Jonathan Papelbon and the Definition of Insanity

Recently, D-backs GM Kevin Towers has come under a fair amount of flack from the SABR-driven corners of the internet for his approach to the off-season.  Arizona's needs this off-season mostly involved re-solidifying their bench, and in their signings of Willie Bloomquist and John McDonald - players who admittedly might not fit particularly well on a roster that already includes Geoff Blum - most of the commentary has been about the error of the D-backs' ways.  However, fair as that criticism might be, I think it needs to be mentioned that the reason Towers was brought to Arizona was for his penchant for building bullpens, something he has accomplished with aplomb in a short time at the helm of the D-backs.

The team had a quality core of position players and a few quality starters in place before Towers' arrival, and Towers has helped to build the relief corps, add quality backups - say what you want about the likes of Bloomquist, but it's better than what we had to suffer through from the likes of Tony Abreu or Rusty Ryal, and it's better than living with someone like Cody Ransom for an extended period of time - and give the core players a stable, quality coaching staff.  And he's managed to do it all on a limited budget, particularly in his work building the bullpen.

Which brings me to Philadelphia's signing of Jonathan Papelbon...

I believe that the common definition of insanity - doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results - needs revision.  A factory worker buying a lottery ticket twice a year with his paycheck isn't insanity, it's a guilty pleasure that might just provide him with a little extra hope that his dreams of exorbitant wealth might somehow come true.  $10 a year for a bit of extra hope, while likely naive, probably isn't going to have a material impact on that man's life, so I'm hard-pressed to see how one might call that insanity.  So what is insanity?  To me, insanity is choosing to head to the casino with your mortgage payment money because you can "feel a hot streak coming on."  Insanity is staring down odds that are against you and doubling up on your bet.

Philadelphia is doing the latter with the signing of Papelbon, ignoring a history of seeing the house clean up on teams' four-year relief bets and throwing an average annual salary that would amount to about 18% of Arizona's annual payroll at Papelbon for four years.  Even for a team like Philadelphia who can consistently get their payroll above $100MM, Papelbon's contract is a significant financial obligation to one player, and one player whose job description happens to inherently involve a lot of volatility.  It's no secret that multi-year relief contracts typically end up going horribly awry.  Relievers get hurt - a lot - and it's not surprising given the job description of a top-tier closer: throwing as hard as possible for as long as it takes to finish your inning.

The reliever that ages gracefully is a rather mythical being - particularly in the modern era where ninth-inning relievers are those who can hit 98 miles per hour on the radar gun - and Papelbon turns 31 later this month.  Sure, there's no denying that Papelbon has been great at what he does from the instant he joined the major leagues.  Papelbon has notched at least 30 saves in the last six seasons, has posted a sub-3 ERA in all but one big-league season, and has posted a K/9 of 10.00 or greater in his last five seasons.  Those are some incredible numbers.  However, to illustrate just how fleeting a steady, quality reliever is, I used these constraints on Baseball-Reference's play index to find a total of 71 qualifying seasons (sorted by greatest single-season strikeout total) pitched by 33 different pitchers, spanning from 1990 to 2011.  Needless to say, the rate of complete breakdown is disturbing.  Here's where we get to the crux of the post, as I'll break down the career paths of every reliever not named Papelbon to qualify for this list.  Let's take a walk down injury lane, shall we?

(Note: as much as I think the saves stat is awful, I do think that its use is not completely irrelevant in this instance - given the shutdown mentality and high-velocity fastball typically desired in closers, searching through closers provides us an opportunity to look at pitchers who, for the most part, mimic Papelbon in terms of arsenal and pitching style, giving us an ability to see the expected mileage an arm has with that approach and arm strength.)

