Gotta have a top closer! You shouldn’t pay for saves! Deep relief units are cost-efficient! The prevailing sentiment regarding relief pitching has been near as volatile as relief pitchers themselves.
Did you see how the Rays used all those arms to make it into the postseason?! The Nats won the World Series with that bullpen?! The Yankees had a really good, really expensive group of relief hurlers; the Indians had a really good, mostly cheap unit.
Let’s just be honest with ourselves: there’s no single right way to compile a roster and no single, lasting trend in this arena. There are more hard-throwing, talented young arms in the game than ever before. But the craft of pitching is only getting tougher to master. More and better arms, as durable and versatile as possible, in as cost-efficient a manner as possible. That’s what teams are pursuing, first and foremost.
With long flies leaving the yard with startling frequency last year, many organizations were left with odious results from their relief units. The Braves have already acted decisively in favor of veteran hurlers rather than toolsy youngsters. The Yanks doubled down on premier relief ace Aroldis Chapman. Everyone else is left to grab what they can from a free agent and trade market that is short on especially interesting arms.
Could the supply/demand imbalance help boost the earnings for the top-of-class hurlers that remain and the trade returns for the teams with the best-available targets … or will teams stick to their valuations and hope for the best? Will some marginal hurlers end up with surprisingly solid earnings … or are we just going to see a huge array of minor-league signings and camp battles?
That remains to be seen. But these are the players who are now being considered and negotiated over:
Top Available Arms
Did I mention a lack of supply? Ken Giles of the Blue Jays is perhaps the only capital-C Closer that seems likely to remain available at this point in time. He has had his stumbles over the years and had a health blip in 2019, but otherwise turned in excellent results with the peripherals to match and seems an obvious trade candidate with just one season of arbitration control remaining.
There are some major wild cards here. While the Padres want to win in 2020, they’ll have to at least consider scenarios involving Kirby Yates in his walk year. He was exceptionally good last year, completing a surprise San Diego emergence that was reminiscent of former Friars closer Brad Hand … who is himself a conceivable (but by no means certain) trade candidate this winter. We haven’t heard talk of the Indians putting him on the auction block, but it can’t be ruled out with two seasons of control remaining.
Otherwise, Drew Pomeranz may be the most interesting hurler to watch. He and the Brewers seemed to find a formula that worked, as he morphed into Josh Hader Jr. down the stretch. If there’s anyone with the potential to really surprise in earnings, it’s probably DrewPom. Teams that believe he can remain as effective as he was in Milwaukee may see him as a multi-inning monster. It’s hard to get quite as excited at the sheer upside when it comes to free agent Will Harris. He is a durable, high-quality setup man but is already 35 years of age. We predicted this profile to be worth slightly more on the open market than that of Pomeranz, though Harris’s range of reasonably expected contractual outcomes falls in a tighter band.
Second Tier Relievers
Let’s start with free agency, which has a large volume of useful but not great pitchers. Several recent Cubs hurlers warrant consideration here, led by Steve Cishek. Long-time setup man Pedro Strop is something of a bounceback candidate. Brandon Kintzler showed there’s still gas left in the tank after finishing rough in 2018. Though he was dumped in the middle of the season by the Cubbies, Brad Brach had a solid late showing with the Mets. Much like Harris, now-former Astros hurler Joe Smith remains effective into his mid-thirties. There are a few others from the Chicago and Houston ranks to be considered here as well: Collin McHugh, David Phelps, and Hector Rondon (who has pitched for both organizations in recent years).
Daniel Hudson was effective in 2019 and came up big in key moments for the Nationals. He’s a candidate for a solid two-year pact. And how about a pair of former Nats stalwarts? Craig Stammen and Tyler Clippard are both coming off of strong seasons and have reestablished themselves after some tough years. Nats nemesis Sergio Romo is still flinging unhittable sliders and finished with a particularly strong stretch for the Twins.
The market for lefties is rough. Jake Diekman is probably the top option after Pomeranz. The 32-year-old didn’t impress in the earned run department and continues to have big problems with command, but he has a big arm that produces lots of strikeouts. Francisco Liriano, Jerry Blevins, and Derek Holland are arguably the top alternative southpaws.
So … trade market to the rescue? Meh. Volatile Pirates setup man Keone Kela arguably has a closer-worthy ceiling but has struggled with consistency and off-field issues. MLBTR projects him to earn $3.4MM in his final season of arbitration eligibility, so he’s a one-year rental shot. The Marlins have some arms that could draw interest, with Jose Urena and Jarlin Garcia the easiest to imagine moving. Joe Jimenez of the Tigers has reportedly drawn pursuers even though he hasn’t quite turned the corner. Fellow high-K hurler Mychal Givens of the Orioles also had hiccups last year. It’s always possible that other names will be discussed, and no doubt some will change hands, but as things stand it’s tough to identify obvious candidates to be moved.
If you’re looking to throw down a dunk off a rebound, Dellin Betances is the top target. The long-excellent Yankees hurler had an agonizing season, making it all the way back from shoulder and lat issues only to blow out his Achilles tendon in his first appearance in the majors.
Otherwise, Blake Treinen is an intriguing target. He’s still under control with the Athletics, who are likely trying to see if they can find a taker in trade before the non-tender deadline. Treinen was a monster in 2018 but reverted to his frustrating form with the Nationals last year and ended up being shut down after experiencing rotator cuff and back problems.
Rehabbing southpaw Tony Cingrani has done some interesting things in recent campaigns and could be of particular interest given the dearth of good lefties. Arodys Vizcaino will hope to be ready for a full 2020 campaign after missing all of 2019 due to shoulder surgery. Can Brandon Morrow make it back from his long layoff? That remains to be seen, but if he can show he’s throwing well he’ll surely draw interest. Sam Dyson will also be looking to return from a shoulder procedure, but likely not until the 2021 campaign. He’s a possible candidate for a rehab-and-return type of contract. A pair of former Phillies relievers, venerable veteran Pat Neshek and younger hurler Edubray Ramos, are also injury recovery targets.
There are also a host of other notable names looking to bounce back from some combination of performance and injury woes. Jeremy Jeffress is a notable possibility. Trevor Rosenthal, Kyle Barraclough, and Carl Edwards Jr. still have interesting arms but are utterly speculative at this point. Veterans including Cody Allen and Luke Gregerson will be available and could always recapture some glory.
There’s a reasonable number of other hurlers that could garner consideration for guaranteed contracts or high-priority non-roster deals this winter. Top among them, in my book: Josh Tomlin, Fernando Rodney, Anthony Swarzak, Greg Holland, Jared Hughes, Cory Gearrin, and Yoshihisa Hirano. Though he’ll likely draw consideration as a starter, Andrew Cashner is also an interesting possible target.
Want a full rundown? Check out MLBTR’s list of 2019-20 free agents.