We’ve gone position by position to cover the upcoming free agent class at MLBTR over the past few weeks. We’ve already gone around the diamond and covered the starting pitching market, leaving just the relievers remaining.
Today, we’ll look at the southpaws. It’s a rather sparse class at the top, meaning teams may be left to scour the non-tender or trade markets in their search for relief targets. It’s also possible teams look into some of the free agent starters available with an eye towards identifying a candidate who could be particularly well-suited for a bullpen conversion.
Aaron Loup (34 next April): A longtime member of the Blue Jays’ relief corps, Loup has bounced around the league a bit in journeyman fashion over the past couple seasons. He’s coming off an utterly dominant showing with the Mets, though, posting a 0.95 ERA over 56 2/3 innings. Loup punched out 26.1% of opposing hitters while walking just 7.3% and racked up grounders on over half the balls in play against him while allowing just six extra-base hits all year.
No one could reasonably expect Loup to continue to be that unhittable. He doesn’t throw hard, and he’s been more consistently good than overpowering throughout his career. Loup rarely walks batters, though, and he’s always done well to keep the ball in the yard and avoid especially damaging contact. Going back two seasons, he’s also held right-handed hitters to a .205/.276/.311 line with similarly strong strikeout and walk numbers. Despite being a low-slot lefty, Loup doesn’t need to only be deployed situationally. He’d be a valuable addition to any bullpen and stands a good chance of landing a multi-year deal this winter.
Brooks Raley (33): Unlike Loup, Raley didn’t have an especially impressive ERA (4.78). That belies swing-and-miss stuff that’s arguably the best in the class. Raley punched out 31.7% of opposing hitters while generating whiffs on 14.5% of his offerings, a mark that ranked 40th among the 255 relievers with 30+ innings pitched. Teams are always looking for strikeout stuff in the middle to late innings, and Raley has that despite lacking huge velocity.
Raley also has back-to-back seasons ranking as the best pitcher in the league at suppressing average exit velocity and hard contact. That’s probably not a coincidence, although there’s a rather notable discrepancy based on the opposing hitter’s handedness. Raley has been utterly dominant against lefties (.195/.262/.221), but right-handed hitters tagged him for six homers and a .259/.333/.463 slash line. With the three-batter minimum rule in place, teams could see those drastic platoon splits as a red flag, but Raley’s complete control of left-handed hitters could still land him a multi-year deal.
Andrew Chafin (31): Chafin has been a reliable bullpen workhorse for a while, and he’s coming off a career-best showing between the Cubs and A’s. He posted a 1.83 ERA over 68 2/3 frames, walking a personal-low 7.1% of batters faced. Chafin’s strikeout and ground-ball rates are only around league average, but his slider befuddled hitters from both sides of the plate, and a signing team could have him turn to that wipeout offering a bit more often in hopes of racking up a few more whiffs.
Chafin was leveraged situationally quite a bit early in his career, but he’s adapted to the three-batter minimum era with ease. Right-handed hitters have just a .205/.262/.331 line against him going back to the start of 2020, while he’s held southpaws to a .190/.266/.267 mark in that time. As with Loup and Raley, Chafin has a good shot at a two-year contract.
Tony Watson (36): Watson’s a quietly reliable middle relief option. He’s not overpowering, but he throws strikes and generally induces a fair amount of grounders. Watson posted a 3.92 ERA in 57 1/3 innings this year split between the Angels and Giants, his tenth sub-4.00 showing in eleven big league seasons. At his age, Watson looks less likely than the others in this tier to land a second guaranteed year, but he’s one of the better bets around to offer solid production year in and year out.
Former All-Stars Looking To Bounce Back
Brad Hand (32): Hand was one of the game’s best relievers from 2016-20. His velocity showed a worrisome dip last season and resulted in Cleveland declining his club option, but Hand signed with the Nationals and continued to perform fairly well through this season’s first half. He tossed 42 2/3 innings of 3.59 ERA ball with Washington, albeit with a concerning drop in strikeouts despite his velocity bouncing back.
Traded to the Blue Jays at the deadline, Hand had a terrible month in Toronto and was designated for assignment. He had a fine final month after being claimed off waivers by the Mets, but his swing-and-miss stuff was never present at any of his three stops. Hand has an accomplished track record, and his bottom line numbers with Washington and New York were fine. But the huge drop-off in swinging strikes is going to be a red flag for teams.
Sean Doolittle (35): Doolittle was a dominant closer for a good chunk of the last decade, but he missed most of last season with injury and was designated for assignment by the Reds midway through this year. Doolittle’s four-seam fastball heavy approach has always led to high fly-ball rates, but his profile has become more extreme with age. That might make him an imperfect fit in hitter-friendly home ballparks, but Doolittle still has some selling points.