 

- Appearing first on the list due to his incredible 15.99 K/9 rate in 2010 is Carlos Marmol.  Marmol was utterly dominant in 2010, posting a 2.55 ERA (167 ERA+) in 77.2 innings of work over 77 games, finishing 70 games and notching 38 saves despite a walk rate of 6 per nine innings.  Sadly, Marmol fell apart in 2011, seeing his K/9 drop to 12.0 and his ERA spike to 4.01 (98 ERA+) at the ripe young age of 28.  Marmol likely would have appeared on the list in 2007 and 2008 as well, had he been the Cubs' closer.

- Next on the list is Eric Gagne.  Yeah, I can't make this stuff up.  We know the story with Gagne - 1.83 ERA (218 ERA+) from 2002 to 2005, gets hurt in 2006 at age 30, good with Texas to begin 2007 at age 31, miserable in Boston after being traded in the middle of that same year, equally miserable with Milwaukee in 2008 at age 32, out of baseball for good in 2009 at age 33.

- Craig Kimbrel is third on the list.  Sorry, Braves fans, enjoy him while you have him.

- If you want an example of a hard-thrower showing longevity, Billy Wagner - with a staggering nine qualifying seasons in his career - is your best hope.  Wagner had a season that made the list at age 38 with the Braves in 2010, posting a 1.43 ERA (275 ERA+) and 13.5 K/9 in 71 games, notching 37 saves to give him 422 on his career.  Fun fact: Billy Wagner's average season would have made the list, with a 2.31 ERA and 11.9 K/9 over his career, with an average of 34 saves per season.

However, it also needs to be noted that Wagner had reinvent himself as a pitcher as his career progressed and his fastball velocity started to decline.  In 2002, Wagner threw 81% fastballs at an average of 97.6 miles per hour.  In 2009, Wagner threw just 67.8% fastballs at an average of 94.2 miles per hour, compensating for the decreased effectiveness of his heater by throwing more sliders.  He also needed major reconstructive elbow surgery in 2008 after tearing his UCL and flexor pronator tendon, missing most of that 2009 season recovering from the surgery.  Can Papelbon reinvent himself, perhaps as a split-finger specialist, as his fastball, which has always been fairly straight, starts to lose velocity in his 30's?  That's the bet that the Phillies seem to be making.

- We snap back to reality, as Jonathan Broxton is next on the list with his 2009 campaign with the Dodgers, in which he posted a 2.61 ERA (154 ERA+) and 13.5 K/9 in 73 games for Los Angeles.  The next two years?  A 4.32 ERA (90 ERA+) in 78 games at ages 26 and 27.  Yikes.

- John Wetteland makes three total appearances on the list.  Wetteland established himself as a closer with Montreal in 1992 after a few so-so years as a swingman for the Dodgers.  He had seven dominant years as a closer for Montreal, the Yankees, and Texas, with a 2.38 ERA (186 ERA+), a 10.2 K/9, and 252 saves, but saw his ERA spike to 3.68 (140 ERA+) with Texas at age 32, then to 4.20 (ERA+ 120) at age 33 with the Rangers in 2000.  He didn't pitch again after that season.

- Trevor Hoffman appears five times and was a dominant closer - with a few off years, like 2001 and 2008 - until his age-42 collapse with the Brewers in 2010.  However, it is important to note that Hoffman's arsenal was far from that of a traditional closer, and he starting pitching late in his pro career after transitioning to the mound from shortstop in the minors.  Hoffman's velocity saw a significant drop before he established himself as the Padres' bullpen lynchpin due to a surfing incident during the 1994 player's union strike, and pitched in the 80's for a large portion of his career.  He relied on the incredible deception and dive of his changeup, perhaps the best of all time, to close out games.  Not much of a comparison to Papelbon here.

- Robb Nen makes a pair of appearances, but had a career laced with inconsistency.  Seasons of ERA+ figures of 211, 266, and 286 are intertwined with seasons of ERA+ figures of 104, 108, 129, and 134.  Nen last pitched in the 2002 World Series, in which he famously worked in Game Six despite having aggravated a torn rotator cuff earlier in the year and knowing he was jeopardizing his career by continuing to pitch.  He spent the next three seasons trying to come back from the injury before officially retiring in 2005.  A stalwart end, but nonetheless an end caused by arm-related injury.

