Late Thursday night, the best available free-agent reliever came off the board. The Nationals signed veteran setup man Will Harris to a three-year contract worth $24 million. Harris served up the go-ahead two-run home run to Howie Kendrick in Game 7 of the World Series. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em, I guess.
Harris was the only remaining unsigned reliever among our top 50 free agents. The free-agent reliever class was thin to begin with and now it has been mostly picked clean. Here are the top available free agent bullpeners, according to FanGraphs' projected WAR:
- LHP Clayton Richard: 0.6 WAR
- RHP Collin McHugh: 0.5 WAR
- RHP Andrew Cashner: 0.5 WAR
- RHP Craig Stammen: 0.4 WAR
- Several tied at 0.3 WAR
Righties Steve Cishek, David Phelps and Pedro Strop all strike me as better pitchers than their 0.1 WAR projection may lead you to believe, but the point remains. The free-agent bullpen market is bleak right now. Harris was the last available impact reliever.
There are no shortage of teams looking for bullpen help. Every team wants more pitching depth and there's always room to squeeze another quality reliever on the roster. With free agency cleaned out, the trade market is the only available avenue to get an impact bullpener between now and Opening Day.
With spring training roughly six weeks away, here's a look at the reliever trade market as clubs look for alternative solutions to their bullpen problems given the state of free agency.
The Brewers have had a very active offseason yet it seems they've made a lot of moves to wind up right back where they were last season in terms of expected wins. Trading Josh Hader would equal a step back, though he's been involved in trade rumors pretty much all winter, and there's no harm in gauging the market. There's always a chance a team blows you away with an offer.
Despite last year's home run issues, Hader remains elite, and he is under team control through 2023. They'll be four pricey years -- Hader qualifies as a Super Two and will go through arbitration four times rather than the usual three -- but he'll still be paid far below his actual worth. Hader's trade value may never be higher than it is right now. This would be the time to cash him in as a trade chip.
Four years of a reliever as good as Hader will require a massive prospect package. In fact, forget prospects. I imagine the Brewers will seek young MLB players in return. A reliever to replace Hader, a quality starting pitcher, and a prospect or two figures to be the initial ask. Milwaukee's window is as open as it's going to get and they will want to contend in 2020, with or without Hader.
Worth a call
Clearly, the Padres want to contend in 2020. They committed over $400 million to Eric Hosmer and Manny Machado the last two offseasons, and their farm system is producing impact big-league talent (Chris Paddack, Fernando Tatis Jr., etc.). Beating out the Dodgers for the NL West title this coming season will be a tall order. Contending for a wild-card spot isn't too much to ask though.
Kirby Yates has emerged as one of the game's elite relievers the last two years and trading him would run counter to the whole "we want to contend" idea. Here's the thing though: Yates will be a free agent after 2020. If the Padres do not believe they will be able to sign him long-term, trading him now for multiple MLB pieces wouldn't be the worst idea. It has to be a consideration, at least.
San Diego has spent the winter bolstering their relief crew. They signed Drew Pomeranz and Pierce Johnson to multiyear deals as free agents, adding them to hard-throwing youngster Andres Munoz. Add in their pitching prospects, and the Padres may be able to trade Yates and contend anyway. If nothing else, he's worth a phone call if you're a contender looking for an impact bullpen arm.
Boom or bust option
Back in September, the Blue Jays nearly sent their closer Ken Giles to the AL East rival Yankees for three undisclosed prospects at the trade deadline, according to The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal, but New York backed out at the last minute, likely due to medicals. Giles, an impending free agent like Yates, battled a nagging elbow injury throughout 2019, but was lights out when healthy.
The Blue Jays have a dynamite young position player core and they've added Tanner Roark and Hyun-Jin Ryu to their rotation this offseason. I'm not sure they'll contend for a postseason spot in 2020, but they will be a headache to play against. Given his looming free agency, Giles may not be part of the next contending Blue Jays team. I imagine he is available despite the offseason additions.
The elbow woes will no doubt impact the market and the return, so Toronto has two options: trade Giles for whatever they can get now or keep him and hope he rebuilds value before the trade deadline. The second option is very risky, but it could lead to a greater trade package. Either way, I suspect Giles will appear in more trade rumors the next few weeks than any other reliever.
There are no indications the Indians are shopping or are even willing to trade Brad Hand, but they've already shipped out Corey Kluber, and Francisco Lindor remains a trade rumor staple. I think it's safe to assume Cleveland is open to trading Hand and his affordable contract ($17 million max through 2021) as long as it nets them a quality return. They'd be foolish not to listen.
