Oh What a Relief It Is: Free Agent Relief Pitchers
Of all the areas of concern for the Astros this year, the Bullpen has to rank fairly low. With that said, with 3 spots open in the Rotation, and a few pitchers who could slide from the Bullpen to the Rotation (McHugh, James, Peacock) and the potential departure of our LOOGY (Sipp), I figured I’d do an overview on the Free Agent Pitchers.
For the Free Agent’s, I will quote the MLBTradeRumors blurb on each of the relief pitchers which contains their estimated market value (what I think we should use on deciding if we should be interested cost wise):
”5. Craig Kimbrel – Cardinals. Four years, $70MM. Kimbrel has been one of the best closers in baseball since taking the job for the Braves in 2011. In his eight full seasons, he’s made the All-Star team seven times and placed in the Cy Young voting five times. Over the past three years, he’s struck out 42.3% of batters faced, leading all MLB relievers. He’s third among relievers during that time with an average fastball of 97.6 miles per hour. Like many closers, Kimbrel’s control is not a strong suit, but he’s so hard to hit that it generally doesn’t matter. We think Kimbrel is more likely to beat Wade Davis’ average annual value record for relievers ($17.33MM) than he is to reach Aroldis Chapman’s record-setting $86MM total. Because Kimbrel signed an extension with the Braves in 2014, he reaches free agency more than a year older than Chapman and Kenley Jansen were when they hit the open market. A return to Boston could be possible, or teams like the Cardinals, Angels, Cubs, Braves, Phillies, Mets, and Twins could get involved. Kimbrel was issued a qualifying offer from the Red Sox.”
Hammah’s Note - Kimbrel has been arguably the most dominant reliever in baseball for an extended period of time. While I would obviously love to have him, his cost is prohibitive especially for a team that already has arguably the best bullpen in baseball. Interestingly, MLBTR didn’t note that Kimbrel, while still outstanding last year, was significantly worse than his career indicates. I think there would need to be some research on if it looks to be simply bad luck or if he’s on a downward trend. My vote: No
”17. Jeurys Familia – Twins. Three years, $33MM. Familia, 29, excelled as the Mets’ closer from 2015-16, posting a 2.20 ERA and 9.8 K/9 in 155 2/3 innings. He was arrested on a domestic violence charge in November 2016, but the charge was dismissed the following month. The following year, MLB gave a statement on the matter and suspended Familia for 15 games. Early in the 2017 season, Familia was diagnosed with an arterial clot in his right shoulder, which resulted in surgery and more than three months on the DL. This year, Familia hit the DL in June for shoulder soreness, though he missed the minimum 10 days. He closed out his season in Oakland after a July trade to the A’s. Only a dozen relievers threw harder than Familia this year, and he could even be popular enough to warrant a four-year deal.”
Hammah’s Note - With the backlash that occurred last year due to Osuna and the associated health risks from Familia makes it hard for me to believe that the Astros will pursue him. They can “write-off” the Domestic Violence discussion due to what they found during their investigation on Osuna, signing Familia truthfully would seem like a smack in the face of the idea that they could remotely claim to care. My Vote: No
”18. Zach Britton – Astros. Three years, $33MM. Britton might have been the best reliever in baseball upon the conclusion of his dominant 2016 season for the Orioles. The lefty had allowed just four runs in 67 innings, generating ground-balls at a historic 80 percent rate — the highest mark since the stat began being tracked. However, a strained forearm cropped up in April 2017, which quickly recurred after he was activated from the DL in May. He missed two months after that and was also shut down early in September with a knee injury. Worse yet, Britton ruptured an Achilles tendon in December 2017, delaying his 2018 debut until June 12th. He joined the Yankees’ elite bullpen in a July deal. Despite a 3.00 ERA over the past two seasons, Britton’s 7.3 K/9 and 4.5 BB/9 were unimpressive. However, he’s still throwing over 95 miles per hour from the left side, and he’s still getting ground-balls more than 70 percent of the time. Given Britton’s three-year stretch of dominance as the Orioles’ closer from 2014-16, his market should be robust even if he’s yet to return to form. There might not be a better arm to dream on in the current class. The Astros, Cubs, Red Sox, Twins, Angels, Cardinals, Mets, Phillies, and Dodgers could be involved.”
