A major league bullpen is like an NHL goalie: they can be found anywhere and for the most part, neither should ever be paid.
Sure if you're the Yankees or Red Sox or Angels working with an unlimited budget, you can spend on your relief corps. But if you're a smaller-market baseball team trying to win with limited resources, or if you are any team in the NHL working in a salary-cap system, the bullpen and the goal crease are two areas that can easily and effectively be skimped on when it comes to player contracts. I apologize that sounded an awful-lot like an essay, but this is serious stuff for a guy who thinks about sports 18 hours a day.
Over the last few years I've repeatedly written about goalies being under-valued in the NHL (here, here and here) and now that the Philadelphia Flyers have used two ultimate-journeymen between the pipes and still find themselves in the Stanley Cup final, this fact may actually be known. Although with Brian Burke trading for J.S. Giguere and his $7.5 million contract, Leaf fans might disagree.
In professional hockey, there is no point to spending money on that position. My apologies to everyone in Vancouver who are wiping away tears at the thought of Roberto Luongo's 12-year extension that kicks in next year. Frankly, I'm shocked to be living in a world where Rick DiPietro's 15 year contract is the second worst goaltending deal around. Never though it'd happen.
After watching both nobodies and somebodies win and lose ballgames in late innings the last few years, I am convinced the same philosophy can be applied to Major League bullpens. The number of MLB relievers who have come out of nowhere to have recent success is huge, way too high to count or list in this space, but one needs to look no further than our own Toronto Blue Jays for proof.
Scott Downs was a failed starter when he arrived in Toronto in 2005 but has been one of the most effective (and underpaid) lefty relievers in baseball since 2007. Sean Camp was the 500th overall pick in 1997 and blew chances to stick in both Kansas City and Tampa but has been stunningly effective in a Jays uniform. Jesse Carlson was lights-out a few years ago. Jeremy Accardo saved 30 games while earning less than $400k in 2007. And Kevin Gregg...well, Kevin Gregg sucks but at least he too is cheap. You can't win them all.
But you can patch together a bullpen out of castoffs, reclamation projects, and cheap older veterans looking to reprove themselves on one year contracts.