- Armando Benitez is most prominently featured for his 2000 season with the Mets, although best year as a closer was actually in 2004 with the Marlins, when he posted a 1.29 ERA (319 ERA+) as a 31-year-old, though his K/9 was low at just 8.0.  In his next four years, Benitez's K/9 would slightly recover (8.6 K/9 from 2005 to 2008), but he walked almost five batters per nine and wound up posting a combined 4.61 ERA and 97 ERA+, including a drop-off to a 96 ERA+ in 2005 at just 32 years old with the Giants.

- J.J. Putz makes two appearances in the rankings from his Seattle days.  Putz's peak with the Mariners was shockingly short, as Putz was first excellent for Seattle in 2006, elite for the Mariners in 2007, then absolutely collapsed in 2008 and 2009 with Seattle and the Mets.  Putz has had a career renaissance with the White Sox and, of course, the D-backs over the last two seasons, but has been used gently - the White Sox and D-backs have been cautious about using him on consecutive days.

- John Rocker.... yeah, check out this train wreck.

- Brad Lidge infamously collapsed in 2009 at 32 years old as the closer for the Phillies, posting a staggeringly-bad 7.21 ERA in 67 games (but with 31 saves!!!).  Lidge, who has thrown his fastball 52.1% of the time in his career, used the pitch just 39.8% of the time in 2010 and just 28.1% of the time in 2011, despite owning just one other pitch, his slider.  It's been working for Lidge when he's on the mound, but that's been for just 65 innings in the last two years.

- Bryan Harvey peaked in 1991 as a 28-year-old with a 1.60 ERA in 78.2 innings with the Angels.  He had a similar season as a 30-year-old in 1993 with Florida, with a 1.70 ERA in 69 innings of work.  After that 1993 season, Harvey pitched just 10.1 more big-league innings over the next two years with a 7.84 ERA.

- B.J. Ryan established himself as one of baseball's best closers in 2004 and 2005 with Baltimore, at ages 28 and 29.  He scored one of the worst contracts in baseball history, a five-year deal with the Toronto Blue Jays, and turned in just two worthwhile seasons, posting a 1.37 ERA in 72.1 innings in 2006 and a 2.95 ERA in 58 innings in 2008.  Unfortunately for Toronto, he worked just 4.1 miserable innings in 2007 and posted a 6.53 ERA in 20.2 innings in 2009 before being cut.  He would never pitch in the big-leagues again.

- Troy Percival closed for the Angels from 1996 to 2004, actually peaking in '01 and '02 at ages 31 and 32.  The breakdown did come, though, as Percival collapsed with the Detroit Tigers in 2005 at 35 years old.  Percival's average fastball velocity by year from 2002 to 2005: 95.6, 95.2, 93.7, 92.2.  Additionally, a closer look at Percival's peripherals suggests that luck masked a collapse that actually occurred much earlier than the ERA numbers show.

- Sorry, fellow D-backs fans, but I have to do this...  Matt Mantei's 1999 age-25 season was excellent - 2.76 ERA (164 ERA+), 65.1 IP, 13.6 K/9 - but he fell apart the very next year, posting a 4.57 ERA (105 ERA+) in 45.1 innings and had just one more season with an ERA under 3 in more than 10 innings pitched at age 29, which also happened to be the only other season he would throw more than 50 innings in.  2000-2005 numbers: 171 IP, 194:99 K:BB, 4.63 ERA, 102 ERA+.  He was out of baseball by age 32.

- Francisco Rodriguez has four qualifying seasons, all with the Angels.  K-Rod turns just 30 years old in January, but has already seen his velocity drop from an average of 94.8 mph at its peak - in 2006 - to just 90.3 mph last year.  However, K-Rod has gone from being a fastball-slider pitcher in his Angels days to being a fastball-curveball-changeup pitcher the last three years with the Mets and Brewers, managing to remain effective despite his drop in velocity.