He continues to run one of the higher rates of infield fly balls in the league, racking up plenty of harmless pop-ups. And while his strikeout rate and swinging strike rate have dipped from peak levels, they remain right around the league average overall. Doolittle might not be an ideal high-leverage option at this point in his career, but he could still be a solid middle innings piece in the right environment.
Andrew Miller (36): Miller has had an ERA above 4.00 in three of the last four years. His once-elite strikeout rate dipped to league average this past season, and opposing hitters are no longer chasing pitches outside the strike zone the way they used to as Miller’s average fastball velocity has fallen below 90 MPH.
Miller’s a respected clubhouse presence, and he’s continued to stifle same-handed hitters. Over the past two seasons, lefties have just a .176/.260/.259 line against him. Miller can probably still be effective in a limited situational role, but the three-batter minimum makes it impossible to entirely avoid righties, who have teed off for a .343/.446/.549 line off him since the beginning of 2020. Now 36 years old, Miller’s days of overpowering everyone he faces look to be behind him.
Andrew Heaney (30): Heaney will get another chance in a team’s rotation next season, although he found himself working in relief with the Yankees down the stretch thanks to a poor year. Heaney posted very good strikeout and walk numbers, but he was one of the most home run prone pitchers in the league, leading to a 5.83 ERA. He’ll be a bounceback rotation candidate, but continued struggles could lead him back to the bullpen at some point.
José Quintana (33): Quintana’s a career-long starter who got pushed into the bullpen midway through this season after struggling in the rotation. He could draw interest in either capacity this winter. Quintana somewhat bizarrely struck out batters at a career-best rate in 2021, although it came with an uptick in walks and home runs. His 4.18 ERA in 28 innings of relief is middling, but Quintana’s walk percentage did come way down after he was moved into shorter stints.
Kwang-hyun Kim (33): Kim has a 2.97 ERA in 145 2/3 innings since coming over from the KBO, much of that time spent as a starter. That’s very strong bottom line production, but Kim has gotten there with underwhelming peripherals driven by extremely low strikeout totals. Kim’s weak contact, ground-ball driven profile paired perfectly with the Cardinals’ stellar infield, but it’s not clear that’d translate nearly as well with a lesser defensive team.
Wade LeBlanc (37): LeBlanc offered some stabilizing innings for the Cardinals this season while working in a swing capacity. The veteran underwent season-ending elbow surgery in early September, although he’s expected to be ready for Spring Training. LeBlanc doesn’t throw hard or miss many bats, but he’s a capable strike-thrower who could offer starting and/or multi-inning relief depth for clubs.
Matt Moore (32): Moore had a solid 2020 campaign with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks of Nippon Professional Baseball. The former All-Star’s return to the U.S. didn’t go as planned, however, as Moore struggled badly enough to lose his spot in the Phillies’ rotation midseason. He continued to struggle upon moving to the bullpen, working to a 5.40 ERA with a below-average 17.4% strikeout rate in relief. He might be limited to minor league offers this winter.
Hyeon-jong Yang (34): Yang split his season between the Rangers’ rotation and bullpen. He posted a 4.87 ERA in 20 1/3 frames of relief, striking out just 11.8% of batters faced. It has already been reported that the longtime Kia Tigers star would like to return to his native South Korea.
Fernando Abad (36): Abad worked 17 2/3 innings of 5.60 ERA ball late in the season for the Orioles, his first MLB action since 2019. He’ll probably be looking at minor league offers again this winter.
Luis Avilán (32): Avilán’s a generally accomplished lefty specialist. Unfortunately, he had to undergo Tommy John surgery in late April and could miss the first few months of next season.
Alberto Baldonado (29): A longtime minor leaguer, Baldonado got a look with the Nationals late in the season. He missed a decent number of bats but struggled with control and posted an 8.44 ERA.
Travis Bergen (28): Bergen had a 1.69 ERA for the Blue Jays, but it came with just six strikeouts and eight walks in 10 2/3 innings before he was outrighted off the 40-man roster.
Jesse Biddle (30): Biddle gets a lot of grounders, but his velocity dipped a bit this season and he’s had persistent issues with walks. He was outrighted off the Braves’ roster in May.
Ryan Buchter (35): Buchter posted four straight seasons of sub-3.00 ERA ball from 2016-19. He’s fallen on hard times over the past couple years, though, including a 6.61 ERA in 16 1/3 frames with the D-Backs before he was released in August.
Alex Claudio (30): Claudio has had some good seasons despite one of the league’s softest fastballs, thriving on command and grounders. His once-pristine walk rates have spiked in recent seasons, however, and the Angels cut him loose in July after he posted a 5.51 ERA across 32 2/3 innings.
