It’s no surprise that the Dodgers’ Kenley Jansen and Cubs’ Aroldis Chapman head the list of free agent relief pitchers this offseason. Both are expected to command some of the highest salary figures for relievers and could even break the record $15 million per year that was given to Yankees’ closer Mariano Rivera.
1. Kenley Jansen, RHP
Jansen profiles as the only closer expected to receive a qualifying offer this winter, which means that any interested party besides the Dodgers will have to give up a draft pick to net him. Still, if anyone’s worth the hype, it’s Jansen: he posted a 1.83 ERA and 1.44 FIP in 68 2/3 innings during the regular season. His 104 strikeouts marked the third triple-digit strikeout total of his career, driving up his K/BB rate to an impressive 9.45 mark.
The 29-year-old right-hander dominated in the postseason as well, contributing 9 2/3 scoreless innings and 16 strikeouts after a four-run flub in Game 3 of the Division Series. He stunned the Nationals in Game 5 of the NLDS, working 2 1/3 scoreless innings on 51 pitches and earning a hold in the Dodgers’ series clinch. While FanRag Sports’ Jon Heyman reported that the Dodgers will make a “nice effort” to re-sign the closer, Jansen is expected to garner one of the most lucrative contracts among free agent relievers this offseason and will likely have a variety of offers to choose from.
2. Aroldis Chapman, LHP
Crowding the market of expensive, high-profile relief pitchers is Aroldis Chapman, who, like Jansen, had a monster season and will likely see a sizable, if not record-breaking contract in 2017. The 29-year-old southpaw split his season between the Yankees and Cubs in 2016 after getting traded close to the deadline for Cubs’ right-hander Adam Warren, shortstop prospect Gleyber Torres, and outfield prospects Billy McKinney and Rashad Crawford.
Chapman began his 2016 season serving a 30-game suspension from MLB, who handed down the ban after the closer faced domestic assault charges in the 2015 offseason. Over 58 innings, he worked a 1.55 ERA and 1.42 for the Yankees and Cubs, finishing the year with a blistering playoff streak that culminated in a 3.45 ERA and 21 strikeouts in 15 2/3 innings and a decisive win in Game 7 of the World Series.
George A. King III of the New York Post speculates that the Yankees could be interested in bringing Chapman back, and they won’t be the only team to make a play for the closer. Since Chapman split his season between two clubs, the Cubs won’t be in a position to offer him a $17.2 million QO, so any other team who picks him up won’t have to give up a compensatory draft pick. Although the Dodgers passed on a trade for Chapman in the 2015 offseason due to his suspension, it appears unlikely that many other teams will display the same reservations as the 2017 season approaches.
According to a National League source quoted by the Post, ballpark figures for Chapman and Jansen range from $15-18 million per year.
3. Mark Melancon, RHP
At 32 years old, Melancon won’t receive a contract quite as lucrative or as long as the ones that will be offered to Chapman and Jansen, but his stat line should make him very attractive to teams in search of a stable, productive closer.
Melancon went from the Pirates to the Nationals at the 2016 trade deadline in exchange for Nationals’ left-handers Taylor Hearn and Felipe Rivero. He finished the season with a 1.64 ERA in 71 1/3 innings, reaching sub-2.00 levels for the third time in the last five years. His presence in the Nationals’ bullpen, though brief, helped stabilize the club as they made their third playoff run in five seasons, and he returned in October for 4 1/3 scoreless frames as the Nationals fell to the Giants in the Division Series. Per a report by the Washington Post’s Chelsea Janes, the Nationals seem more than capable of making a play for Melancon, though they also appear to have several internal candidates who could fill the role.
4. Greg Holland, RHP
Beyond Chapman, Jansen, and Melancon, the free agent pool thins out a little bit. Holland, at 31 years old, will likely be looking at a one- or two-year deal after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2015 and missing the entire 2016 season. The right-hander is several years removed from back-to-back All-Star seasons in 2013 and 2014, during which he stunned opponents with a collective 1.32 ERA and 193 strikeouts in 129 1/3 innings for the Royals. His numbers slipped in 2015, due in part to health issues, and he labored under a 3.83 ERA in 44 2/3 innings for the eventual World Series champs before undergoing surgery in October.
Holland is scheduled to hold a pitching showcase for interested teams on Monday in his first appearance of the year. The Yankees, Red Sox, Giants, and Rangers have reportedly expressed interest in the right-hander so far.
5. Brad Ziegler, RHP
Ziegler will enter his first year of free agency at age 37 after finishing a five-year track with the Diamondbacks and a late-season run with the Red Sox. He was traded to Boston in early July for right-hander Jose Almonte and infielder Luis Alejandro Basabe and went on to deliver a 1.52 ERA and 3.10 FIP in 29 2/3 frames for the AL East division champs. The veteran groundballer finished the 2016 season with a 2.25 mark and 58 strikeouts for the Diamondbacks and Red Sox, and placed fourth among qualified relief pitchers with a groundball rate of 63.3% over 68 innings.
Despite seeing a dip in his production value from 2015, Ziegler’s overall value as a setup man should net him a respectable contract, helped by the fact that no team will have to sacrifice draft picks to get him.
6. Santiago Casilla, RHP
While the Giants suffered from several bullpen blowouts toward the end of the 2016 season, Casilla was busy earning another 30+ saves for the second season in a row. The 36-year-old commanded a 3.57 ERA and 3.94 FIP in 58 innings during his seventh year with the Giants, and saw considerable improvement in his strikeout rate (10.09 K/9) and walk rate (2.95 BB/9) to boot. His health and consistency made him a stable presence in Bruce Bochy’s ‘pen despite losing the closing role in September, and if the Giants aren’t willing to shell out the cash to retain their former closer, Casilla should have no problem finding a landing spot elsewhere in the league.
Other names to look out for in this winter’s free agent market: Koji Uehara (RHP, 41 years old), Brett Cecil (LHP, 30), Travis Wood (LHP, 30), Sergio Romo (RHP, 34), Neftali Feliz (RHP, 28), and Daniel Hudson (RHP, 30).