- Randy Myers makes one appearance on the list for his age-27 1990 campaign - by far the best of his career - posting a 193 ERA+ in 86.2 innings of work.  He saw a definite drop-off in production over the following six years, recording just a 110 ERA+ in 441.2 innings of work, but, to his credit, managing to stay in the league.  His ERA+ in 1991, at just 28 years old, dropped to 108 in 132 innings of work (including 12 starts, strangely enough).  He had a wonderfully-effective 1997 campaign at 34 years old, though not because of any spike in peripherals.  Rather, Myers simply feasted on an egregiously low HR/FB rate for the year with beneficial BABIP and LOB% rates.

- Duane Ward was worked brutally over his career, pitching over 100 innings in five consecutive years out of the bullpen.  His best years were from 1991 to 1993, from ages 27 to 29, qualifying for the list in '93 due to his 45 saves 2.13 ERA, and 97 strikeouts in 71.2 innings as closer for the World Champion Blue Jays.  That, however, proved to be something of a swan song for Ward, who would pitch in just four more games - in 1995 - before retiring due to injuries.

- Joe Nathan has four qualifying seasons, converting to the mound from shortstop in 2002 after leaving the game following an unsuccessful stint as a shortstop in the San Francisco Giants' system.  As such, Nathan's arm had a few more bullets in it than most pro closers, but the inevitable collapse did come in 2010 after a dominant 2009 season as a 34-year-old.  Nathan returned to the mound this year, but posted a mediocre 4.84 ERA in 44.2 innings for the Twins and will look for an incentive-laden one-year deal.

- Ugueth Urbina - aside from being an incredible asshole (sorry, no other way to say it) - qualified twice, once in 1998 with Montreal and once in 2002 with Boston.  Urbina's career was laced with so-so seasons, even during his bat-missing prime, but the end of the line arrived quickly for Urbina.  After being traded to Philadelphia during the 2005 season, Urbina posted a mediocre 4.13 ERA for the Phillies in 56 games and never pitched in the big-leagues again.

- Brian Wilson makes the list for his 2010 campaign with the Giants, posting a 1.81 ERA in 74.2 innings at age 28 while... endearing (?) himself to fans for his... quirkiness.  And his beard.  However, after three straight years of posting K/9 rates greater than 9.5 and BB/9 rates of 4.0 or lower, Wilson posted an 8.8 K/9 rate and 5.1 BB/9 rate in 2011, seeing the average velocity on his fastball drop to a career-low, and looking generally on the decline at just 29 years old.

- Dennis Eckersley... you got me on this one.  Though I also guess that nobody will be turning to Eck as Exhibit A for an argument that Papelbon is likely to hold up.

- Here's a massive "really, that guy???" for this list: Brian Fuentes.  Yep, Fuentes actually makes the list twice, for his age-29 2005 campaign and his age-32 2008 campaign, managing to be a successful closer - at Coors Field of all places - despite his enormous fly-ball tendencies because of his impressive bat-missing stuff.  He saw an enormous drop-off in skill immediately after that '08 season, posting a 3.93 ERA and 112 ERA+ the following season, his first year of a shiny new multi-year deal with the Angels.  His similarly-poor 2010 season was hidden by a .213 BABIP, but Fuentes has been basically a seventh-inning guy and/or LOOGY since leaving Colorado, dropping off considerably after his age-32 season.  His average fastball velocity, which was 91.6 mph in his final year with the Rockies, was a paltry 89.3 mph in 2011.

- John Axford's 2011 season put him on the list, but he's just 28 years old and started his pro baseball career in 2007 as a minor-league swingman to fill a roster spot.  Incredible how far he's come and a great story, but for the purposes of this post, he's still far too young and has fired far too few bullets as a closer to meaningfully contribute to the trend.  Not to mention the obvious fact that he's still younger than Papelbon.