Hammah’s Note - I feel like the Zach Britton to the Astros rumors have been the most consistent of any player I’ve seen in the Luhnow era of baseball. Britton being a lefty certainly does not hurt his chances, as we lost our only established lefty with Sipp’s (potential) departure. As with most, I trust the Astros analytics far more than just a cursory view of the stat line. Britton is one of the two candidates I came in believing I should do a deep dive into to see if he still makes sense despite the injury history and down year. My Vote: Potentially Yes- Needs research
”19. David Robertson – Mets. Three years, $33MM. Robertson, 34 in April, has been a paragon of durability, pitching 60+ relief innings in each of the past nine seasons. He became the Yankees’ closer in 2014, serving in that role for the White Sox as well until being traded back to New York in 2017. Robertson is difficult to hit and continually puts up huge strikeout rates, getting the most out of a fastball in the 92 mile per hour range due to incredible extension. Robertson has made the interesting choice to represent himself in free agency, and we think he has a good case for a three-year deal despite the fact that he’s entering his mid-30s. Robertson, Jeurys Familia, Zach Britton, and Adam Ottavino make up a second tier of relievers who should do quite well in free agency.” \
Hammah’s Note - Robertson has been a solid bullpen piece for the past decade for the Yankees, holding a career 2.88 ERA, and since his rookie year which he posted a 5.34 ERA, his ERA has stayed within the 1.08 - 3.82 range, backed up by the advanced stats. Unfortunately for Robertson, the other aspect that is advanced is his age. A three year pact would result in the team rostering him until he is 36. My Vote: No
”21. Adam Ottavino – Yankees. Three years, $30MM. Ottavino, 33 in November, will use an excellent contract year as a springboard to a strong contract. Originally a Cardinals first-round draft pick, Ottavino had some success out of the Rockies’ bullpen from 2012-14 before requiring Tommy John surgery in May 2015. He came back strong for the second half of 2016 but hit the DL in May 2017 with shoulder inflammation. That became a lost year in which Ottavino walked more than 16 percent of batters faced. Then, as wonderfully detailed by Travis Sawchik for FanGraphs, Ottavino rebuilt himself out of a vacated Nine West shoe store during the 2017-18 offseason using advanced technology. He went on to rank eighth among qualified relievers in strikeout percentage (36.1 percent) and should be able to land a three-year deal.”
Hammah’s Note - Ottavino is an interesting case, and what I can only imagine being an extremely frustrating player. As a first round draft pick, Ottavino always had the talent, but has had an incredibly up-and-down career. He’s 7 months younger than Robertson but overall, still on the higher end of the age gap. Pitching for the Rockies, it’s always intriguing to see the stat lines, but Ottavino goes from straight dominant such as this year (2.43 ERA) and 2 years ago (2.67 ERA) but sandwhiched it with a 5.06 ERA 2017 season. This seems to have been a trend for his career with up and down years. The Astros would probably love that he’s embraced the advanced analytics according to the MLBTR article, but due to advanced age, injury and performance history - My Vote: No
”24. Andrew Miller – Red Sox. Three years, $27MM. Britton and Miller are the top lefty relief options on the market, and both should do well based more on past success than on their 2018 results. Miller, 33, tallied a 4.24 ERA in 34 innings in a season that was shortened by a hamstring strain, knee inflammation, and a shoulder impingement. He dominated from 2014-17, posting a 1.72 ERA, 14.5 K/9, and 2.3 BB/9 in 261 innings for the Red Sox, Orioles, Yankees, and Indians. He’ll likely have his pick of contending clubs from which to choose.”
Hammah’s Note - First off, that gif is truly a wipe-out slider! Miller was one of the first times a lot of us started recognizing Luhnow’s genius. He turned down the Astros, despite them offering more money, to go to the evil empire a few years ago. What was interesting, at the time, Miller was not a known quantity, and Luhnow’s chase seemed more for publicity than true evaluation of talent. Then Miller broke out. It will be interesting to see how the injuries and this year’s performance dampen the market. Again - being a lefty and the previous levels of dominance makes him intriguing. My Vote - Interesting enough for more research.
”25. Joe Kelly – Angels. Three years, $27MM. With an average fastball velocity of 98.1 miles per hour, Kelly is one of the hardest-throwing relievers in baseball. The 30-year-old has struggled to marry that velocity with results, with a problematic walk rate and fewer strikeouts than you might expect. Still, Kelly left a great lasting impression by allowing just one run in 11 1/3 postseason innings for the Red Sox, with 13 strikeouts and no walks. His upside should be tantalizing enough to net him a three-year deal.”
Hammah’s note - I didn’t know who Joe Kelly was before our post season battle against the Red Sox, other than due to his temper. But I think everyone recognized that he opened some eyes during the post season. While Kelly has tantalizing upside, I think he will be overpaid for that short stint. He has shown in previous seasons that he has the ability, but after living with Sipp’s inconsistencies, he wouldn’t be a primary target, especially when you’re in the same price league’s as the suddenly less appealing Britton and Miller. My Vote: No
”26. Kelvin Herrera – Dodgers. One year, $8MM. Herrera was part of the Royals’ vaunted bullpen trio of 2013-15, along with Greg Holland and Wade Davis. Soon to be 29, the righty owns a 2.82 career ERA, flashing elite strikeout and walk rates at times but not consistently. For example, he walked only two batters in 25 2/3 innings to start the season as the Royals’ closer this year, but had a 3.9 BB/9 after being traded to the Nationals in June. His strikeout rates have been as high as 11.4 per nine and as low as 7.6 per nine. He’s continued to pump 97-98 mile per hour gas all along and would have scored one of the largest relief contracts of the winter, but he went down in late August for surgery on the Lisfranc ligament in his left foot. As of right now, Herrera’s recovery timeline is a total unknown, at least to the public. He’s young enough that a one-year deal, once a timeline is established, will give him a nice opportunity to rebuild his stock in search of a big multi-year deal next winter.”
