Gil LeBreton

Rangers, Major League Baseball need to embrace bullpen market

At $3.275 million, Shawn Tolleson is the Texas Rangers’ highest-paid relief pitcher. The Rangers rank near the bottom of MLB in bullpen salaries.
At $3.275 million, Shawn Tolleson is the Texas Rangers’ highest-paid relief pitcher. The Rangers rank near the bottom of MLB in bullpen salaries.

Thanks to Moneyball — the book, not necessarily Brad Pitt — all of baseball now appreciates the on-base percentage.

Much of baseball also now disdains the sacrifice bunt.

Everyone shifts nowadays, much to Big Papi’s frustration. And everyone wants a catcher who can frame pitches — make balls look like strikes.

And now comes baseball’s latest market inefficiency, as the Texas Rangers are showing us, sometimes the hard way:

The bullpen.

Relief pitchers are the bane of a manager’s existence. Or the reasons why he wins the league’s manager of the year award.

A team may slip into the MLB postseason with a fickle bullpen, but it won’t stay for long. There are simply too many leverage moments in October, too much managing, to expect inconsistent pitching arms to obtain consistent outs.

The manager simply won’t use the guy.

Yet, each off-season lately, we’ve seen the home club use variants of the same checklist, the one that always seems to have “Sign a few relief pitchers” listed last.

I get it. The Rangers have needed to fill everyday or rotation holes.

The Ian Desmond signing has proven to be fortuitous. Filling late-season voids with Jonathan Lucroy and Carlos Beltran have already paid dividends.

But what have we learned this season, Rangers?

Relief pitchers. Young prospects will always provide trade morsels for contenders in need. But if you really want some bang for your trading buck, invest in relief pitchers.

According to Spotrac, the average major league relief pitcher is making $2,005,552 this season. That’s not even as much as the average major leaguer. Starting pitchers, by comparison, have an average salary of $5.4 million.

Yet, on any given MLB night, the bullpen will pitch at least one-third of the game. Market inefficiency.

The highest paid reliever for the Rangers this season — oops! — was Shawn Tolleson, making $3.275 million. Next are Tony Barnette, signed from Japan for two years and $3.5 million, and Jake Diekman, making $1.255 million. Sam Dyson hasn’t hit his arbitration years yet and is earning only $525,270.

Can you imagine the offers a team could get at trade time for Diekman and Dyson?

The Rangers don’t want to trade them, of course, we have to assume, but what if you had six or seven Diekmans and Dysons? What if you overpaid for a bullpen stocked with those guys, and then swapped them to some desperate suitor later for something richer, something you really need?

The Rangers tried again to gather bullpen arms this off-season. They scouted Barnette and signed him in December. The Tom Wilhelmsen trade came in November. Matt Bush’s signing came out of a fairy tale book.

Some relief throws of the dice, such as Wilhelmsen, won’t work out. But the odds are with the teams holding the dice.

Joe Smith, Antonio Bastardo, Pat Venditte — all of these relievers changed teams in the past week.

According to Spotrac, the Rangers have $9,216,300 committed to relief pitchers. They are 26th (of 30) in bullpen spending in the major leagues. The Boston Red Sox, by comparison, have $42.5 million committed to relief pitchers.

The Rangers have only 5.49 percent of their 2016 payroll committed to the bullpen, less than 6 percent for a group that’s been pitching more than three innings per game.

The Houston Astros, by comparison, are paying their relievers 25.55 percent ($27 million) of their overall payroll.

True, a lot of the Rangers bullpen seats are taken up by guys who have yet to raise their pay through arbitration and free agency.

But that’s all the more money that they should be spending on more veteran bullpen arms.

You sign them. You identify the keepers. You flip the rest.

Just like on that HGTV network.

With rare exceptions, desperate contenders seem to look the other way on salaries when it comes to relievers for the stretch run. The Cubs didn’t seem to care what Aroldis Chapman cost for two months.

It’s the new baseball market inefficiency.

Do the math. It works.

Gil LeBreton: 817-390-7697, glebreton@star-, @gilebreton

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