Relievers are the used cars of the free-agent market. Buy the right one, and you’ll get to your destination. Buy a lemon, and you’re stuck.
Just as most of us need a car, most teams need relief help, and it is an impossible area to assess accurately. Even some of the top-end bullpen arms available this offseason were on the bottom not very long ago.
But while this market is frustratingly fungible, it is too important to ignore. So here is a stab at ranking the top 10 relievers still available (Trevor May and Blake Treinen would have definitely been on this list had they not signed with the Mets and Dodgers, respectively, and Greg Holland had an argument prior to returning to the Royals).
Ages listed are as of Opening Day 2021.
1. Liam Hendriks, RHP
In times like these, we need clarity wherever we can get it. And thankfully, we have clarity at the top of the free-agent reliever board. Hendriks is not only the best free-agent reliever in baseball right now; he’s the best reliever in baseball right now, period. He’s earned that lofty status with a two-year track record (an eternity in the reliever world) in which he’s logged a 1.79 ERA, 0.897 WHIP, 161 strikeouts and only 24 walks in 110 1/3 innings.
Hendriks assumed the A’s closer role and delivered in the ninth inning. So, yes, this Hendriks can answer in the affirmative if asked, “Are you experienced?” (This joke was a layup and we took it, sorry.) Hendriks has a perfectly relievery (a word we just made up) track record in that he was designated for assignment as recently as 2018 and went unclaimed, only to return with the improved velocity and spin rate that made him the durable, dependable monster known in Oakland as “Hercu-Liam.” That all of this comes with an incredible Australian accent only makes Hendriks more appealing.
2. Trevor Rosenthal, RHP
Wait, you thought Hendriks’ surge in standing from his 2018 DFA was wild? Get a look at this guy.
Rosenthal had a non-misprinted 13.50 ERA in 15 1/3 big league innings in 2019 and wound up bouncing between three different organizations. So he was not exactly a hot commodity one year ago at this time. But the Royals signed him and his still-electric stuff to a Minor League deal, pointed him to the strike zone and watched him post a 3.29 ERA in 14 appearances to become a viable trade commodity by midseason. The Padres pounced, and Rosenthal threw 10 scoreless innings (17 strikeouts, one walk and three hits) in the regular season before running into some trouble in October.
Rosenthal’s 2019 command woes are recent enough to prompt pause, but we rank him high here because his 97.9-mph four-seam average is the best of anybody on the board, and his ’20 fastball spin rate, whiff percentage and expected ERA all grade out as elite. When in doubt, bet on stuff, and Rosenthal has it.
3. Kirby Yates, RHP
It was a short season for everybody, but especially for Yates. He pitched just 4 1/3 innings in 2020 because of surgery to remove bone spurs in his right elbow. It is, therefore, deceptively easy to forget just how darn good Yates was in ’19. He had a 1.19 ERA, a 41.6 percent strikeout rate and a 0.89 WHIP. And it was all backed by the advanced stats, because Yates’ expected opponents’ average (.174), weighted on-base average (.229) and ERA (2.18) were all among the best in baseball. Yates doesn’t possess eye-popping velocity (93.6 mph average in ’20), but his ability to deliver his fastball and 86-mph splitter from the same arm angle make him deceptive.
While elbow injuries are never optimal, Yates’ procedure wasn’t invasive enough to set off significant alarm bells. If anything, he has the look of a fresh arm ready to return to his recent level. And that is reflected in this ranking.
4. Brad Hand, LHP
Some eyebrows were raised when Cleveland placed Hand on outright waivers at season’s end, but the fact that no other club was willing to pick up his $10 million option for 2021 told us a lot about the pandemic market, in general, and how the industry is not necessarily as gaga over save counts and other surface stats as it once was. While Hand did save an MLB-high 16 games in the shortened season with a flattering 2.05 ERA and 0.773 WHIP, he has seen essentially a two-mph drop in his four-seam, slider and two-seam velocities over the past two seasons, and his opponent barrel percentage, whiff percentage and curveball spin graded out poorly.
All that said, Hand has spent his last 320 innings putting up a 2.70 ERA. By any objective measure, Hand has been one of the best relievers in baseball since San Diego claimed him on waivers in 2016. So let’s give him a … round of applause.
