There’s never any shortage of teams in need of pen arms. As the Cardinals’ early strike for Steve Cishek shows, even high-performing bullpens can often benefit from depth. Of course, we’ve also seen teams benefit in recent seasons by adding premium arms to their late-inning mix, as the Orioles did last year with Andrew Miller. But as that trade also demonstrates, the price for pen arms (in that case, Eduardo Rodriguez) is never higher than at the deadline.
Closers & Premium Set-Up Men
Jonathan Papelbon (Phillies), Francisco Rodriguez & Will Smith (Brewers), Aroldis Chapman (Reds), Craig Kimbrel & Joaquin Benoit (Padres), Koji Uehara & Junichi Tazawa (Red Sox), Tyler Clippard (Athletics), Joakim Soria (Tigers), Jim Johnson (Braves), Brad Ziegler (Diamondbacks), Brad Boxberger & Jake McGee (Rays)
- At this point, Papelbon has largely silenced concerns about his ability to dominate with decreased velocity. At 34 years of age, he no longer racks up the double-digit K/9 tallies that he used to, and he’s outperformed his peripherals somewhat, but Papelbon still owns an outstanding 1.87 ERA with 8.7 K/9 against 2.0 BB/9 since the start of 2014. He’s playing on a $13MM salary this year and is close to triggering a vesting option for the same amount next season, but that doesn’t seem an outlandish commitment at this point and the Phils are reportedly willing to keep a good piece of the cost. The major limiting factor on Papelbon’s market is his 17-team no-trade list and perhaps his preference to go to a team that will use him in the ninth inning.
- K-Rod may be the second most obvious closer trade piece. He’s cheaper than Papelbon, but not by as much as you might think (at least in the future). His backloaded deal includes $9.5MM in commitments after this season, including a $2MM buyout of a $6MM club option for 2017. Regardless, that’s a more appealing contract than that of the Phillies closer. And the 33-year-old has been every bit as excellent, with a 1.54 ERA and 10.0 K/9 against 2.3 BB/9 on the year.
- Next up: the two best relievers in baseball, Chapman and Kimbrel. Both certainly could be had for the right price, but it remains to be seen how motivated their teams are to sell. Chapman has probably overtaken Kimbrel as the most dominant closer in the game, as he continues to compile truly remarkable strikeout numbers (16.0 per nine on the season) while Kimbrel has cooled down (relatively speaking) to the 13-per-nine range. Chapman is only controllable for one more season after the present, after earning just over $8MM this year through arbitration, while Kimbrel is guaranteed $25MM over the next two seasons and has a club option that could bring the total bill for his services to $37MM from 2016-18. You could debate their relative value at this point, but contenders would probably prefer to slot the Cincinnati lefty into their pen down the stretch.
- Uehara lands in his own category, in large part because it’s unclear how inclined the Red Sox will be to consider moving him. The 40-year-old carries a 2.52 ERA this year, identical to his output last season, and continues to put up double-digit strikeouts while walking well under two batters per nine innings. He’s owed the same reasonable $9MM salary next year that he’s earning in 2015, but that may make Boston inclined to keep him.
- Clippard and Soria are both working as closers, but look like set-up targets for contenders. Both are well-paid this year ($8.3MM and $7MM, respectively), and are pure rentals. It remains to be seen whether the latter will be marketed, but both would figure to draw fairly strong interest. His strikeouts are down and his walks are up (8.8 K/9 against 4.9 BB/9), causing ERA estimators to shudder, but Clippard still carries only a 2.79 ERA. Likewise, though Soria has shown increased velocity and carries a 2.93 ERA, he has fallen back to 7.7 K/9 (against 2.5 BB/9). Rumor has it that a Clippard trade could come as soon as today.
- Johnson, too, could be viewed as a setup man, though he has a lengthy track record as a closer, including a pair of season in which he led the AL in saves. He’s back in the ninth inning following the Braves’ trade of Kimbrel and an injury to Jason Grilli. Johnson has a $1.6MM base salary, and his contract can max out at $2.5MM, which makes him one of the better buy-low pickups of the offseason and means that any team could afford his contract.
