Though the adrenal rush that was this year’s Winter Meetings made for great spectating—and great content for sites like ours—getting spoiled in the offseason’s early months does make for a slower run-up to spring training. Yes, there are still some big fish out there lurking in the waters (here’s looking at you, Josh Donaldson), but, by and large, the next few months should largely be about teams making value-oriented additions at the edges of their 40-man rosters.
When it comes to bullpen arms, especially, this time of year can be like open season for cost-conscious GMs. Sure, there have been a few teams willing to spend at the top end of the market this offseason—with Will Smith, Drew Pomeranz and Will Harris all netting guarantees of at least $24MM in free agency—but many a good bullpen gets solidified this time of year through more low-key signings.
The Nationals, a team hamstrung in recent seasons by poor relief pitching, finally got over the hump in 2019 in part because their bullpen gelled down the stretch. Daniel Hudson, a guy the Angels signed to a minor-league deal in February last year, ultimately ended up on the mound for the Nats when they formed the celebratory dogpile. That trajectory from bargain-bin depth pickup to central cog in a World Series-winning unit is pretty good evidence as to why we should maintain a close eye on transactions in the run-up to camp.
So, which bullpen signing thus far has the best chance of being this coming year’s version of Hudson? An exhaustive list of all relief signings to this point in the offseason sounds, frankly, exhausting—for both author and reader. Perhaps a better format is to consider a few choice arms signed to relatively budget deals, with at least some proven track record of success in the majors.
Alex Wilson, signed only today by the Tigers to a minors deal, stands out as one arm that could deliver a solid return for a tiny investment. Though he’s not a strikeout artist by any means, with a 6.13 career K/9, Wilson still maintains a career 3.44 ERA—even after a dreadful sample of 11.1 innings with the Brewers last year.
San Diego’s minor league signing of Kyle Barraclough also promises to yield dividends—assuming manager Jayce Tingler’s staff can get him back to the form he showed from 2015-17 as a member of the Marlins when he logged a 2.87 ERA with 219 strikeouts in 163 IP. Last year represented a low point so far for Barraclough, as his brief stay in D.C. saw him post a 6.66 ERA across 25.2 innings; that ERA figure is not exactly a good omen, but the righty is still just 29 and has demonstrated an ability to strike out batters with consistency.
Like the Padres, the Reds are looking to wrap their rebuild this coming year and may do so with some cheap innings from Tyler Thornburg. Now 31, Thornburg has had a disastrous past few seasons after logging an impressive 1.9 fWAR as a reliever with the Brewers in 2016. Statcast indicates his raw stuff is still there, however, and part of his struggles can be tied to presumably fixable control issues.
Tyler Clippard is perhaps the most accomplished reliever on this list, having logged over 800 innings with a respectable 3.14 career ERA with nine separate big league teams. The Twins will now become his tenth team after a nearly decade-long courtship, providing him with a one-year, $2.75MM deal last month. Clippard was rather good in 2019, posting a 2.90 ERA in 62 innings with the Tribe, but less so from 2016-18, when he bounced between five teams while posting a 3.98 ERA across 192 innings. The now 34-year-old is probably the most stable option here, but it’s worth noting those quality results last year were undercut by a 4.94 xFIP.
Edinson Volquez was reportedly set on rejoining Texas’ staff after rehabbing himself back from injury with the Rangers last year. He’s never worked exclusively as a reliever, although his repertoire—and periodic inconsistency—has often caused observers to wonder what he would look like as a late-inning pen option. Last year, the Rangers got seven scoreless innings of relief work from the journeyman, so perhaps there’s a second chapter in Volquez’s career yet to be written.
Surely, there are still quite a few arms out there who could find themselves pitching October innings after signing frugal winter deals. Of this admittedly subjective selection of signings, which do you like best? Which other minor league or low-cost pickups do you like heading into 2020? (Poll link for app users)