At the GM Meetings earlier this month, Baltimore general manager Mike Elias told reporters the team was seeking a late-game reliever. They’re considering plugging that vacancy in free agency.
Jon Heyman of the New York Post reports that the O’s have been in contact with each of Josh Hader, Jordan Hicks, Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman. All four hurlers fit the general profile of a late-inning arm, although they’re clearly in different tiers of free agency.
Hader is the best reliever in the class (and arguably the top bullpen arm in the majors). He worked to a 1.28 ERA over 56 1/3 innings during his platform season. The lanky southpaw punched out 36.8% of batters faced. That’s actually Hader’s lowest strikeout percentage since his rookie year, yet it still ranked fifth in MLB among relievers with 50+ innings. Only Chris Martin and Brusdar Graterol had a lower earned run average.
After frequently working multiple innings earlier in his career, Hader has expressed a preference for a traditional one-inning role over the past couple years. The Padres deployed him as a closer. He picked up 33 saves in 38 attempts.
The year marked an emphatic bounce back from a 2022 season in which he’d posted an uncharacteristic 5.22 ERA. Hader has posted an ERA under 1.30 in two of the last three years and has five sub-3.00 showings over his seven MLB seasons. While he’s a year older than Edwin Díaz was last offseason, Hader figures to take aim at topping Diaz’s $102MM guarantee with the Mets — the largest relief contract in MLB history.
Committing a nine-figure deal would be far bolder than any free agent decision that the Elias front office has made. The O’s have remarkably yet to sign a single multi-year free agent deal in his five years as GM. Much of that came during a rebuild, of course, but the O’s remained cautious even as they’d begun to turn a corner last winter. Baltimore signed a trio of veterans (Kyle Gibson, Adam Frazier and Mychal Givens) for a combined $23MM on one-year guarantees.
After a breakout season that saw the O’s win 101 games to take the top seed in the American League, the front office should be more aggressive than ever. Bringing in Hader would represent a very significant shift in operating procedure. In addition to the huge financial commitment, Baltimore would have to relinquish their third-highest pick in next summer’s draft. Hader declined a qualifying offer from the Padres, so he’s attached to signing compensation.
If the O’s are willing to meet those costs, Hader is a sensible target. He’s one of the few relievers who can approach the kind of production the O’s lost when Félix Bautista underwent Tommy John surgery that’ll cost him the entire 2024 season. Hader is also a Maryland native who began his professional career as a 19th-round pick by the Orioles in 2012. While that selection was made by a previous front office, Elias was a high-ranking scouting official with the Astros when Houston acquired Hader as a prospect at the 2013 deadline.
Hader is in his own tier as a free agent relief target. Hicks finds himself in the next group, arguably the #2 option on the open market. One of the hardest throwers in the sport, he averages around 100 MPH on his sinker. Hicks has wobbly control but consistently runs huge ground-ball numbers. He’s coming off arguably the best season of his career, turning in 65 2/3 innings of 3.29 ERA ball between the Cardinals and Blue Jays. The righty struck out a solid 28.4% of batters faced, the highest rate of his career.
Injuries (most notably a June ’19 Tommy John procedure) dogged Hicks between 2019-21. He has mostly stayed healthy over the past two seasons, topping 60 frames in each. He’s also the youngest free agent reliever of note, having turned 27 in September. Hicks should secure at least three years and has a solid case for a four-year pact at an average annual value in the $8-10MM range.
Chapman and Kimbrel would be shorter-term plays. Two of the best closers of their generation, they’re each entering their age-36 campaign. Both pitchers have battled some inconsistency in recent seasons, but they’re coming off solid 2023 performances. Chapman worked to a 3.09 ERA with an eye-popping 41.4% strikeout percentage over 58 1/3 frames between the Royals and Rangers. Kimbrel posted a 3.26 ERA while fanning a little over a third of his opponents in 69 regular season innings with Philadelphia, although he struggled over six innings in the playoffs.