Pitching is the priority for most contenders. Starting pitchers, however, are costly and there aren’t many good ones available right now unless a team has and is willing to trade away an elite prospect or possibly even two.
The alternative is to trade for a reliable reliever or two, which could help a team who isn’t getting enough quality innings out of their starting pitchers. As the Royals have proven, you don’t need six or seven innings from your starting pitchers to succeed as long as your bullpen can pick up the slack. Three dominant relievers to cover the 7th, 8th and 9th innings helped in their case, but they also had several others who made a strong contribution to the team’s success.
This is the time for a contender to assess how much help their bullpen needs and ensure that they’re stocked up for the stretch run. Here are some relievers who are likely available on the trade market.
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- Miller and Davis represent the top of the class, but much like the many controllable starters we’ve heard so much about, it’s not clear that either is available for anything less than a true haul. The Yankees already dealt away Aroldis Chapman, and have seemingly put an immense price tag on Miller, who is now unquestionably one of the very best relievers in baseball. The same can be said of Davis, though he hasn’t been quite as excellent this year as last and has one less season of control on his contract, which runs out after 2017.
- There were rumblings before the year that the Bucs could look to swap out Melancon and his $9.65MM salary. The cash probably isn’t a major concern at this point, but the Pirates are in a somewhat difficult position for contention and have reportedly considered a deal for a pending free agent. Melancon is still trucking along with a 1.51 ERA and 8.2 K/9 against 1.9 BB/9, all within range of the new standard he set for himself beginning in 2013. Since Pittsburgh is still a plausible post-season threat, it seems that the team would be looking for a somewhat unique scenario — the ask is for a solid set-up arm to plug onto the MLB roster as well as a prospect haul to make up the difference in value and bolster the organization’s future.
- Robertson is having a fine season and is surely a late-inning upgrade for some contenders. But he’s still due close to $30MM through the 2018 season and he’s just not the same pitcher he was when he signed his current deal with the White Sox. If the Sox were willing to take on some of Robertson’s remaining salary, however, they could well generate a solid return — especially if the names just listed prove too expensive to change hands.
- If the Rays are willing to trade away one of their controllable starting pitchers, as the rumors indicate, then they’d certainly trade All-Star closer Colome. Even with four years left of club control remaining after 2016, Colome won’t have as much value to the Rays until they’re ready to contend again. Still, the price will be high for the 27-year-old and the Rays won’t be motivated to move him unless they’re blown away with an offer.
- Jeffress and Vizcaino are in the same boat as Colome with their respective teams. Young, controllable and talented closers with teams that aren’t competitive now and might not be for at least a couple more years. The price is high, but these guys are definitely available. The question with Jeffress is whether another team will value his groundball-driven approach as highly as do the Brewers. As for Vizcaino, some recent stumbles and a DL stint have significantly reduced the likelihood he’s dealt.
- That leaves Smith, who missed a big chunk of time earlier this year and has been more solid than great since returning. The 27-year-old southpaw owns a 3.60 ERA with 9.0 K/9 and 3.6 BB/9 over twenty innings, representing a drop-off from the 3.79 K/BB ratio he ran up a season ago. With three remaining seasons of arbitration eligibility, Milwaukee may choose to see if he can build up value over the next several months before exploring a deal in earnest.
Click to read below for the rental relievers and other pen arms with future control:
- The 32-year-old Smith isn’t nearly as effective as he once was, but he’s a pending free agent and one of the Halos’ few obvious trade pieces. Smith’s K rate has fallen off a cliff, but he still gets groundballs and has turned in seven appearances running without allowing a run (or recording a single strikeout or walk).
- Hudson’s chief appeal at this point is velocity, as he continues to run up a consistent mid-nineties heater. But the results haven’t been there (6.08 ERA with 7.5 K/9 against 3.7 BB/9 over 37 frames) after a solid bounceback 2015 following years of arm troubles. Hudson is an obvious trade piece as a soon-to-be free agent for a disappointing D-Backs club that will probably just need to get what it can for him.
