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The Trade Deadline Reinforced Baseball’s Bullpen-First Mind-set

Yu Darvish and Sonny Gray were the biggest names traded on Monday, but across the majors, the most important position this month was reliever

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Despite what its frenzied, last-minute optics would suggest, the 2017 MLB trade deadline was entirely sensible. The biggest moves involved rational evaluations of team need and player fit: Sonny Gray to the Yankees and Yu Darvish to the Dodgers seemed like natural matches, and those hypothetical transactions actualized. Elsewhere, roster holes were filled with worthwhile gambles — Jonathan Lucroy to fix Colorado’s catching mess, Eduardo Núñez to do the same for Boston’s infield — and top prospects largely stayed with their home organizations. And in the most widespread instance of teams’ prudent postseason planning, relievers spent the trading period shuttling from sub-.500 clubs to contenders. So many relievers moved to better teams, because every better team sought to acquire relievers.

As of Monday morning, FanGraphs’ playoff odds counted 10 teams with at least a 50 percent chance of reaching the playoffs. All 10 added one or more relievers this month, with many fulfilling the “or more” part of that description; Washington was the biggest buyer, as its three best relievers all joined the team in the last 15 days. (Houston didn’t trade for one per se, but assuming it uses Francisco Liriano out of its playoff bullpen in a LOOGY role to play up his platoon advantage, it will fit that mold.)

The Nationals struck first, trading for Oakland relievers Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle on July 16, and the Yankees were next in line, adding White Sox righties David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle three days later. The trade volume intensified over the final week before the deadline, and at the period’s conclusion, 10 of the top 50 relievers in FanGraphs WAR (entering Monday’s games) had been traded in July:

  • Kahnle (7th), White Sox to Yankees
  • Anthony Swarzak (8th), White Sox to Brewers
  • Pat Neshek (13th), Phillies to Rockies
  • Madson (20th), Athletics to Nationals
  • Joe Smith (27th), Blue Jays to Indians
  • David Hernández (29th), Angels to Diamondbacks
  • Addison Reed (32nd), Mets to Red Sox
  • Brandon Maurer (39th), Padres to Royals
  • Justin Wilson (41st), Tigers to Cubs
  • Robertson (47th), White Sox to Yankees

And that list doesn’t include all the potentially impactful pitchers who changed teams, with additional relievers profiling mainly as situational lefties (Tony Watson to the Dodgers, Liriano to the Astros) and solid, but not spectacular veterans (Brandon Kintzler to the Nationals, Joaquín Benoit to the Pirates).

Just about the only relievers on the market who weren’t dealt were Padres lefty Brad Hand, who is under contract through 2019 and thus warranted a higher asking price, and Orioles lefty Zach Britton, whose recent forearm injury likely led to an imbalanced valuation between Baltimore and Britton’s suitors. Seemingly every other half-decent bullpen arm switched teams, as it wasn’t just the top contenders adding help; fringier contenders also worked on reinforcing their relief corps. The Mariners acquired David Phelps, the Brewers nabbed Swarzak, and the Rays picked up a fleet of new relievers (Sergio Romo, Dan Jennings, Steve Cishek, and Chaz Roe).

Both in general and in relation to this specific deadline, the reliever craze is a logical extension of baseball trends. Broadly, teams have increasingly shifted their playoff workloads to shutdown bullpen arms in lieu of third-time-through-the-order starters — a pattern that necessitates more shutdown arms to work. Last postseason, relievers threw 42.1 percent of all innings; a decade earlier, in the 2006 playoffs, that ratio was only 33.8 percent. Over the course of nine innings, that difference translates to an extra two to three bullpen outs per game. Recent playoff relieving trends dictate that teams require another reliever to make it through every game.

This year’s standings, moreover, exacerbated that demand. With so many teams practically assured of a playoff spot at this point, front offices could eschew planning for how to reach October, instead focusing on how to construct a roster to succeed once they get there. It’s the same plan Cleveland followed last year when it traded for Andrew Miller in July to bolster its pen, and that the Cubs had in mind when they acquired Aroldis Chapman and Mike Montgomery, while already knowing they’d be able to maximize those relievers’ innings. October off days mean a reliever can pitch five times in a seven-game series, as both Chapman and Montgomery did in the World Series.

Finally, a high-quality reliever is easier to fit into a roster than someone in a different role. Position players need a spot — Yonder Alonso is a free-agent-to-be enjoying a standout season, making him an obvious trade candidate, but without a contender making an urgent push for a first baseman, the A’s couldn’t find a buyer. The market for position players was suitably dismal. Outfielder J.D. Martinez was the best hitter available, and the Tigers couldn’t get more than a few back-end prospects for him; in his first nine games in Arizona, he’s slugged five home runs. Both Frazier (White Sox to Yankees) and Alex Avila (Tigers to Cubs) were parts of deals that also included relievers, and the prospect haul their selling teams gained seemingly came for the arms instead of the rental bats. On Monday, nearly every deal consummated in the frantic final hours before the 4 p.m. deadline involved a pitcher.

But even adding a starting pitcher can yield diminishing returns. The Nationals, for instance, have been using Edwin Jackson as their fifth starter, but with four entrenched starters already able to fill out a playoff rotation, replacing Jackson with a better pitcher wouldn’t help them in the playoffs, when off days allow a team to use just three or four.

Relievers, though, don’t produce diminishing returns, and they don’t need a select spot. They fit everywhere, and if their new team already has a good reliever, they can just move one place down the leverage chain. Outside of Washington, where one of the Madson-Doolittle-Kintzler trio will close, no reliever traded this month is likely to close for his new team, but that’s a good problem to have. The Yankees already had Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman before they traded for Robertson and Kahnle, but manager Joe Girardi isn’t complaining that he now can freely use Betances in the sixth inning, as he did against Tampa Bay on Saturday.

Across the majors, similar ripples will make managers’ lives easier in the mid-to-late innings. Reed had closed for the Mets most of the year with Jeurys Familia suspended and then hurt; with Craig Kimbrel manning the ninth inning in Boston, Reed’s now an eighth-inning setup arm, moving the Red Sox’s volatile pitchers down a notch. Wilson fills the same role in front of Wade Davis in Wrigleyville, Neshek in front of Greg Holland in Colorado, and Maurer in front of Kelvin Herrera in Kansas City.

Herrera has firsthand experience with the kind of stability this manner of bullpen depth provides in the postseason, as he’s now progressed through three levels of its hierarchy. In 2014, he set up Davis, who set up Holland, as Kansas City stampeded, undefeated, to the American League pennant. The next year, he took the ball from Luke Hochevar and Ryan Madson, then set up Davis, as the Royals won the World Series. Now he’s fulfilling the end role of this leaguewide trend, with capable relievers like Joakim Soria, Maurer, and fellow trade target Ryan Buchter forming a less imposing version of the HDH super-pen.

And it’s no surprise that teams that have employed this bullpen strategy in recent postseasons are doubling down, as the Royals are. Joe Smith was a sneaky pickup for a Cleveland group that already features Miller and Cody Allen, and the Cubs now rival the Yankees with four dominant arms at the back of their pen.

One of the relievers moved this month might not record the final out of a World Series, as Montgomery did for Chicago last fall. But with Washington as the exception, they really won’t be asked to. Their role is to make it easier for the established closer already on the roster; to bridge the ever-lengthening gap between the starters and that closer; to ensure that the established closer gets the opportunity to finish off a title. At this year’s deadline, middle relief received first billing for a reason.