Ross Detwiler (36): Almost out of nowhere, Detwiler shattered his previous career-high by striking out 27.1% of opposing hitters this past season. Despite the punchouts, his 9.6% swinging strike rate was still well below the league average, and Detwiler’s formerly elite ground-ball rates dropped off.
Derek Holland (35): Holland has had an ERA above 5.00 in each of the past three seasons. His strikeout, walk and ground-ball rates were all within the realm of the league average this year and he’s capable of shouldering multiple innings out of the bullpen.
T.J. McFarland (32): McFarland is a ground-ball specialist who is best deployed against lefty hitters. He rarely strikes batters out, but he induces grounders on around two-thirds of balls in play and has held same-handed opponents to a .221/.256/.453 line going back to 2020.
Tommy Milone (35): Milone’s a depth swingman option. He throws plenty of strikes and typically earns himself some big league time every season. But he’s one of the softest throwers in the sport, leading to low strikeout totals and a tendency to give up a lot of home runs.
Sean Nolin (32): Nolin returned to the majors in a swing capacity with the Nationals this season. He made ten appearances (five out of the bullpen) and worked 26 2/3 innings of 4.39 ERA ball.
Daniel Norris (28): Norris is still relatively young and has flashed high-end talent in the past, but he’s coming off a nightmarish second half. Solid peripherals led the Brewers to take a deadline day flier on Norris despite his 5.89 ERA with the Tigers. Everything went backwards in Milwaukee, though, as his strikeouts dropped while his walk and homer rates skyrocketed.
Josh Osich (33): Osich typically posts quality ground-ball rates, but he hasn’t posted an ERA below 4.50 since his 2015 rookie campaign with the Giants. He tossed 14 1/3 innings with a 5.02 mark for the Reds this year before being outrighted in late July.
Nick Ramirez (32): Ramirez soaked up plenty of innings in long relief with the Tigers a couple years ago. He hasn’t gotten a very long look over the last couple years, tossing 31 innings of 5.87 ERA ball since the start of 2020.
Kyle Ryan (30): Ryan worked 61 frames with a 3.54 ERA for the Cubs back in 2019, but he’s struggled in limited action over the past couple seasons. Ryan generates plenty of ground-balls, but he doesn’t miss many bats and he’s had difficulty keeping runs off the board recently. Chicago passed him through outright waivers in mid-August.
Héctor Santiago (34): Santiago returned to the majors with the Mariners this year after not pitching in 2020. The veteran did some nice work as a multi-inning relief option, soaking up 26 1/3 frames of 3.42 ERA ball with solid strikeout and walk numbers over thirteen outings. He was suspended for eighty games in late July after testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance. He’ll need to sit out the first three-plus weeks next season to complete that ban.
Tyler Webb (31): Webb pitched to a 2.08 ERA as recently as 2020. This past season was a disaster, though, as he walked 20.7% of opposing hitters on his way to a 13.22 ERA in 16 1/3 frames. Webb was passed through outright waivers in early June.
Players with Options
José Álvarez (32): Exercising Álvarez’s $1.5MM club option (which contains a $100K buyout) should be a very easy call for the Giants. He worked 64 2/3 frames of 2.37 ERA ball, inducing grounders on a little more than half the balls in play against him.
Jake Diekman (35): The A’s have a $4MM club option on Diekman’s services for 2022. That comes with a $750K buyout, making it a $3.25MM call for the Oakland front office. That one could seemingly go either way, as Diekman still missed plenty of bats (31.7% strikeout rate, 13.2% swinging strike percentage) but he’s always struggled with control and had uncharacteristic home run issues in 2021.
Martín Pérez (30): The Red Sox can bring Pérez back for $6MM or buy him out for $500K. The latter looks more likely after Pérez lost his rotation spot in early August. He’s been fine but hardly overwhelming since moving to relief, working to a 4.50 ERA across 14 innings. Teams could consider him as a depth option for the rotation or bullpen this winter, assuming the Sox indeed cut him loose.
Joely Rodríguez (30): The Yankees hold a $3MM club option on Rodríguez for 2022. Picked up from the Rangers at the trade deadline alongside Joey Gallo, Rodríguez pitched well down the stretch. Over 19 frames, he worked to a 2.84 ERA with a strong 50% ground-ball rate. The option looks affordable enough to be picked up.
Justin Wilson (34): Wilson has a $2.3MM player option for next season. If he declines, the Reds would hold either a $7.15MM club option or have to buy him out for $1.15MM. Cincinnati would almost certainly not exercise their end of the option, so Wilson has to decide whether to return for $2.3MM or take the buyout and hope to top the $1.15MM difference on the open market. It wasn’t a great season for the generally reliable Wilson, who posted a 5.29 ERA between the Yankees and Reds. His ERA was much better following a midseason trade to Cincinnati, but his strikeout and walk numbers at both stops were underwhelming.