- Heath Bell qualifies twice for our list, posting two solid seasons of peripherals in 2009 and 2010 to actually back up his shiny ERA figures.  However, those were his age-31 and age-32 seasons, and Bell saw his K/9 drop from 11.1 in 2010 to a paltry 7.3 in 2011.  A .261 BABIP and some Petco magic kept his ERA at a shiny 2.44 in 2011, but if you look past the ERA, Bell had a pretty clear collapse in 2011, his age-33 season.

- Francisco Cordero might be a wizard.  He qualified for the list just once, with his age-32 2007 season (though he barely missed qualifying in 2004 by 0.1 K/9), posting a 2.98 ERA with the Brewers in 63.1 innings of work.  He left for a lucrative deal from the Reds that seemed incredibly ill-advised, but lady luck was on Cordero's, and the Reds', side.  Cordero's K/9 dropped to 7.8 by the second year of the deal - Cordero's age-34 season - and Cordero posted respective xFIP figures of 3.94, 4.01, 4.37, and 4.14 in his four years with the Reds.  Yet, somehow, he posted respective ERA totals of 3.33, 2.16, 3.84, and 2.45 in those same four years.  Clearly he saw his true talents collapse, but he somehow delivered 6.2 bWAR over the course of the contract.  Like I said, wizard.

- Another surprise appearance comes from David Aardsma, whose age-27 2009 campaign with the Mariners was special, regardless of park factor contexts.  Aardsma posted a 2.52 ERA and struck out 10.1 batters per nine over 71.1 innings for Seattle, but after a solid follow-up 2010 campaign, Aardsma did not pitch in a single game in 2011 and had major elbow surgery in July.  We'll have to wait and see if he can come back from it.

- An unusual case is that of Takashi Saito, who qualified for the list because of his second season in the big-leagues with the Dodgers, but just-so-happened to be 37 years old at the time.  Saito's velocity peaked that year at 92.6 miles per hour, and has been steadily declining since, settling at 90.8 in 2011 with the Brewers.  However, with a consistent three-pitch mix and occasional fourth or fifth offering to keep hitters off-balance, Saito isn't exactly the kind of power pitcher that Papelbon is.

- John Smoltz qualifies for his god-like age-36 2003 season as the Braves' closer, pumping in 95.2 mph gas in his third season back from Tommy John surgery.  Hard to know what to think in my opinion, given the fact that he had a new elbow put in just three years prior to that phenomenal season.

- Kazuhiro Sasaki, another Japanese import, gives us three straight strange cases on the list, as Sasaki, like Saito, joined the big-leagues already into his 30's, at 32 years old, and was hardly the fireballing type that we're looking for with this list.  Still, Sasaki did see his velocity drop from the low-90's in his first three years with the Mariners - from age 32 to 34 - to an average of 88.4 in his final, mediocre season with the Mariners.  His K/9 also dipped by three full points from 2002 to 2003, his last season in the US.  He went back to Japan following that season, where his career was derailed by knee and elbow injuries, forcing his retirement.

- Joakim Soria makes an appearance as well, but even with a substandard 2011 campaign, I have a hard time believing that he's another victim of the reliever early-blowout curse (hint: it has something to do with the 10.4% HR/FB rate and the 72.3% LOB%).  However, he's also just 27 - i.e. younger than Papelbon - so this one is also inconclusive.

 

And that's the whole list.  Yep, no Mariano Rivera.  Fun fact: Mariano Rivera has posted a K/9 of 10 or greater just once in his career, his age-26 1996 campaign in which he still the set-up man for none other than closer John Wetteland.  Thus, the greatest closer of all time failed to quality for a list that was designed to single out great closers.  Crazy.  For what it's worth, Rivera wasn't exactly a fireballer in his prime, working at 93.2 miles per hour on average in 2002, relying more on the utterly disgusting movement of his cutter than pure velocity, so any potential comparison to Rivera (I'm looking at you, Ken Rosenthal) with Papelbon is ridiculous.

One more thing.  That Rivera link ought to be required viewing for baseball fans.  It's utterly incredible.

