It is impossible to win without; baseball's evolution has reached that undeniable point.
But it is also impossible to forecast or handicap. It is more Jello than rock.
The bullpen. The modern game's most critical, most mutable element.
Teams spend the offseason sketching it out, and the truly fortunate can frame it around a steady, reliable, familiar anchor. But there are not many Mariano Riveras, Trevor Hoffmans or Francisco Rodriguezes around.
Firemen flame in and out. That's just the way the vast majority of the gig goes. So when it comes to bullpens, there are only two absolute truths:
(And, no, that myth about having absolutely no prayer of copping a title without an A-List Closer is not one of them: Look at last year's Phillies, who captured the National League East flag with Brett Myers, who was plucked from the starting rotation and placed into the bullpen, leading them with 21 saves, which ranked 11th in his league.)
One, most teams have little idea of what their relief lineup will look like when they break camp in six weeks.
Two, they do not worry about this. Roles have a way of shaking out. Furthermore, a bullpen is forever a work in progress. Relief roulette.
Take it from Mark Shapiro, the general manager of American League Central champ Cleveland, who says, "The bullpen is an area that's always hard to feel comfortable about. To be able to adapt is extremely important."
This is to what Shapiro alludes:
Last season, the 30 big league clubs rotated a total of 539 relievers. No team got by with fewer than 13 (Shapiro's Indians) and nine deployed at least 20, topped by the Marlins' 23.
Yet when the books were closed on the season, the collective bullpen stood out as one of Florida's highlights. See what we mean?
Toronto GM J.P. Ricciardi: "One thing the game teaches you is that probably the place that is most volatile is the bullpen."
"It seems like we go out and get a closer every other week," notes Milwaukee shortstop J.J. Hardy, whose club is now switching off from Francisco Cordero to Eric Gagne.
Sums up John Grabow, the veteran reliever in a Pittsburgh bullpen that also includes closer Matt Capps and a lot of uncertainties: "I'm not concerned about it because I've been in bullpens when we've had question marks going into Spring Training. We just kind of pieced together a bullpen with the black sheep."
Some other shades of the Majors' pens:
The bottom line
It isn't just about closers, but the shuttle leading up to them. With seventh- and eighth-inning setup roles increasingly well-defined, that entire chain of command (and of triple-digit stuff) defines a good bullpen. It's what insiders refer to as "shortening the game," placing a premium on leading it after six.
The Majors' best in 2007 when leading into the seventh:
Red Sox 76-6
And the worst:
White Sox 54-15
Rays 49-23 End of an ERA
Arguments for retiring the earned run average, at least as it applies to relief pitchers, who might have to go a month to accumulate the nine innings reflected by that statistic:
It does not, however, fairly reflect a reliever's effectiveness. A couple of sour outings -- hey, you never had a bad day at work? -- disproportionately bloat that number. Remove just the two worst outings (out of 60-plus, or less than 3 percent of the total workdays) from some of the busiest guys' charts, and look what happens to their ERAs.
Scott Schoeneweis, Mets (70 total appearances) -- 5.03 to 3.88
Joe Borowski, Indians (69) -- 5.07 to 3.78
Mike Stanton, Reds (69) -- 5.93 to 4.68
Dave Borkowski, Astros (64) -- 5.15 to 4.29
Juan Rincon, Twins (63) -- 5.13 to 4.10
Antonio Alfonseca, Phillies (61) -- 5.44 to 4.20
One-time headliners hoping to light it up again:
Troy Percival, Rays -- His last save came on July 7, 2005 -- in Tropicana Field, against Tampa Bay. Following his unexpected and dramatic return last season in a setup role for the Cardinals, the Rays gave him a two-year contract and a chance to add to his 324 saves.
Duaner Sanchez, Mets -- He had a 2.60 ERA as a workhorse setup guy for New York in mid-2006. Then a cab accident knocked him out of the rest of that season, and another shoulder injury kept him out all last year. Two surgeries later, the 28-year-old righty hopes to resume operating on hitters.
Greg Aquino, Orioles -- Four years ago, he had 16 saves as an Arizona rookie. He needs a break, and his ensuing travels led to being a waiver claim by the Orioles, who need a closer.
Eddie Guardado, Rangers -- Everyday Eddie hasn't had many good days since blowing out a ligament in his left elbow in September 2006. With C.J. Wilson installed as Texas' closer, he just hopes for a chance to be Someday Eddie.
New kids on the block
Closers are becoming like P.T. Barnum's suckers: New ones are always being born, whether groomed or drafted for the role. Some with little track records who snuck up on us for double-digit save seasons:
Jeremy Accardo, Blue Jays -- He came into his third big league season with three career saves and, stepping into injured B.J. Ryan's shoes, put up 30.
Manuel Corpas, Rockies -- The icy 24-year-old assumed the role of Colorado's closer in July and became one of the major enablers of the Rockies' torrid finish, garnering 19 saves.
Joakim Soria, Royals -- Virtually an Organized Ball rookie, the 23-year-old responded to opportunity with 17 saves in 21 chances.
Kevin Gregg, Marlins -- A Minor League lifer with a lifetime total of three saves in 11 seasons, Gregg offered stability at the end of a bullpen in constant flux, with 32 saves in 36 opportunities.
Brad Hennessey, Giants -- The lifelong starter stepped into the breach for the G-Men, with a 19-save effort largely overlooked during a weak San Francisco season.
Matt Capps, Pirates -- When some of the veterans around him went down, he stepped up, for 18 saves in 20 shots; his 2.28 ERA was fifth among NL relievers who worked 70-plus innings.
Psst. Wanna know a secret?
They come. They go. They go unnoticed. With bullpen gates swinging open so often, we might overlook some of the truly phenomenal arms being carried through them.
Russ Springer, Cardinals, 39, 16th season -- The right-hander has been around forever, certainly too long to work a career-most 76 times. But he did, and did it exceptionally, holding righty hitters to a .158 average and posting a 2.18 ERA.
Joel Peralta, Royals, 32, third season -- His 87 2/3 innings represented the second heaviest workload among AL relievers (Matt Guerrier, Twins, 88). And he used them well, featuring 66 strikeouts to 19 walks.
Peter Moylan, Braves, 29, second season -- G-day, mate. The Australian discovered during the 2006 World Baseball Classic tendered the lowest ERA (1.80) among all big league pitchers who threw at least 90 innings. You can't score if you can't hit, and the righty hushed opponents on a .208 average.
Damaso Marte, Pirates, 32, eighth season -- You are a left-handed batter and want to get a hit off this southpaw. Is that too much to ask? Yes. All season, lefties got a total of six hits off him, in 64 at-bats.
In case you've wondered why the White Sox invested so heavily in relievers, shelling out $30 million for Octavio Dotel and Scott Linebrink: Their bullpen finished with an ERA of 5.47 last season, the franchise's worst in a half century.
If Brad Lidge works out for the Phillies, the former Houston closer will do the work of nine: That's how many different relievers notched at least one save for the '07 NL East champs.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.