Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Is Stockpiling Relievers the New Moneyball? Reaction to the Napoli/Francisco Swap

Frank Francisco is headed to Toronto, and I think
this trade benefits both sides

Alex Anthopoulos has made another deal... is anyone surprised? In an aftershock of the Vernon Wells deal, Toronto will now send Mike Napoli to Texas for reliever Frank Francisco.

While I am pleased that this deal took place (for many reasons, as explained later), I caution fans to get too excited over it and not just assume that it is a good trade just because Alex Anthopoulos facilitated it. 

The real truth is, the Rangers probably won the deal overall, but it was beneficial to both clubs. As much as fans wanted to embrace Napoli and believe that he filled a gaping hole, he really didn't, the Blue Jays have enough C/1B/DH players without him.

However, I do think that Anthopoulos will now need to find another 1B/DH player to team up with Adam Lind and Edwin Encarnacion to fill the positions nightly. Whether that would be a high-profile player like Vladimir Guerrero or mean taking a lottery pick with a Nick Johnson-type player, I'm perfectly open to either possibility.

Meanwhile, Francisco will fill a bullpen that has gotten very good very fast over the past month, despite the Blue Jays not signing any of the top free agent relievers or making any blockbuster trades to acquire a Joakim Soria-type player.

So is stockpiling relievers the new Moneyball? 

We've seen what a tremendous impact having a deep, reliable bullpen had on the 2010 San Diego Padres. With a putrid offense (team wRC+ of 93) and few stars in the rotation (rotation ranked 7th in NL in xFIP), the Padres rode a historically-impressive bullpen (5 relievers with 30+ IP posted ERAs under 2.00) to a 90-win season.

Billy Beane (aka Mr. Moneyball) seemingly took notice of the Padres success and signed Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour (yes, a Type A FA) to big deals. The Athletics already had a deep and effective bullpen, so these moves left a lot of analysts scratching their heads. No Billy Beane is not going crazy, he's just found the latest market inefficiency and has the park (Oakland's park is perhaps the second-best pitching park in MLB, behind SD) to use it to full effectiveness.

Alex Anthopoulos seems to have already caught on, and I believe that he's executed this inefficiency even better than Oakland has. The Blue Jays aren't paying Rauch, Dotel, or Francisco big money on multi-year contracts, and all three of them have the potential to be just as good as Fuentes or Balfour.

After the dust settles from all the huge contracts handed out to 4.0+ WAR players, there are always about five relievers still on the market that can largely bring the goods, yet are available for bargain bin prices. Last year, it was Kevin Gregg, this year, AA has pushed even more chips into the middle on this low-risk strategy.

And once again, AA's favourite theme to succeed shows up: Rauch, Dotel and Francisco are all very likely to be ranked as Type B free agents after the 2011 season, meaning the Blue Jays have a great chance to pick up three supplemental picks purely from relief acquisitions this offseason. The important thing is, Toronto didn't have to give up much to acquire those relievers in the first place.

Bullpens also tend to have a domino effect on the team as a whole, they're worth more than the some of their parts. The Blue Jays young rotation will now breathe more freely during games, knowing that the bullpen has their back if they can't go deep into the contest. 

So sure, Rangers fans may think that their team stole this trade - and they are partly right, but the positive vibes from the swap is likely to be felt by both Texas and Toronto.

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