In a class of his own atop the free agent reliever market, Liam Hendriks is unsurprisingly drawing widespread interest. The White Sox, Mets and Blue Jays have been tied to Hendriks within the past week, and Jeff Passan of ESPN reports that the Dodgers and Astros have joined them among those pursuing the right-hander. Hendriks is looking for a four-year deal, Passan adds.
Over the past two seasons, Hendriks has arguably been the best reliever in baseball. He’s pitched to a 1.79 ERA across 110.1 relief innings since the start of 2019. In that time, Hendriks struck out 38% of opposing hitters against a 5.7% walk rate and held batters to a .192/.240/.289 slash line. No reliever (minimum 50 innings) has a better park-adjusted ERA, and only Josh Hader, Nick Anderson and Kirby Yates have a higher strikeout minus walk percentage.
Quite obviously, every team in the league would benefit from the addition of Hendriks to the back of the bullpen. The Dodgers’ bullpen was quite good in 2020; nevertheless, that’s the area of the roster that has given the team a bit of trouble in prior seasons and is the easiest spot to add depth as they look to mount another World Series run.
The Astros’ interest in Hendriks also isn’t surprising. Houston’s bullpen was decimated by injuries this past season and looks in need of some outside help. The Astros are facing the potential free agent departures of George Springer, Michael Brantley and Josh Reddick, though, with few obvious in-house replacements beyond Kyle Tucker. It remains to be seen if there’ll be requisite payroll space for the Houston front office to add top-of-the-market relief help while also sufficiently addressing the outfield.
Widespread interest notwithstanding, Hendriks finding a four-year deal at a strong average annual value might prove to be a tough task. He turns 32 in February, which figures to give some teams pause. The early stages of the offseason also haven’t been particularly kind to relievers. Every team in the league passed on Brad Hand’s $10MM option at the start of the offseason. Trevor May settled for a two-year, $15.5MM deal with the Mets; similarly productive relievers (Jeurys Familia and Joe Kelly, for instance) found three-year pacts in past winters. It’s possible Hendriks’ recent brilliance causes teams to view him as an exception, but the general trend seems to be that of a depressed bullpen market. One factor in his favor: the A’s did not issue him a qualifying offer, so the team that signs him will not have to forfeit draft pick compensation.