Many teams are looking to upgrade their pitching staff this offseason, as even teams that made a postseason appearance saw their bullpens fall apart at the most inopportune times or normally reliable starters fail to mow down opponents in their normal fashion. The good news is that, despite top options like Clayton Kershaw being off the market already thanks to a re-negotiated deal in LA, there is more than enough available help to make the offseason pitching carousel a fun one.
This year’s free agent class of relievers is an incredibly strong one, and will be fetching a variety of offers from
Old team: Nationals
Best new fit: Dodgers
Herrera spent his entire career with the Royals before heading to the Nationals at the trade deadline this season, and he was one of the top trade pieces to make a move. In 2018 he put up a 2.44 ERA (but a 3.95 FIP), 1.195 WHIP and a 7.7 SO/9 rate, the second-lowest of his career, in 44.1 innings. At a 5.5%, Herrera had the fourth-lowest walk rate of all the free agent relievers in this class. He was one of the most valued rentals at the deadline, and he’ll be one of the most desired gets in the offseason.
For the Dodgers, a lockdown reliever is very much on their shopping list this offseason. Even with arms like Kenley Jansen and Pedro Baez in their bullpen, their relief contingent couldn’t quite keep it together in the postseason — even before they hit the Boston buzzsaw. They were reportedly in on Herrera before his trade to the Nationals, and there’s no sign that LA would be any less interested now. Even with the news that they’re attempting to stay below the luxury tax next season, they could pony up for Herrera.
Old team: Indians
Best new fit: Mets
Miller’s regular season performances haven’t yet nose-dived to the extent that he’s fallen off the top tier of available free agents, but he’s already dipping enough that you can tell he’s not the world beater he once was. In 34 innings in 2018, he had 4.2 BB/9 and 11.9 SO/9 rates with a 1.382 WHIP and a 3.51 FIP. Compare that to his 2017, where in 62.2 innings he had a 3.0 BB/9 and 13.6 SO/9 rates, a 0.830 WHIP and a 1.99 FIP.
Even accounting for his three separate trips to the disabled list this year, and it’s still easy to see he’s off his game. Three DL trips is also not a great sign for his future health. His dip is also easy to see if you look at his career in two sections of postseasons.
2014-2016: 27.2 IP, 0.98 ERA, 68% strikes thrown, .200 OBA, 1.790 WPA
2017-2018: 5.1 IP, 1.69 ERA, 64% strikes thrown, .250 OBA, -0.283 WPA
With the Mets, who are interested and with who he already has a connection, he most likely wouldn’t be postseason bound again anytime soon. But based on his last two autumns maybe that’s fine. He can sign a 3- or 4-year deal in New York to finish out his career in a big market, continue to be as close to Andrew Miller as possible for maybe the first year of it, and then his career will start declining even more noticeably. As they all do eventually. But by that point we’ll be able to blame a natural fall-off on the Mets, which should be fun.
Old team: Red Sox
Best new fit: Red Sox
Kimbrel is only 30 years old, and he has a World Series ring. Even when tipping pitches in the playoffs he managed to not torpedo Boston’s trajectory to a championship. He could get a massive deal almost anywhere he wants this offseason, probably. But is there another city where his particular brand of intensity, his pre-delivery crane move, and the nickname “Dirty Craig” would work as well as it does in Boston? No.
Old team: Rockies
Best new fit: Cardinals
Ottavino did not receive a qualifying offer from Colorado this year and has the best fWAR among free agent relievers at 2.0. In 77.2 innings this year he had a 2.43 ERA, a 2.74 FIP, and a 0.991 WHIP. Combine that with 13.0 SO/9 and 4.2 BB/9, and there’s no question why he’s one of the most valued relievers available. His ERA and WHIP were worse away from Coors Field, but not appreciably so.
The Rockies don’t have the money to bring him back, but he’s also already 32 so is not going to command a four or five-year deal at this point. Still, he could command a big contract money-wise because of his raw stats and his reliability as a super-reliever after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2015. The Cardinals are reportedly interested in Andrew Miller, and they probably only have room for either Miller or Ottavino with $42 million spent on their bullpen already in 2019.
That would also mean a return to St. Louis for Ottavino, who pitched 22.1 terrible innings for them back in 2010 as a 26-year old starter. This is a real “how the relief market shakes out once a few dominoes fall” situation but it would be a fit for a team who could seriously contend in 2019.
Old team: Cubs
Best new fit: Cubs
Wilson isn’t the most valuable arm available in free agency this offseason. He has the sixth-best K rate of all available free agent relievers and 3.64 FIP and 1.427 WHIP in 54.2 innings for the Cubs in 2018. But he would still be a huge help for a lot of teams and not every club is going to land Andrew Miller. That’s just not how it works.
At only 25 years old, Wilson could also garner more money or years simply by virtue of his youth and reliability so far (he has 3.33 ERA and a 121 ERA+ through his first seven season in the league). He could be an option for his old team the Pirates if they make a move, or the Yankees if they add multiple top relievers as it seems they are trying to do, but it make sense for both sides to return to the Cubs.
Chicago is prioritizing a few top players as they transition from the cheap and young point of their roster evolution to the “all of our stars need to get paid” point and keeping Wilson in the bullpen as a young, talented option would be a smart decision and money well spent.
Old team: A’s
Best new fit: Phillies
Familia is second behind Ottavino in top fWAR of this reliever class with 1.8 WAR in 2018, and was traded to the A’s from the Mets at the trade deadline. Like Wilson, he’s a top talent that isn’t getting the top headlines while arms like Kimbrel, Miller, and Ottavino are still available. He might not be the first to ink a deal, but that doesn’t make him any less attractive.
He’s someone who could also end up on multiple teams in need of bullpen help, but the Phillies are feeling more and more like the team who will get no top free agents (positions players or otherwise) but still make it out of this offseason ... decently. They were in on Zack Britton at the deadline before the Yankees traded for him, and they have money to spend and have the awareness that they need to do so to contend against the Braves and (maybe) Nationals next year. Familia would be a smart investment if they can’t lure the top of the top tier arms available.