- There was a point earlier in the year where Hernandez was looking like he might be a nice trade piece for the Phils, but he has come back down to earth as the season has gone on. Over 47 1/3 innings, he owns a 4.37 ERA that largely mirrors his career results. The double-digit strikeouts per nine is appealing, as is a fastball that sits around 94 mph, but Philadelphia won’t expect a ton in return.
- Johnson may or may not be traded within minutes of this post going live. He’s not producing like the closer of yore, and his fastball velocity continues a slow decline, but he’s still generating a 56.4% groundball rate.
- Though he’s over-extended in his current late-inning role in Cincinnati, Ohlendorf is recording more than a strikeout per nine, bringing a mid-90s fastball, and carryig a usable 4.27 ERA in 46 1/3 innings. Plus, given his history as a starter, teams could conceivably use Ohlendorf for multiple innings if needed.
- Logan looks to be the prime rental LOOGY on the market, with a rather remarkable 17.0% swinging strike rate and — finally — the results to match. Those numbers have been mostly achieved against same-handed hitters, as Logan has nibbled against righties and put on too many via the walk, but he could be a nice weapon down the stretch.
- At thirty years of age, “Scrabble” (that’s Rzepczynski) carries a 3.19 ERA with 9.3 K/9 and 5.5 BB/9. He has always been deployed mostly against lefties, but has actually been better against right-handed hitting thus far in 2016.
- O’Flaherty has posted some of the game’s ugliest earned-run marks over the last two years, but ERA estimators think he’s been much better this season. Over 22 2/3 innings, he has struck out 6.8 and walked 2.0 batters per nine with a 53.8% groundball rate, with a .355 BABIP and 55.2% strand rate telling heavily in his results.
Righties Jeanmar Gomez (Phillies), Huston Street (Angels), Tyler Clippard (Diamondbacks), Brandon Kintzler (Twins), Tyler Thornburg (Brewers), Erasmo Ramirez & Brad Boxberger (Rays), Ryan Madson (Athletics), Brandon Maurer (Padres), Blake Wood (Reds)
- It’s unlikely that any contending team would view Gomez as their closer. As effective as he’s been for the Phillies, he has a 5.6 K/9 and throws his fastball in the low 90’s. Not exactly the prototypical late-inning reliever. There should be solid interest, though reports suggest Philadelphia isn’t terribly interested in moving Gomez with another year of control remaining.
- Street has been injury-prone the past few years and hasn’t been very good in 2016. With a 4.79 ERA, 11 walks and 11 strikeouts in 20.2 innings, it’s doubtful that there will be a ton of interest even if the Angels were to keep a majority of the estimated $13MM remaining on his contract. In all likelihood, he’ll be kept in hopes of a turnaround.
- Clippard may have hit a wall at 31 years of age after years of heavy usage. He’s striking out batters right at his career-peak rate of around 11 per nine, but he’s giving up more line drives and less lazy flyballs than he used to, leading to a dramatic rise in the batting average on balls in play against him. He’s available, but is also expensive with a $6.15MM salary on the books for 2017.
- In a down year for the Twins, Kintzler has been a nice surprise. He is outperforming his peripherals with a 1.99 ERA, and doesn’t get many strikeouts, but he also basically doesn’t walk anyone and draws a ton of worm-burners (63.6% groundball rate). Kintzler will be entering his last year of arbitration at an appealing price tag, so he’s a solid piece.
- Thornburg has worked his way into the elite class of setup men and appears destined to be a closer in the near future. With three years left of club control, that opportunity will probably come with the Brewers once they trade Jeffress. But you also can’t rule out a team being more aggressive to acquire Thornburg, who has a 2.21 ERA, 18 holds and a 12.6 K/9 in his 42 appearances.
- The Rays have already drawn calls on Ramirez, who offers a swingman option and three years of cheap future control. He’s carrying a 3.90 ERA with 6.9 K/9 and 2.4 BB/9, all right at his career numbers. It’s quite a different situation for Boxberger, who has missed almost all of the season with arm issues but was just activated from the DL. The 28-year-old offers plenty of upside with his typically high whiff rate and three years of arb years to come, but he’s a big injury risk and we haven’t really heard him mentioned as a trade candidate.