- Benoit, Ziegler, and Tazawa all occupy similar positions as long-established late-inning arms on likely sellers who come with an additional season of control. Ziegler is serving as the D’backs closer, and Benoit has closed in the past, but all three profile as potential set-up additions for most teams. The first two are well compensated ($8MM and $5MM annual salaries, respectively), while Tazawa is a bargain at $2.25MM. As for 2016, it’s a similar story, as Benoit comes with a $8MM option, Ziegler’s option will cost $5.5MM, and Tazawa is controllable via arbitration. All three have typically stellar earned run averages, but Tazawa has the best peripherals this year, is by far the youngest of the group, and comes with the most appealing contract situation.
- Smith and McGee represent two of the best late-inning lefties that could potentially be had at the deadline this year. The Brewers may well hold onto Smith, who is nearly certain to reach arbitration eligibility as a Super Two but will still be relatively cheap for some time given his lack of saves (or even holds). He’s put it all together this season, with a 1.75 ERA and 12.5 K/9 vs. 3.5 BB/9. Meanwhile, McGee has a somewhat lengthier track record and has been even better than Smith: he’s down to a 1.14 earned run average with a remarkable 10.7 K:BB ratio on the year. On the other hand, he already costs $3.55MM and will likely get nice raises each of the next two years in arbitration. That’s not as desirable as Smith’s status, but makes him quite a valuable piece — and one that is expensive by Tampa Bay’s standards.
- Boxberger is an interesting trade chip for the Rays, who are reportedly considering a move involving one or more of their excellent arms. He has been plenty useful this year, though his run prevention and K:BB tallies are not a match for 2014 (when he posted a 2.37 ERA with 14.5 K/9 against 2.8 BB/9, along with a minuscule but BABIP-aided 4.7 hits per nine). There’s no urgency for Tampa Bay to move Boxberger, as he can be controlled through 2019 and will be eligible for arbitration only three times, but the club could be interested in selling high from an area of some surplus.
Right-Handed Middle Relief Targets
John Axford (Rockies), Jason Frasor & David Aardsma (Braves), Jonathan Broxton (Brewers), Kevin Jepsen (Rays), Edward Mujica & Ryan Cook (Athletics), Fernando Rodney, Mark Lowe & Tom Wilhelmsen (Mariners), Shawn Kelley (Padres), Matt Albers (White Sox), Ryan Webb (Indians), Burke Badenhop & Ryan Mattheus (Reds), Jeanmar Gomez (Phillies), Addison Reed (Diamondbacks)
- Axford is a former closer that signed a fairly meager deal as a free agent over the winter, only to find himself back in the 9th inning due to injuries. He’s put up solid results, but ERA estimators value him more as solid-average than a late-inning stud, and contending teams likely will as well. That being said, his affordable contract and good recent work make him an appealing trade targets.
- Otherwise, this group includes a wide array of potentially interesting players, ranging from struggling and expensive power arms (Broxton, Rodney, Reed) to affordable middle relievers with good recent numbers (Jepsen, Lowe, Gomez), with a wide variety of options in between.
Left-Handed Middle Relief Targets
Mike Dunn (Marlins), Oliver Perez (Diamondbacks), Marc Rzepczynski (Indians), Zach Duke (White Sox), Fernando Abad & Eric O’Flaherty (Athletics), Neal Cotts (Brewers), Manny Parra (Reds), Joe Beimel (Mariners)
- Clubs in need of arms capable of registering outs against left-handed hitting will surely look closely at the players on this list, especially if Smith and/or McGee can’t be had at reasonable rates. The first five names on the list were outstanding last season, but they’ve all posted higher earned run averages and worse peripherals. We haven’t heard anything about the White Sox considering a move involving Duke, though it’s hard to imagine many clubs having interest in his big contract. Parra is on the disabled list but could be an August trade candidate.
Will Smith is almost certainly not available.
You are correct Drew. Every player on the Brewers seems to be included on these lists but they don’t have the entire team for sale just because this season turned sour early. It’s almost laughable to think they’d deal Smith.
What’s laughable is the notion that any reliever is just plain off limits for a deadline seller. I’m sure they’re not terribly inclined to trade him – isn’t that what I said in the post? – but if an acquiring team really wants a controllable Smith, and offers a more than fair return, they have to consider it.
