stammen), and the Rays (Rodney was a free agent, as was Kyle Farnsworth on a below market deal). The teams that consistently have the best bullpens in baseball don't go crazy by signing big name, high-priced free agents in the open market. Sabean has apparently forgotten how his team got to the table in 2010, and is banking on all of his aging relievers to repeat their performances in 2013 and beyond. Always bet against the status quo.
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Players who perform (those who remain in the game) progressively make more money; that's the collective bargaining agreement and it's common sense. That the Giants find themselves needing more money to pay the same players therefore isn't a "fault" of Sabean, but a natural result of his having done such a damn good job in helping to recruit players who perform at a level to satisfy the fans. Sabean hasn't gone after big name, high priced talent, he's simply negotiated with what he and the rest of his staff developed.