In a way, Hand hits the sweet spot among trade candidate relievers. He shouldn't require as substantial a trade package as Hader, he comes with one more year of control than Yates, and he doesn't have any injury concerns like Giles. As far as non-rental impact relievers go, Hand may be the best option. His name popped up in rumors at the deadline and I bet the Indians will listen again now.
As the Orioles have declined in the standings so too has Mychal Givens on the mound. Two years ago he threw 78 2/3 innings with a 2.75 ERA and looked like one of the game's best up-and-coming young relievers. Then he slipped to a 3.99 ERA in 76 2/3 innings in 2018, and again to a 4.57 ERA in 63 innings in 2019. Not a good trend for one of Baltimore's top remaining trade chips.
The good news: Givens is still only 29, he is under team control through 2021, and he still misses plenty of bats with velocity and a wipeout slider. He is especially tough on righties. Any contender looking for a potential high-leverage reliever but unwilling to pay the price for Giles, Hader, Hand or Yates could turn to Givens, and hope he gets back to where he was in 2017 away from the O's.
Two years ago Joe Jimenez was arguably the best relief prospect in the game. He has not lived up the hype in his two seasons with the Tigers, however, mostly because he's been home run prone (13 homers in 2019) and more hittable than the raw stuff would lead you to believe. Still, it's upper-90s gas and a power slider. That'll play. The raw tools are worth a roll of the dice.
The Tigers are early in their rebuild and, even with four years of team control remaining, Jimenez's prime may not align with the club's window. He could be a free agent or in decline by time Detroit is ready to contend. Relievers are so risky. Building around one is folly and the Tigers should consider offers. The team control and recent prospect shine make Jimenez a sneaky good option.
Salary dump candidate
The first three years of Ian Kennedy's five-year, $70 million contract were a lost cause. Then he moved into the bullpen last season and emerged as a lock-down closer. The Royals opted to keep him at the July trade deadline rather than capitalize on his newfound success, though I have to think he's available this offseason as he enters his walk year with a rebuilding team. Why keep him?
The Royals have two trade options with Kennedy: dump as much of his $16.5 million salary as possible or eat some money and get an actual prospect(s) in return. I recommend the latter. The $16.5 million is a sunk cost. The team owes Kennedy that money anyway. Might as well turn it into something useful. Eat some cash and get a young player or two in return to advance the rebuild.
Three years ago the Rockies invested nine contract seasons and $106 million in three veteran free agent relievers and the results have been disastrous. Over the last two seasons they've paid those relievers $65.5 million and received a 5.69 ERA and minus-1.1 WAR in return. Even adjusting for Coors Field, that is catastrophic. Enough to sink a postseason bubble team.
Because the Rockies were apparently in a giving mood during the 2017-18 offseason, each of these contracts include an option for 2021 that vests under certain conditions. Here are the details:
|PITCHER||2018-19 WAR||2020 SALARY||2021 OPTION STATUS|
RHP Wade Davis
$15M player option with a trade and 30 games finished in 2020 ($1M buyout)
LHP Jake McGee
$9M option vests with 65 appearances in 2020 ($2M buyout)
RHP Bryan Shaw
$9M option vests with 40 appearances in 2020 ($2M buyout)
Yep, disastrous. You can void Davis' player option -- an option he'd obviously exercise given his recent performance -- by trading for him as using him as a non-closer. Shaw, to his credit, has made at least 60 appearances every year since 2012, and holding him out of games to avoid the option would be awkward. McGee hasn't made 65 appearances since 2014. Avoiding that may be doable.
Realistically, these three have no trade value. Even if the Rockies eat a bunch of money, I can't imagine they would get much in return. Maybe there's a bad contract for bad contract trade to be made? Would either the Mets or Rockies do Jed Lowrie (owed $12 million) for McGee (owed $11 million minimum given the buyout)? Not sure, but that's the kind of trade we're talking about here.
The Rockies are "investigating" trades for both McGee and Shaw, Patrick Saunders of the Denver Post reports. Of course they are. They want out of those contracts. Squint your eyes and you can buy Davis, McGee or Shaw as bounce back candidates outside of Coors Field. The contracts are ugly though, enough to potentially snuff out any trade interest.
Other potential trade candidates: RHP Miguel Castro, Orioles; LHP Andrew Chafin, Diamondbacks; LHP Tim Hill, Royals; RHP Keone Kela, Pirates; LHP Tony Watson, Giants