Relievers are volatile assets whose value is highest at the deadline. This could well be the peak of his value. Doesn’t mean they’ll be just taking the highest offer or something, but it wouldn’t be shocking if he moves (esp given the relative dearth of good options for lefties).
Well, of course. If some team wants to part with something even more valuable than Smith, they’re welcome to. But given his salary, years of control, and fantastic performance, it would be hard to do and would not likely makes sense if they did.
May or may not happen. In 2014, a half a year of Andrew Miller brought back Eduardo Rodriguez. If somebody thinks Smith is nearly as good, and values the control, and theres a bidding war, then who knows what they could pry loose? I don’t expect a deal, but it isn’t wildly implausible.
And let me add that these lists obviously include more players than will be traded. They are made up of plausible trade pieces. There are a lot of Brewers who could conceivably be dealt. Most of them probably won’t be dealt.
True. In the Brewers’ case there’s no one who is untouchable at all aside from Uecker. Everyone could be traded for at the right price, they’re not contending this year or probably next.
Love that Uecker line.
The Astros could covet a pitcher like Smith. If the price is right, any reliever is fair game. Especially for a team with a depleted farm system.
Broxton’s ERA is misleading. His FIP is a more respectable 3.62. He has a strikeout per inning and has a stretch of 6 straight scoreless outings covering 6 innings allowing just 2 hits and zero walks over that time. Brewers would be willing to pick up a good share of the remaining $3.4 million left on his deal. Doubt any team will take him before the deadline, but if he continues putting up zeroes into August, a waiver deal seems quite plausible.
FIP is more of a stat for starters than relievers.. His ERA+ of 65, 10.0 H/9 and 1.361 Whip are all very underwhelming though..
Cotts has a 1.44 ERA in June and July.
Taz might be the most marketable commodity Boston would consider selling with his inexpensive salary this year and probable not so high salary next year in his last year of control, but I’d rather Boston hang onto him and attempt to sign him long term before he hits FA over the winter of the 2016 season and build the pen going forward around him. Something around 3/25m and a team option perhaps for another 7-8m added for the 4th season.
I don’t think Papelbon’s no trade list is relevant at all based on all of his comments. Really, it’s just the closing that matters to him (with the option being guaranteed as a secondary).
Yeah, but he wouldn’t be able to demand to be traded as a closer if he didn’t have the NTC.
I Could see the Braves package both David Aardsma and Jim Johnson and getting back a team top 20 prospect somewhere in the range of 15-20.
There’s some value in guys like that who are throwing well right now – assuming that’s how scouts see it – b/c there are always teams that would just like to add fresh arms to the mix.
Are the Rangers in the Market/Future need of a Closer? If so, what do you think of a Package deal for Hamels and Papelbon? That could be a playoff win right there if A) they can get there, and B) they can score 1+ runs. Not a bad option for them, and could be a nice package.
Guess I could see that. They still have a shot at a WC, and Papelbon could be a part of the financial shifting, though I wouldn’t expect TEX to be too aggressive on him. They could use another pen arm now and for next year, of course, esp since they’ve ridden Tolleson and Kela pretty hard.
This time of year always fascinates me. i can’t imagine any relief pitcher (except a Rivera) ever being truly off limits for the right price. And the right price can be ridiculously high when the manager of a contending team says to his GM “get me another arm.” But, most relief pitchers do not sustain a high level of performance for an extended period of time–so it always feels like you are trading for the moment, not long term.
Although, I would agree that Chapman is indeed the best reliever in the National League, I would have to argue that the Yankees tandem of Betances and Miller would have to be included in the mix for best relievers in the game.. Betances has stats that are superior in every way to Chapman’s this year ERA 1.38 vs 1.73 Whip 0.809 vs 1.248 walk rate 3.6BB/9 vs 5.0BB/9 with the exception of K/9 with Chapman being at 16K/9 and Betances being 14.3K/9.. Chapman does pitch in the ultimate hitters paradise but Betances is a RHP in Yankee Stadium..
Edit: Sad to see this series of posts coming to an end.. Lots of good information..
One would think Darren O’Day would be listed. He is an All-Star rental on a team falling out of the race and with how cheap/silly the Orioles are, they probably won’t even offer him a qualifying offer to recoup a draft pick for him. Tommy Hunter should be on there as well. Tommy Hunter should have a mention as well even though he isn’t having a great year.