Since that's a lot of text to try to derive an overall point from, here's the entire list, simplified in table form:

Player: Qualifies for List in: At Respective Ages: Breakdown Year (Age): Out of Baseball? (Age in Final Season):
Carlos Marmol 2010 27 2011 (28) No (currently 28)
Eric Gagne 2002, 2003, 2004 26, 27, 28 2005 (29) Yes (32)
Craig Kimbrel 2011 23 None No (currently 23)
Billy Wagner 1998, 1999, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2010 26, 27, 29, 30, 31, 33, 34, 35, 38 2008 (36) Yes (38)
Jonathan Broxton 2009 25 2010 (26) No (currently 27)
John Wetteland 1992, 1993, 1998 25, 26, 31 1999/2000 (32/33) Yes (33)
Trevor Hoffman 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2002 28, 29, 30, 32, 34 2010 (42) Yes (42)
Robb Nen 1998, 2000 28, 30 2002 (32) Yes (32)
Armando Benitez 2000, 2002 27, 29 2005 (32) Yes (35)
J.J. Putz 2006, 2007 29, 30 2008/2009 (31/32) No (currently 34)
John Rocker 1999 24 2001 (26) Yes (28)
Brad Lidge 2005, 2008 28, 31 2009 (32) No (currently 34)
Bryan Harvey 1991 28 1994 (31) Yes (32)
B.J. Ryan 2005, 2006 29, 30 2007 (31) Yes (33)
Troy Percival 1996, 2001, 2002 26, 31, 32 2003/2005 (33/35) Yes (39)
Matt Mantei 1999 25 2000 (26) Yes (31)
Francisco Rodriguez 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 23, 24, 25, 26 None No (currently 29)
Randy Myers 1990 27 1991 (28) Yes (35)
Duane Ward 1993 29 1994 (30) Yes (31)
Joe Nathan 2004, 2005, 2006, 2009 29, 30, 31, 34 2010 (35) No (currently 36)
Ugueth Urbina 1998, 2002 24, 28 2004 (30) Yes (31)
Brian Wilson 2009, 2010 27, 28 2011 (29) No (currently 29)
Dennis Eckersley 1991, 1992 36, 37 1995 (40) Yes (43)
Brian Fuentes 2005, 2008 29, 32 2009 (33) No (currently 35)
John Axford 2011 28 None No (currently 28)
Heath Bell 2009, 2010 31, 32 2011 (33) No (currently 33)
Francisco Cordero 2007 32 2008/2009 (33/34) No (currently 36)
David Aardsma 2009 27 2010 (28) No (currently 29, missed all of 2011)
Takashi Saito 2007 37 None No (currently 41)
John Smoltz 2003 36 2009 (42) Yes (42)
Kazuhiro Sasaki 2002 34 2003 (35) Yes (35)
Joakim Soria 2009 25 None No (currently 27)

Papelbon's contract runs from his age-31 season to his age-34 season.  Excluding the four closers who are still in their 20's and have yet to break down - i.e. Kimbrel, K-Rod, Axford, and Soria, for whom the jury is still out - only seven of 28 players had their breakdown come at age 35 or later.  Those seven: Billy Wagner, Trevor Hoffman, Joe Nathan, Dennis Eckersley, Takashi Saito, John Smoltz, and Kazuhiro Sasaki.

But just how many of those guys a good comparison for Papelbon?  Hoffman spent most of his career in the 80's, relying far less on pure velocity than Papelbon does with his 95 mph heater.  Nathan started pitching at 22 years old after spending most of his career as a shortstop, and that late-start to the ever dangerous job of closing earned him all of one extra year before his breakdown.  Saito and Sasaki were both Japanese imports who threw with much different styles than Papelbon and his predominantly 75-80% fastball approach, throwing about 50-60% fastballs in the low-90's and relying on a lot of off-speed pitches - about 40% split-fingers for Sasaki, and a combination of 25% sliders and 10% curveballs for Saito.  Smoltz's stellar work in the bullpen came just a couple of years after he got a shiny, new elbow put in.