Hammah’s Note - I had mixed emotions in regards to Herrera and the Royal’s bullpen hitting our players in the past. With that said, Herrera was a dominant force. Honestly, I don’t know enough about the surgery and the potential damaging effects on his pitching ability, but Herrera could be an excellent sign low type candidate, offering him a 2-year deal could provide us not only the reinforcements we always seem to need for the second half of the year, but an essential piece as we look into the following year. My Vote - Worth exploring but I’m intrigued.
”34. Joakim Soria – Mets. Two years, $18MM. Soria, 34, continues to find success with his combination of a high strikeout and low walk rate. He was able to avoid the long ball despite a precipitous drop in ground-ball rate this season, which he split between the White Sox and Brewers. With a fastball under 93 miles per hour, Soria isn’t a flashy choice, but he still provides plenty of value.”
Hammah’s Note - Soria seems like a solid but unspectacular option to fill out a bullpen. I just don’t see the Astros needing that player, especially when the rumored $9 Mil/year is in the same tier (although fewer years) as options with similar floor but much higher ceilings. My Vote: No.
”37. Cody Allen – Braves. Two years, $16MM. Allen dominated as the Indians’ closer from 2014-17, posting a 2.62 ERA, 12.1 K/9, and 120 saves. This year, an increase in home runs and walks allowed torched his value. Just 30 in November, Allen shouldn’t have a hard time finding a team willing to bet on a return to form. Perhaps his camp even prefers a one-year deal with an eye on reentering the market next season, but multiple years should still be possible if the goal is to take max dollars now.”
Hammah’s Note - Cody Allen seems intriguing, from 2013-2017, Allen was consistently above average posting an ERA between 2.07 and 2.99. The home run rate is not the primary concern to me, but the increase in walks, reduction in strikeouts, and decline in velocity (94.3 to 93.5) is concerning to me. Unless there was an injury or a mechanical item the Astros see that makes him a good recovery project, My Vote - No
”40. Bud Norris – Indians. Two years, $12MM. Norris, 34 in March, has transitioned successfully from the rotation to the bullpen. This year for the Cardinals, he managed a 3.59 ERA, 10.5 K/9, 3.3 BB/9, 1.25 HR/9, and 42.6 percent ground-ball rate in 57 2/3 innings, including 28 saves. His ERA sat at 2.85 in August 28th and ballooned after a rough week in September. Another factor to consider is that Norris is decidedly old school in the clubhouse, and was revealed as Mike Matheny’s bullpen monitor in Mark Saxon’s July story for The Athletic. A two-year deal seems likely.”
Hammah’s note - Ohhh Bud Norris. From your statement saying “They are definitely the outcast of major league baseball right now, and it’s kind of frustrating for everyone else to have to watch it,” to your public criticism of the Singleton deal (he has to feel stupid about this now), to your mid-level results and advanced age. My Vote: Hard No.
”41. Brad Brach – Brewers. Two years, $12MM. Brach, 33 in April, had success out of the Orioles’ bullpen with a 2.74 ERA and 9.5 K/9 from 2014-17. He even earned an All-Star nod in 2016. After a rough 39 innings to begin his 2018 campaign, Brach was traded to Atlanta. The top line result — a 1.52 ERA — was strong, but Brach’s peripheral stats didn’t support it. He remains a useful righty arm, but his stock took a hit in 2018.”
Hammah’s Note - Another previously very solid relief pitcher that had a “rough” 2018. His performance over the past 5 years in the AL east, has been consistent and is in some ways very intriguing. The most concerning aspect to me is the loss in velocity, which generally is the beginning of the end. It is a low risk deal, but I don’t foresee the Astros actively spending money on the consistent middle of the road performer unless there is something they see that they can improve.
So let me know your thoughts, who would you be interested in signing or even having me deep dive into their profile. It’s an item of note, that the Astros truly had one of the best bullpen’s in baseball and that did not seem to be driven by “luck”. While you never want to bank on consistent performance from Relievers, I have to believe most of us feel good going into next year, even with McHugh (or others) potentially converting back to the Rotation. Additionally, there are some excellent prospects in the minors, who deserve a chance to cut their teeth in the MLB.