5. Alex Colomé, RHP
Here’s another example of the surface-level stats and the deeper stuff not meshing magnificently. Because, yes, Colomé did have a 0.81 ERA, 12 saves and a 0.94 WHIP for the White Sox. But he did it with a lowly 17.8 percent strikeout rate, a worrisome 8.9 percent walk rate and a 1-mph decline in the average velocity of his go-to cutter (from 90.4 mph in 2019 to 89.3 in ’20). Colomé’s expected ERA, as a frame of reference, was 3.09, so he may have benefited from the randomness of the shortened season.
But even if Colomé doesn’t rack up K’s at an elite rate, he does miss bats (15.3 percent swinging strike rate) and is the rare pitcher who didn’t give up a home run in 2020. His cutter has become a legitimate inducer of weak ground balls, and that is not to be overlooked.
6. Jake McGee, LHP
Here’s the thing: McGee spent four seasons with Colorado. You can’t blame him. The Rockies made him fabulously wealthy. But those are four seasons in which McGee’s once-sparkling career ERA (2.77 with the Rays) inflated dramatically (4.78 with the Rox). That’s not to say it was all attributable to the Coors Field conditions, because McGee lost fastball velocity, and in a related development, saw a big reduction in his K rate.
But when the Dodgers plucked him off the scrap heap in 2020, McGee was reborn. His velocity increased by 1.5 mph, and he struck out an absurd 41.8 percent of batters faced. This came with an unusual Statcast profile in which McGee’s opponent exit velocity and hard-hit percentages were among the worst in baseball. When hitters made contact, they scorched McGee. But he was so effective at pounding the zone that it didn’t really matter. So there’s a lot to like about the lefty McGee in this market. But maybe this time, don’t sign with Colorado.
7. Mark Melancon, RHP
Let’s start with the truly important stuff: If you have Melancon in your bullpen and reach the postseason, he will absolutely catch his teammates’ home runs in the bullpen during the playoffs. That is a promise. He can also get you a sweet deal on artificial turf.
But if you’re more into relief performance, Melancon can help there, too. He doesn’t overpower people. In fact, his 14.7 percent strikeout rate in 2020 was near the worst in the league. But his ground-ball rates have sat north of 60 percent in each of the past two seasons. That leads to an opponent barrel percentage and expected slugging percentage that are both well above average. And with 205 career saves, Melancon knows the ninth like he knows field surface products.
8. Joakim Soria, RHP
Pop quiz: Which active pitcher has the most career saves?
OK, yes, it’s Craig Kimbrel. But after him?
OK, correct, it’s Kenley Jansen. But after him?
OK, right, it’s Aroldis Chapman. Good job. But after him?
Soria! With 223. That is … not a reason to rank Soria here, but it is reason to respect his track record. In 2020, he had an excellent 2.82 ERA in 22 1/3 innings for a good A’s team, and his expected weighted on-base average (.248), barrel percentage (3.2 percent) and expected slugging percentage (.317) all pointed to even better results. So while Soria is the oldest guy on this list and did see a reduction in his strikeout rate in ’20, he can still deliver a lot of value to the back end of a good bullpen.
9. Justin Wilson, LHP
This is not a high-profile name. You can’t even Google “Justin Wilson” and find him among the top results. You have to either scroll down or search “Justin Wilson baseball.”
But in a market relatively light on lefty setup men, Wilson is a really attractive offering. Predominantly utilizing a four-seamer and cutter, he limits hard contact. His 28.3 percent hard-hit rate in 2020 was in the top eight percent of MLB, and, because he suppressed solid contact, his 3.38 expected ERA was slightly better than his actual 3.66 mark. Here’s the important part: In the age of the three-batter minimum, Wilson offers a career track record in which righties (.218/.309/.329) have fared even worse against him than lefties (.233/.318/.333).
Apologies to Shane Greene, Sean Doolittle, Jeremy Jeffress, Darren O’Day, Brandon Kintzler, Keone Kela and the many others who could pay dividends in 2021, but Bradley’s age and durability earn him our final spot. Prior to the shortened season, he had pitched north of 70 innings apiece in ’17, ’18 and ’19, taking well to a relief role with the D-backs after flaming out as a starter.
Arizona dealt him to Cincinnati this past season, and, despite a 1.17 ERA in 7 2/3 innings, the cost-cutting Reds non-tendered him. Certainly, his inflated expected ERA of 4.01 (versus an actual mark of 2.95 in 18 1/3 total innings) played a role in that decision. But Bradley’s increased use of a changeup that limited batters to a .146 average in 2020 and his improved overall command (career-low 4.1% walk rate) were encouraging developments.