- Madson was great in a setup role with the Royals in 2015, but has struggled as the A’s closer this season. If a team thought he’d be more effective once moved back into a setup role, they’d better be very confident about it because he’d be one of the highest paid setup men in the game. He’s due close to $20MM through the 2018 season.
- Long an intriguing arm, Maurer has shown new life and recently took over the closer’s role in San Diego. If you look behind his 4.59 ERA, you’ll see a useful 10.5 K/9 against 3.5 BB/9 in 49 innings. Better still, his velocity is moving in the right direction. Maurer comes with three arb-eligible years.
- Though he isn’t drawing any headlines, Wood has checked in with a 3.42 ERA over 47 1/3 innings. Thing is, he’s also coughing up 5.3 free passes per nine, which makes his 8.6 K/9 mark decidedly less appealing than it would be in isolation.
- Abad is one of the prime trade pieces on this market, though Minnesota doesn’t have to deal him with another year of cheap control left to go. The 30-year-old carries a 2.53 ERA on the year, though his once sparkling peripherals have fallen off a bit (7.9 K/9 vs. 3.9 BB/9).
- Though Duke isn’t cheap — he’s earning $5MM this year and $5.5MM next — he should hold solid appeal. Since his reinvention began in 2014, he’s running a 2.88 ERA with 10.5 K/9 and 3.8 BB/9. While he struggled against righties last year, moreover, the former starter has returned to posting neutral platoon splits this season.
- It’s been a struggle for McGee since he arrived in Colorado, with notable declines in virtually every area. In particular, he is striking out about half as many hitters he did last year (with a career-low 7.8% swinging strike rate) and has lost a tick on his already-diminished fastball. With a $4.8MM salary for 2016 and a raise coming, he’s nothing close to the asset he once was.
- With arbitration beckoning, the 29-year-old Cedeno could become a trade piece for the Rays. He hasn’t been quite as good in the results department this year as he was last, but Cedeno is still putting up a 3.62 ERA with impressive peripherals — 8.9 K/9 with 2.5 BB/9. He has allowed less than a hit per inning and just one home run. Cedeno has to have the game’s best 88 mph heater; he’s racked up about a 14% whiff rate over the last two campaigns while relying heavily on his cutter, mixed in oft-changing ratios with a hook.
- Buchter has been a revelation since getting a chance with the Friars, but with gobs of control remaining he won’t come cheap. Hand, meanwhile, has long been a useful swingman, but he has been a different pitcher since changing homes. Over 55 1/3 innings, he’s running up a 3.09 ERA with 10.4 K/9 and 4.9 BB/9 — both of which are much higher than he has typically shown. Hand has relied more on his two-seamer and, especially, his curve while largely dropping his change, with generally promising results.
- With arbitration beckoning, the 25-year-old Krol has impressed. He’s sitting with a 3.14 ERA and 10.1 K/9 vs. 3.1 BB/9 to go with a 51.3% groundball rate over 28 2/3 frames. Teams will still be wary of the track record — control has long been fleeting — but Krol is sitting at a career-best 94.0 mph with his average fastball, carries a double-digit whiff rate, and has managed to get his first pitch over for a strike much more frequently than he has in the past. Cervenka is actually a year older than Krol, but only just debuted. His double-digit punches per nine is impressive but he’s also walking more than five batters per regulation game. Brandishing a slider in over half of his pitches, Cervenka has permitted just 20 hits in 31 1/3 innings and owns a 2.87 ERA. With a full slate of control remaining, though, Atlanta has little reason to deal him — and teams probably won’t pay much of a premium in hopes of slotting him into their pen down the stretch given the risks.
- Though he has a 3.20 ERA on the year and a solid prospect pedigree behind him, Cingrani has recorded just 6.4 K/9 against 4.6 BB/9 in his 45 innings on the year. His results are propped up by a .238 BABIP, though it’s fair to note that Cingrani is not permitting a ton of hard contact or line drives. He’s also pushing 94 mph with his average fastball, well above his velo as a starter; that’s particularly important since he uses the pitch over 80% of the time. Cingrani will reach arb eligibility after the year, and the budget-conscious Reds could see this as a reasonable time to try to cash him in — if another organization has interest.