On Oct. 28, when the gate to the visitor’s bullpen at Dodger Stadium swung open before the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 5 of the World Series, the pitcher entering the game for the Boston Red Sox was not closer Craig Kimbrel — who had 48 saves that year, including the playoffs — but left-handed ace Chris Sale. Fifteen pitches and three strikeouts later, the Red Sox had beaten the Los Angeles Dodgers for the championship.
Sale’s closing effort — he wasn’t credited with a save because Boston’s lead was more than three runs — kept alive one of the quirkiest streaks in baseball: It was the eighth straight year in which the final out of the World Series was secured by someone other than the winning team’s Opening Day closer.
On the surface, it may be nothing more than an odd bit of trivia. But it is also a highly visible manifestation of an important truth: Championship teams frequently rebuild their bullpens on the fly, adding critical pieces over the course of the season — usually via trade but sometimes through other means, including waiver-wire pickups, big league promotions, returns from major injuries or, as in the case of the 2018 Red Sox, 2017 Houston Astros and 2014 San Francisco Giants, pressing starting pitchers into high-pressure relief duty.
Those three teams, respectively, used Sale, Charlie Morton and Madison Bumgarner — all of them full-time starters during the regular season — to close out their World Series clinchers, more out of necessity (because of acute closer issues) than design.
Bullpen reconstruction is certain to be a major story line again this summer, with the July 31 trade deadline drawing closer, and a slew of contenders, from the Red Sox to the Washington Nationals to the Los Angeles Dodgers to the Philadelphia Phillies, dealing with serious bullpen deficiencies.
But this week saw the Chicago Cubs undertake an entirely new method of midstream bullpen reconstruction: a long-delayed free agent signing.
On Wednesday, the Cubs agreed with Kimbrel on a three-year, $43-million contract as they seek to repair their leaky bullpen ahead of an expected race with the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central.
The bold move was reminiscent, in some ways, of the July 2016 trade the Cubs made to acquire closer Aroldis Chapman from the New York Yankees — a move that paid off handsomely as Chapman pitched brilliantly for the Cubs down the stretch and through the playoffs, at least until the clinching Game 7 of the World Series. That night, Chapman blew a three-run lead in the eighth inning, and two innings later, when the Cubs secured their first World Series title in 108 years, lefty Mike Montgomery, a hybrid starter/reliever/swingman, collected the final outs.
Kimbrel’s lengthy journey through free agency in large part was due to rules regarding draft-pick compensation, which expired this week. If he ends up getting back to being the lights-out closer who earned the reputation as the best of his generation, it stands to reason other free agent relievers and other contending teams could try the same delay tactics in future seasons.
Leaving Kimbrel aside — he still needs to prove he is game-ready after his long layoff — waiting to rebuild your bullpen in midseason has some built-in advantages.
Relievers are the most volatile commodity in baseball. Their effectiveness relies on not only arm health but also usage patterns and the whims of smaller sample sizes. Few are consistently great year after year. By waiting until June or July, teams can identify which relievers are pitching well that season for trade-deadline sellers and snatch away one or more of them. (They also might discover someone dominating in the minors who becomes a critical bullpen piece down the stretch and in October, as the 2018 Red Sox did with Ryan Brasier.)
It isn’t only World Series champs who have successfully rebuilt their bullpens on the fly. The 2016 Indians probably wouldn’t have won the AL pennant or pushed the Cubs to a Game 7 in the World Series without their July trade for lefty Andrew Miller. The 2018 Astros got huge performances from deadline acquisitions Roberto Osuna and Ryan Pressly in winning 109 games and advancing to the American League Championship Series. The Nationals consistently have added to their bullpens in midseason, trading for Jonathan Papelbon (2015), Mark Melancon (2016), Sean Doolittle (2017) and Ryan Madson (2017) — but have yet to win a postseason series.″
Bullpens, of course, take on added importance in October; in 2018, for example, relievers accounted for 40.1 percent of all regular-season innings but 49.7 percent of postseason innings.
“You always add a reliever. That's what you feel like you need to do [to] answer any questions that you have,” Astros Manager A.J. Hinch said. “I just think you can never have too many pitchers. You can never have too many weapons [against] dynamic lineups like” the ones you face in October.
But no team has been more aggressive at remaking its bullpen on the fly than the Dodgers.
In 2017, they called up Brandon Morrow from Class AAA in May, then traded for Tony Watson and Tony Cingrani in July and leaned heavily on all three down the stretch and throughout October. In 2018, they picked up journeyman right-hander Dylan Floro in July, and he pitched to a 2.08 ERA for them, regular season and postseason combined. In both postseasons, the Dodgers also pulled from their plethora of starters to fill out their bullpen, using Kenta Maeda, Alex Wood and a sprinkling of others in relief. But in both years, the Dodgers lost the World Series.
This summer, even with a massive lead in the NL West (10 games over San Diego entering Friday), the Dodgers are again top candidates for a midseason bullpen overhaul.
“Lining up on trades is never easy,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman told reporters this week, in regard to the team’s 2019 bullpen, which sported a 4.63 ERA (20th in the majors) entering Friday. “We’ll operate on dual tracks of doing everything we can to get our existing guys better while canvassing the market … The bullpen is certainly an area that is at the top of the list.”
The trade market for relievers, as always, will be robust, with the list of available arms including Detroit’s Shane Greene, Arizona’s Archie Bradley, Toronto’s Ken Giles, Cincinnati’s Raisel Iglesias, Baltimore’s Mychal Givens and San Francisco’s Will Smith. But the list of contenders in need of bullpen help is at least as long.
If recent history is any guide, some 4½ months from now, when the bullpen gate swings open for the last time in 2019 — moments before a new World Series champion forms a triumphant scrum near the mound — the pitcher walking through that gate and bouncing in the middle of the scrum won’t be the figure that same team expected in March.