So, the way I see it, the question becomes this: Is it worth $50MM to gamble that Jonathan Papelbon follows the career path of Billy Wagner or Dennis Eckersley rather than veritable wasteland of high-velocity relief pitchers who collapsed long before their 35th birthday?  Because that's exactly the gamble that the Phillies are making with their signing of Papelbon.

This, in turn, brings me to my next point, and back to how this all connects to Towers and the D-backs.  In 2011, a 30-year-old Jonathan Papelbon posted a 2.94 ERA in 64.1 innings of work, with a 12.17 K/9, 1.53 FIP, and 2.16 xFIP with the Red Sox.  In 2010, a 33-year-old J.J. Putz, back from the dead with the Chicago White Sox, posted a 2.83 ERA in 54 innings of work, with a 10.83 K/9, 2.52 FIP, and 2.74 xFIP.  Papelbon's season got him four years and $50MM guaranteed.  Putz's season got him two years and $10MM guaranteed.  What's the difference?  For a guy who throws about 60 innings a year, a difference of 0.6 in ERA terms, as indicated by the xFIP split - because Papelbon's low HR/FB won't stay low, particularly in Philly - is a staggering total of four runs per year.  Four runs per year is not the difference between $12.5MM over four years and $5MM over two years.

The difference, of course, is that Papelbon at 31-34 is supposedly a much safer bet to hold up than Putz from 34-35.  However, the evidence above quite clearly shows that the difference in reliability between Papelbon and Putz is not worthy of a payday $40MM greater than what Putz received a year ago.  It bears repeating: The reliever that ages gracefully is a rather mythical being.

With all of the discontent surrounding Towers and how he's handled this off-season's filling of his bench, I think it worth reminding us all that Towers' habit of picking up seemingly-superfluous middle infield veterans for multiple years is hardly a vice when compared to the wastefully free-spending ways of some teams as they try to construct worthwhile bullpens.  It seems to me that the aging, "injury-prone" reliever is a dramatically underrated asset when compared to the not-that-much-younger, "reliable" reliever, because, in reality, there is really little difference between the two.

When Towers wanted a bullpen anchor, he chose Putz over the more expensive options on the market, like Rafael Soriano - whose 1.73 ERA in 62.1 innings in '10 turned into a 4.12 ERA in 39.1 innings in '11 as the set-up man for the Yankees.  When Towers wanted a younger, fireballing set-up man, he strayed away from the early-30's, ticking-time-bomb free agent crowd and found someone with less mileage on their arm - a 26-year-old who had spent 2010 bouncing between the rotation and bullpen in Baltimore named David Hernandez - who is less likely to implode in the next year or two of a free-market contract.  Knowing what the above data tells us, that is some phenomenal bullpen construction.

Here's my final point.  The 2012 D-backs may have some issues with the supposed uniformity of their bench players, and trying to fit several similarly-round pegs into a bunch of different-shaped holes.  But Towers was brought in to Arizona because he could help solidify a bullpen that cost the 2010 D-backs a lot more wins than the WAR numbers indicate.  His ability to do just that with relatively undervalued assets like Putz and Hernandez while avoiding the relatively over-priced black hole of so-called "consistent" and "reliable" relievers is a large part of why the D-backs won the NL West in 2011, and why the only real holes on the D-backs roster going into this off-season were in the middle infield and on the bench.  It seems that Towers hitting the jackpot repeatedly last off-season has left him with no more positions of personal expertise to fill this off-season, so the overall public perception of his moves this off-season is dipping below the proper threshold of Towers' true abilities as a GM.

Would you rather have Willie Bloomquist, Geoff Blum, John McDonald, and J.J. Putz signed for a combined two years and $20.2MM, or Jonathan Papelbon signed for four years and $50MM, despite likely being an effective closer for, in all likelihood, about half of the contract?  I know what I'll take.

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