It's not too often when someone talks about the high-spending Dodgers and thrifty, rebuilding Astros in the same sentence. Los Angeles has thrown around money like it's going out of style under their new ownership group, while Houston is investing heavily in younger talent at the expense of their major league rosters. It's rare to see teams to go the extremes that each club has over the last two years, which makes their similar strategies all the more peculiar.
Despite a pitiful 18-50 record, the Astros actually weren't that terrible in the second half of the 2013 season. Their offensive collectively improved in the second half of the year as young players began to get more playing time and struggling veterans were shown the door. Their rotation got much better, and their worst starters from the second half (Jordan Lyles, Erik Bedard) won't be back in 2014. Houston's bullpen was the main issue, and it was a horror show. 20 different players made relief appearances in the second half for the Astros, including utility infielder Jake Elmore and guys who made numerous starts over the 2013 season, like Paul Clemens, Bedard, Lyles, Dallas Keuchel, Lucas Harrell, and Phil Humber.
Repairing that bullpen was a goal for Jeff Luhnow going into 2014, and he did a pretty good job while not spending a lot of money, signing Jesse Crain, Chad Qualls, and Matt Albers for a combined $8.25 million. Those three veterans combined to produce 2.7 fWAR for their teams in 2013, pitching to a cumulative 2.39 ERA while striking out 130 and walking 53. Only four Astros pitchers topped their 2.45 strikeout to walk ratio, and the only one who will be back in 2014 is Brett Oberholtzer, expected to be a key part of the club's rotation.
So the Astros have substantially upgraded their bullpen without spending a lot of money. Big deal. What does that have to do with the Dodgers?
Well, The Dodgers have also upgraded their bullpen by signing free agents. But they've done it with substantially more money, for possibly less of a return. The team threw $10 million (plus a player option for $8.5 million at minimum in 2015) at Brian Wilson after he pitched just 13 2/3 innings in 2013. They brought back J.P. Howell, who had a 2.18 ERA for them last year, for two years and $11.25 million. Former Indians closer Chris Perez got $2.3 million on a one-year deal, one season after taking nearly one win of value away from the Tribe. 39-year old Jamey Wright got $1.8 million guaranteed.
All in all, the Dodgers will be paying those four pitchers $19.6 million this season – and could pay as much as $15.5 million for just Wilson and Howell in 2015. When you consider that the club is also paying Brandon League $8.5 million in each of the next two seasons, the financial investment in the Dodgers bullpen absolutely creams that of the Astros.
But are those four pitchers worth more than twice as much as what the Astros are paying their three new relievers? Even excluding the -0.9 fWAR Perez "contributed" in 2013, the fWAR total for the Dodgers' highly paid relievers was 1.6 – a full win fewer than what Houston's new bullpen contributed in 2013. Throw in Perez's ugly year, and you're looking at a two win edge for the Astros. The Dodger relievers (Perez included) posted a 2.99 ERA last year, more than half a run higher than the Astros. Exclude Perez, and the Dodgers' ERA is 2.47 – still higher than the Astros. The Dodgers relievers do have an edge with a 2.62 strikeout to walk ratio, higher than the mark put together by the Astros.
Are the new Dodgers really worth twice as much as the new Astros? Well, of course not – but they do have more value to the Dodgers than they do the Astros. The difference between 91-71 and 93-69 could be huge for Los Angeles, but the difference between 62-100 and 60-102 does nothing for the Astros. Houston's revamped bullpen isn't going to suddenly turn them into contenders, but it is a wise usage of money to improve the confidence of the team's young pitchers. Also, when July rolls along, Crain, Albers, and Qualls could be attractive trade pieces for contenders looking to bolster their bullpens down the stretch.
If the Dodgers looked at signing the three pitchers that the Astros signed, they'd probably end up paying more money for them. I do think the Dodgers are betting on upside rather than 2013 production, as Perez and Wilson have both had fantastic seasons in the past. The Dodgers are also in a better position to absorb awful contracts than the Astros are. If Houston was paying Brian Wilson $10 million, and he only threw 30 innings, it would be awful for their bottom line. The Dodgers simply burn money for the hell of it – I mean, Matt Kemp got $20 million last year for 290 plate appearances, and the team didn't even flinch.
All other things equal, I prefer Houston's approach of improving their bullpen. But everything else *isn't* equal, and that's why the Dodgers do what they do.