Hot Stove Preview: Top Free Agent Relief Pitchers Available

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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.

If you missed previous installments of the free agent round-up, here are the lists of the top starting pitchers, catchers, shortstops, and third basemen set for free agency this offseason.

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).

MLB, WNBA postpone games due to smoke from Canadian wildfires

mlb canadian wildfires

NEW YORK — With the stench of smoke permeating Yankee Stadium and wafting through its walkways, Major League Baseball postponed games in New York and Philadelphia on Wednesday night because of poor air quality caused by Canadian wildfires.

A National Women’s Soccer League game in New Jersey and an indoor WNBA game set for Brooklyn were also called off Wednesday amid hazy conditions that have raised alarms from health authorities.

The New York Yankees’ game against the Chicago White Sox was rescheduled as part of a doubleheader starting at 4:05 p.m. on Thursday, and the Philadelphia Phillies’ game against the Detroit Tigers was reset for 6:05 p.m. on Thursday, originally a day off for both teams.

“These postponements were determined following conversations throughout the day with medical and weather experts and all of the impacted clubs regarding clearly hazardous air quality conditions in both cities,” MLB said in a statement.

The National Weather Service issued an air quality alert for New York City, saying: “the New York State Department of Health recommends that individuals consider limiting strenuous outdoor physical activity to reduce the risk of adverse health effects.” In Philadelphia, the NWS issued a Code Red.

The Yankees and White Sox played through a lesser haze on Tuesday night. A day later, stadium workers and fans arriving early to the ballpark wore face masks for protection in a scene reminiscent of the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was business as usual for me coming in. I got in around 12, 12:30, and didn’t really think too much of it,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “I actually walked outside about 2 o’clock and was like – like everyone else, like – whoa.”

White Sox manager Pedro Grifol thought MLB made the right decision postponing the game.

“These are health issues, right? So this has got to be it. We’ve been through everything – snow, rain, hail. I don’t think I’ve been through something like this,” he said. “Today at one point, it was pretty bad out there. We walked out of the dugout and it was kind of orange. They did the right thing. They got all the information.

“I’m assuming if Major League Baseball is comfortable setting up a doubleheader tomorrow, they have some type of information that it should be better than what it is today, or at least safe.”

In Philadelphia, the Phillies beat the Tigers 1-0 on Tuesday night in a game played in hazy conditions with the smell of smoke in the air. Afterward, manager Rob Thomson and his Phillies players said the conditions didn’t affect them.

About a half-hour before Wednesday’s postponement, Thomson said he thought the game would be played. But the Philadelphia skyline could not be seen from the ballpark in the afternoon, and the smoky smell remained.

Minor league teams nearby also changed plans. The Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in Pennsylvania, and the Mets’ top farm club in Syracuse, New York, postponed their games for the second consecutive night.

The Mets’ High-A affiliate in Brooklyn completed a game Wednesday against Greenville that began at 11 a.m.

The WNBA called off a game between the Minnesota Lynx and New York Liberty, saying the decision was made to “protect the health and safety of our fans, teams and community.” A makeup date wasn’t immediately announced.

Even inside Barclays Center at the morning shootaround, reporters could smell smoke in the arena.

The NWSL postponed Orlando’s match at Gotham in Harrison, New Jersey, from Wednesday night to Aug. 9.

“The match could not be safely conducted based on the projected air quality index,” the NWSL said.

At nearby Belmont Park, the New York Racing Association said training went on as planned Wednesday ahead of Saturday’s Triple Crown horse race. However, NYRA canceled training Thursday morning at Belmont and Saratoga Race Course upstate “due to poor air quality conditions forecast to impact New York State overnight and into Thursday morning.”

NYRA said a decision about Thursday’s live racing program, scheduled to begin at 3:05 p.m., will be made Thursday morning “following a review of the air quality conditions and forecast.”

“NYRA utilizes external weather services and advanced on-site equipment to monitor weather conditions and air quality in and around Belmont Park,” spokesman Patrick McKenna said Wednesday. “Training was conducted normally today, and NYRA will continue to assess the overall environment to ensure the safety of training and racing throughout the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival.”

New York’s NFL teams, the Giants and Jets, both had Wednesday off from offseason workouts. The Giants had been planning to practice inside Thursday, and the Jets said they are also likely to work out indoors Thursday.

Youth sports in the area were also affected, with parents quick to voice concern about their children’s safety outdoors.

In a statement Wednesday, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association said schools should understand that all schedules were subject to change.

“NJSIAA is closely monitoring air quality data across New Jersey and local/state health advisories. As start times for athletic events draw near, we will make decisions for each venue and sport based on currently available information,” the organization said.

It’s not the first time in recent years that wildfires forced changes to the MLB schedule. A two-game series in Seattle between the Mariners and Giants was moved to San Francisco in September 2020 because of poor air quality caused by West Coast wildfires.

About an hour after Wednesday night’s game at Yankee Stadium was postponed, two fans visiting on vacation from Vancouver, British Columbia, were still lingering outside the ballpark.

“It’s just circumstances. What do I say? It makes me disappointed because this is one of the highlights of the trip,” said Malcolm, who was in town with his daughter and didn’t want to give his last name.

“I have a heart condition. That’s the only reason I’m wearing two masks and whatever. And my personal thought is that, why wasn’t it canceled two days ago? Because we knew about all this two days ago. But having said that, I don’t want the players running around and putting out in this, too. It can’t be good for them.”