Reds' Bullpen Spending Spree Solves Lots of Problems

The cost of off-loading responsibility in baseball is very high. But the weight of responsibility is even greater, which is why Reds owner Bob Castellini and General Manager Wayne Krivsky were wil

Jerry Dowling

The cost of off-loading responsibility in baseball is very high. But the weight of responsibility is even greater, which is why Reds owner Bob Castellini and General Manager Wayne Krivsky were willing to give Francisco Cordero $46 million over the next four years.

The Reds bullpen, a black whole devouring dozens of games in recent years, finally is in the hands of a serious, proven, healthy solution. If Cordero is what his track record says he is, the Reds can say good-bye to so many blown leads in the ninth inning.

Adding a proven closer subtracts a dishrag from the bullpen. Subtracting a dishrag from the bullpen means starting pitchers who aren't attuned to seven innings don't have to force it, thus preserving themselves for future starts.

It's a chain reaction. But more than that, it's relief for Castellini, Krivsky and new Manager Dusty Baker in more ways than one.

The suits are off the hook now, at least where the ninth inning is concerned. Krivsky and Castellini have suffered the ninth inning for two years running, trying to piece together a solution out of trades and low-grade prospects to little avail.

Finally, the suits put their foot down and paid top dollar for the best available solution. No big league club needs a relief ace more than the Reds, and no relief ace was more readily available.

Following seven straight losing seasons, we're not about to declare the Reds contenders simply because they've solved their biggest problem. We've learned that lesson the hard way.

But unless or until Cordero shows he isn't the guy he's usually been, the Reds have a new biggest problem, whatever that is. Another starting pitcher would always help.

As to the bullpen, Cordero offers credibility but, more to the point, he's confidence where the Reds have endured catastrophe. He is a ninth-inning shield for the suits and the two-run leads. If he's nothing more, then he's worth the $11.5 million per year for the men who write the checks.

Studies have illustrated what intuition suggests: A ball club gets much more bang for the buck using its best reliever in the seventh inning of a tie game than in the ninth inning with a two-run lead. But hard experience shows that two-run leads lost in the ninth inning are so demoralizing for fans and players that every other consideration about the bullpen is irrelevant.

We can be almost certain that we'll never see the Reds' new big-money reliever in the seventh inning of a tie game and that we'll always see him with a two-run lead in the ninth, because that's the one and only reason they signed him.

Relievers love being designated the closer because it comes with prestige and a big salary. Fans love the notion of a closer due to the horror of blown ninth-inning leads and the security of going to the ninth with the lead and a stud reliever. Because the role of a closer is so widely accepted, the manager can simply appoint one, say "He's the guy we have to put in there at the end" and the manager is therefore off the hook in case of a loss.

Indeed, public relations dictate no other choice for Baker. If he were to bring in Cordero for the seventh inning of a tie game and forge a two-run lead only for the likes of Todd Coffey to blow the lead in the ninth, the talk shows would kill the manager. If the Reds save Cordero for the ninth and he blows the two-run leads, the talk shows will kill him.

That's good news for the Reds brass. They've done their part and taken care of the ninth inning. If Cordero blows leads in the ninth inning, it's not on Baker, it's not on Krivsky and it's not on Castellini. It's on Cordero. That's why the Reds are paying him $46 million over four years. It's all on Cordero. He's accepting the money so he can accept the responsibility.

It could be, of course, that Cordero will flop. If his control is a bit off, if he hangs a slider to Albert Pujols, if his fastball comes in straight, Great American Ball Park will not cut him slack. That's the risk the Reds run when they sign expensive pitchers, and it's the risk pitchers run when they sign with the Reds.

Three years ago, the Reds desperately needed starting pitching. They signed left-hander Eric Milton for three years at $25 million. Milton was 28, coming off a season in which he finished 14-6 with 201 innings, and he did it in Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park, which, according to the park adjustment math, was even more hitter-friendly than GABP in 2004.

Milton's last Philadelphia ERA was a little on the high side at 4.75, but clubs have spent worse than $8 million for a 28-year-old left hander with seven years experience and a track record of going 200 innings.

Within about a month of Milton's first start in Cincinnati, the investment was a disaster. He couldn't keep hitters in the park.

In three years, Milton took 66 starts, only 28 of which reached the mediocre "quality start" standard of six or more innings allowing three or fewer earned runs. In those 66 starts, the Reds finished 26-40. In 2005 and 2006, the Reds supported Milton with 5.11 runs per game, but they won only 26 of 60 games and Milton's record came up 16-23.

The moral of the story is that you pay your money and take your chances with free agent pitching, which is why it's so much more efficient for an organization to grow its own. Young pitching is a lot less painful at $400,000 per year than at $10 million.

The Reds don't have that choice. They had to pay the money and take the chances. They've covered the ninth inning. It's expensive and, if it works out, priceless. But even if it doesn't, it's relief for management.

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