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2018-19 Free Agency Preview: Relief Pitchers

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Beginning this Saturday, baseball’s free agents will be eligible to sign with any team they want.

Over the next couple of days we’ll break down the best available free agents by position, with some special attention paid to the top guys at each spot. We’ll continue with relief pitchers.

Who’s Available?

Cody Allen
Brad Brach
Zach Britton
Carter Capps
Santiago Casilla
Randall Delgado
Jake Diekman
Jeurys Familia
Casey Fien
Kelvin Herrera
Greg Holland
J.P. Howell
Daniel Hudson
Jim Johnson
Shawn Kelley
Joe Kelly
Craig Kimbrel
Ryan Madson
Zack McAllister
Mark Melancon (can opt out)
Andrew Miller
Adam Ottavino
David Phelps
A.J. Ramos
David Robertson
Trevor Rosenthal
Robbie Ross
Marc Rzepczynski
Tanner Scheppers
Tony Sipp
Joakim Soria
Junichi Tazawa
Shawn Tolleson
Carlos Torres
Adam Warren
Justin Wilson
Blake Wood
Travis Wood

Kimbrel is the cream of the crop here, even though he struggled in the ALDS and ALCS. It’s believed he was tipping his pitches, as was pointed out by former reliever Éric Gagné. Kimbrel finished the 2018 postseason with a 5.91 ERA and a 10/8 K/BB ratio in 10 2/3 innings. Kimbrel is turning 31 and is coming off of another dominant regular season, however, so expect him to be heavily pursued.

A handful of the guys on this list could close, depending on their team’s needs. Those relievers include Cody Allen, Zach Britton, Jeurys Familia, Kelvin Herrera, Andrew Miller, Joakim Soria, David Robertson, and Adam Ottavino. Mark Melancon, too, if he opts out. The next echeleon includes relievers who would fit in as seventh- or eighth-inning guys: Brad Brach, Santiago Castilla, Jim Johnson, Shawn Kelley, Joe Kelly, Ryan Madson, AJ Ramos, Blake Wood. Then there’s your lefty specialists: Jake Diekman, Tony Sipp, Justin Wilson. The rest are likely to settle for minor league deals.

Joe Kelly’s stock is much higher after an outstanding postseason performance for the world champion Red Sox. Across nine appearances, he pitched 11 1/3 innings, yielding two runs (one earned) on eight hits and one walk with 13 strikeouts. In the World Series specifically, Kelly tossed six scoreless innings, allowing just four hits with no walks and 10 strikeouts.

Ryan Madson’s stock went in the other direction due to an abysmal postseason showing. He was only on the hook for two runs officially, but he inherited 14 base runners and allowed nine of them to score.

Shawn Kelley’s stock is back up after an acrimonious breakup with the Nationals during the summer. After posting a 3.34 ERA in 32 1/3 innings for the Nationals, Kelley went to the Athletics and pitched even better. In 16 2/3 innings with his new club, he compiled a 2.16 ERA with 18 strikeouts and six walks. He helped shore up the Athletics’ bullpen, which allowed them to finish 97-65. Kelley has been quite good in three out of the last four seasons.

Zach Britton, Andrew Miller, and Mark Melancon’s stocks are down for various reasons. Britton’s peripherals the last two seasons have not been good — averaging about 1.6 strikeouts per one walk. That’s a far cry from his 2015-16 seasons when he averaged over five and four, respectively, strikeouts per one walk. Miller missed time during the 2018 season with injuries and control has increasingly become an issue since averaging just one walk per nine innings in 2016. Melancon’s last two years haven’t been great and he was unable to reach 40 innings in both seasons. In Miller and Melancon’s cases, both are in their mid-30’s and will likely be unable to procure anything longer than a three-year deal.

Who’s Shopping?

Everyone. Especially with the rising popularity of the “opener,” teams can’t have enough bullpen depth. That being said, there are some rebuilding teams that aren’t likely to spend money on an elite reliever this offseason, such as the Orioles, Blue Jays, Tigers, and White Sox.

