When the Yankees signed Rafael Soriano a few weeks ago it was significant because it was perhaps the first time that a contract of that size, roughly $36 million for three years, was signed by a pitcher who was neither a top starter nor a closer. Soriano has been a closer in the past, but the Yankees will only use him in that capacity if their current closer, Mariano Rivera, gets injured. The decision by the Yankees to pay closer money for their 8th inning pitcher indicates that the role of setup man is becoming even more institutionalized. The Yankees obviously have more of an ability to pay this kind of money than any other team does, but the Soriano signing may lead other teams to make similar signings in the future.
Great setup men have been part of the game for years, but many of these players did this for a year before becoming a closer, or even a starter, themselves. Rivera himself is an example of the former while Pedro Martinez is a good example of the latter. Other pitchers in recent years who dominated the 8th inning either developed that role during the season, were mid-range free agents or have been young relatively inexpensive players. Players have been signed as free agents to play this role for years, but none have received closer money like Soriano has.
This signing demonstrates the extent to which bullpen structure has stabilized, at least for the better and bigger market teams. For strong teams, the bullpen formula is reasonably standard: a closer, a setup man, two LOOGYs, one of whom can pitch to more than a few batters at a time and two to three other pitchers, one of whom is capable starting a game occasionally. A seven man bullpen may not be the wisest way to structure a 25 man roster, but this is the size of many bullpens for most of the season and often in the post-season as well.
Interestingly, there is far less attention to the makeup of the bench than to the bullpen. Teams are described as having a good bench or a weak bench, but we use broad terms like backup catcher, pinch hitter or pinch runner, to describe players on the bench. While teams know they need, for example, a backup catcher or utility infielder, efforts to get the right balance of skills on the bench seem to get a lot less attention than similar questions about the bullpen. They are often addressed in an ad hoc manner, but rarely demonstrate that teams have a holistic sense of what their bench should be.
Constructing a good bench is in some respects more challenging than constructing a bullpen because teams need a broad collection of skills, but only have between three and six bench positions. An AL team with a full time DH and a 13 man pitching staff will only have three players on the bench, while an NL team with an 11 man pitching staff will have six players on the bench. Most teams will be somewhere in between. A good bench needs to have players who between them can play every position at about an average level, one pinch runner, one player who can get on base reasonably well, a player with power from the left side of the plate, and one with power from the right side. The challenge of gathering these players is made more difficult because the best players are usually starters so most bench players will have some of these skills, but also have significant weaknesses that prevent them from having starting roles.
A good bench must work as a unit with players having skill sets that work well together. For example, having anfourth outfielder who can also pinch run is less useful if your backup infielder is also speedy but neither player has any power. Therefore the key to developing the bench is to have players who can do more than one thing. and whose skills complement each other. A decent backup catcher with some power from the right side of the plate, a utility infielder who can also play the outfield and pinch run, a backup first baseman who has a high OBP, but not enough power to play regularly or a player who can play passable defense in the infield, doesn’t walk much, but can hit home runs against right handed pitchers are the kinds of players who can be very valuable on the bench, if they are used wisely and are part of a cohesive group of bench players, but who can hurt a team if they are asked to do much.
This all is reasonably obvious, but few teams seem to genuinely approach building their bench this way or to think about the bench holistically. Instead, they often fill the bench with one-dimensional players, rebuild their bench during the season as needs arise, or in the case of the big market teams, spend more money on the back end of their bullpen than on their bench.
To return to Soriano for a moment, while the Yankees are clearly a better team with Soriano than without him, the focus on their bullpen rather than their bench, reflects an industry wide priority of bullpens over benches. The argument that the Yankees need a strong eighth inning pitcher who can also provide some insurance should anything happen to Rivera is a significant one, but the Yankees gave no similar thought to their infield, specifically the left side of the infield where Alex Rodriguez will be 35 next year and Derek Jeter will be 37.
Both of these players are likely to need more rest in the future, but last year when either of these players were not starting at their regular positions, they were replaced by poor hitters Ramiro Pena or Eduardo Nunez. The Yankees were anxious to upgrade their bullpen, but didn’t seem to give as much thought to their bench, at least with regards to this question. Signing an infielder who can adequately field these two positions, Juan Uribe comes to mind, would have been an important upgrade, perhaps not quite as valuable as upgrading from David Robertson to Rafael Soriano, but considerably cheaper. However, the bench is just not yet a priority of this kind for many teams.
A well thought out bench is not going to catapult a team into contention or cause a team to win ten more games. Moreover, spending money to build a strong bench is a luxury that only contending teams can afford, but for those teams, building a good holistically logical bench is a relatively cheap way to gain an advantage. Once teams being to understand this and invest accordingly fans and writers will begin to think of the bench differently too.