Ned Yost likes a big bullpen.
About this time last year, the Brewers had a 13-man pitching staff, and all year long, Yost complained about his starters not going deep enough into games. This year, a 12-man staff lasted only until April 17, when Milwaukee sent utility man Hernan Iribarren back to Triple-A and called up LHP Mitch Stetter in his place.
The key event, though, occurred the following day, when Ben Sheets left his start with triceps tightness. That put his next start in doubt, so when Yovani Gallardo was activated from the disabled list to make a start on the 20th, bench bat Joe Dillon—and not a pitcher—was optioned to the minors. Voila! Fourteen pitchers.
I wouldn’t recommend the 14-man pitching staff, and I hope that no other team has reason to employ it any time soon. In context, though, it’s not as crazy as it sounds.
The 23-man roster
Last May, I wrote an article called The 27-Man Roster that detailed some of the roster hijinks that teams play to maximize their bench and bullpen options. Each year, it seems, teams get more aggressive about shuffling their last few roster spots in an effort to keep one more guy under control, get a rookie’s feet wet for a couple of weeks, or gain the platoon advantage in a few additional at-bats.
Clearly, though, it doesn’t have to be that way. Any baseball fan with a memory going back more than a decade can tell you that a team can do just fine with six—and maybe even five—relievers. And the recent roster construction of the Brewers showed that they could squeak by with a three-man bench. (It did mean that Jeff Suppan was called to pinch hit—twice!—but Milwaukee had played an unusual number of close and extra-inning games in that span.)
My point is this: It would take very little sacrifice on the part of most managers (Tony LaRussa excepted) to make do with 23 players. That does not mean that the Marlins should try to save $800,000 and cut two players; rather, it means that clubs can use at least one and probably two roster spots as something other than in-game strategic options.
The 24th and 25th roster spots can be used for two purposes: a miniature DL, and a holding pen for the ineffective.
At some point during the course of every team’s season, a star player (or even a non-star regular) gets hurt but not badly enough to merit a DL stint. In such cases, the value of regaining that player’s services in less than 15 days is often greater than the benefit of replacing him. (Admittedly, Yankee fans saw that tactic backfire recently, as both Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada were kept active just to eventually end up on the DL anyway.)
That’s why the Brewers went from 13 to 14 pitchers. Ned Yost didn’t go to the front office and plead to keep Dave Bush as a ninth bullpen arm. Instead, the team realized that having Sheets able to start on April 29 (rather than waiting until May 4) was preferable to storing Dillon on the bench. As it turned out, that decision probably won’t make or break the season, but it was at least plausibly the right move.
And then there’s ineffectiveness. At the time when Milwaukee went to 14 pitchers, Derrick Turnbow had pitched in four of the team’s first 17 games, with every appearance coming in a loss. And yet, despite having a chance to drop Turnbow, the Brewers ditched Dillon.
In fact, Yost ended up using Turnbow three more times the next week (with mostly uninspiring results). This is the same Derrick Turnbow who had a 6.14 ERA in the second half last year, so if it weren’t for his $3.2 million salary, he probably wouldn’t have made it this far on the active roster. But the team still has some semblance of faith in him, and as with the decision to keep Sheets, the choice to retain Turnbow came at a small price: no Dillon for a week.
Back down we go
This past Tuesday, Mike Cameron returned from the restricted list. To make room on the roster, the Brewers demoted Bush; had Sheets been healthy one week earlier, that may well have been the move to make room for Gallardo. There doesn’t appear to be an imminent transaction that will bring Milwaukee’s roster down to 12 pitchers, but there’s no glaring need to, either.
Unless a team uses multiple platoons or has a number of situational relievers, a core of 11 or 12 position players and 11 pitchers usually does the job. All season long, the Brewers have had that 22- or 23-man core; they’ve merely packed the rest of the roster with unusable pitchers. And Milwaukee is the perfect team to get by short-handed: They have no platoons, they have several relievers who can pitch multiple innings, and they have a manager who tries to stretch his situational lefty for several outs at a time.
The 14-pitcher saga is over, and we all survived. Well, everyone but Joe Dillon.