Teams that are likely to shop for relievers include:

  • Houston Astros: The Astros seemed to really like Roberto Osuna at closer, but that doesn’t preclude them from going after an upgrade. They are losing Tony Sipp to free agency and will likely replenish from outside the organization.
  • Boston Red Sox: Despite their bullpen becoming a strength as the postseason went on, objectively speaking, the bullpen is the team’s biggest weakness, especially sans Craig Kimbrel. They are also losing Joe Kelly to free agency. It wouldn’t be shocking to see them add two elite bullpen arms such as Adam Ottavino and Cody Allen (if they believe Allen’s subpar 2018 to have been a fluke).
  • New York Yankees: It seems like the Yankees are always involved in the free agent reliever market. They’re losing Zach Britton and David Robertson to free agency. The Yankees, too, could have multiple gets from this market.
  • Cleveland Indians: The Indians are losing their closer, Cody Allen, to free agency. Mid-season pickup Brad Hand figures to take over the closer’s role full-time. It is difficult to see the Indians winning bidding wars against the aforementioned, so I wonder if the club might get creative and try to add several bullpen pieces in offseason trades.
  • Atlanta Braves: After their rebuild came together well ahead of schedule, the Braves will be the NL East favorites going into 2019. The bullpen was quite solid throughout the year, but it’s a young bullpen. They could benefit greatly from the addition of a veteran or two to lead the way. Braves ownership has seemed hesitant to spend so I’d wager the club waits until January to see who’s left.
  • Philadelphia Phillies: The Phillies also seemed to come together earlier than expected in the first half, but the bullpen was one big reason why the club faltered down the stretch, finishing 80-82. The Phillies are expected to be big players for free agents Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, so their focus may not be on the bullpen until later in the offseason. Still, GM Matt Klentak may feel like adding one more big bullpen piece will help solidify an otherwise young bullpen. I would expect them to go after a lefty first and foremost.
  • Arizona Diamondbacks: Brad Boxberger posted a 4.39 ERA this past season, so the D-Backs may acquire a new closer, pushing him into a set-up role. Given how often they saw him, going after Adam Ottavino wouldn’t be out of the question.
  • Los Angeles Dodgers: A team with a payroll at the level of the Dodgers will always be in the relief market, but they will especially after the sub-optimal showing in the World Series. The Dodgers also can’t know for sure how Kenley Jansen will hold up given his heart condition. I’d expect them to go after Shawn Kelley or Joe Kelly (having nothing to do with their last names) as opposed to an established, big-name closer. The front office knows where the smart money goes.

If the last couple years of free agency are any indication, we may see a couple of names come off the board in November and December, but a lot of the names listed above may not have new uniforms until February or March. Teams are a lot more wary now about agreeing to big contracts, especially with relievers.

Indians trade Corey Kluber to the Texas Rangers

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The Cleveland Indians have traded two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber to the Texas Rangers. In exchange, Texas is sending center fielder Delino DeShields and pitcher Emmanuel Clase to the Indians. There are reports that the Indians will be getting more than just those two players, but no word yet. The deal is pending physical.

Kluber made only seven starts this past year thanks to a broken arm and a strained oblique muscle. When he did pitch he was no great shakes, posting a 5.80 ERA and 44 hits in 35.2 innings. Those were freak injuries that do not suggest long-term problems, however, so there’s a good reason to think he’ll bounce back to useful form, even if it’s a tough ask for him to return to the form that won him the 2014 and 2017 Cy Young Award.

Before his injury-wracked 2019 campaign, Kluber pitched over 200 innings in each of his previous five seasons so mileage could be an issue. For his career he’s 98-58 with a 3.16 ERA (134 ERA+), a 2.99 FIP, and a K/BB ratio of 1,461/292 over 1,341.2 innings in nine big league seasons.

Unless there is cash coming from Cleveland in the deal, the Rangers will be paying him $17.5 million this year and a 2021 option of $14 million pursuant to the five-year, $38.5 million contract he inked with Cleveland before the 2015 season.

DeShields, 27, is a career .246/.326/.342 hitter (76 OPS+) and that’s about how he performed in 2019 as well. He was demoted to Triple-A Nashville in May. Clase, who will turn 22 before next season, pitched 21 games, all but one in relief, for the Rangers in 2019 and will still be considered a rookie in 2020. He has been used mostly as a reliever in the minors as well.

Pending what else the Tribe is going to be getting, this appears to be a light return for a pitcher who, despite his 2019 injuries, should be expected to come back and be a workhorse. Unless there is some real talent coming back, in addition to DeShields and Clase, it would seem to be a salary dump for Cleveland and a steal for Texas. It is likewise perplexing how any of the many, many teams who could use starting pitching — the Angels and the Mets, among others, come to mind — could not top the package Texas offered.

As for the Indians, the commitment to Kluber for 2020-21 is $31.5 million if you exercise next year’s option, $18.5 million if you don’t. He’s one year and a freak injury removed from goin 20-7 with a 2.89 (150 ERA+), 0.991 WHIP, and 215 innings pitched. Cleveland is coming off 93 wins and should contend. Why you trade Kluber in that situation, regardless of the return, is a question they should have to answer to fans who expect to see winning baseball.