The holidays aren’t just for spending on gifts, they’re for spending on relievers as well. Actually, the rush on bullpen help usually comes soon after New Year’s Day. That’s when teams figure they can do some bargain shopping, thinking the quantity of available relievers will keep costs down, especially for right-handers — not exactly an endangered species as veterans including Will Harris, Hector Rondon, Steve Cishek, Daniel Hudson and many others are still looking for jobs.
“Clubs will repeatedly remind the [righty] relief pitchers that they have plenty of options,” one prominent agent opined this week. “Those circumstances set the stage for values to fall.”
But in this annual cat-and-mouse game, these free-agent pitchers have something stuck in the back of their minds: the early signings, which signaled that there would be money for the middle men, and not just for the high-priced starters who have come off the board.
“Chris Martin‘s deal is one players see and feel they can get a piece of,” another agent said. “Two years is a starting point for many.”
Martin signed a two-year, $14 million contract with the Atlanta Braves after a solid 2019 campaign in which he had a 13-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Also intriguing was non-tender free agent Blake Treinen getting $10 million from the Los Angeles Dodgers. Those deals are giving relievers some choices, at least in their own minds: Get a decent cash grab for one season or look for a two-year, $10 million-plus deal. Or more.
Martin ranked 43rd among relievers in win probability added last season, leaving many pitchers who ranked higher excited by the possibilities. For comparison, new Braves lefty Will Smith ranked first in baseball in that category — by a wide margin — hence his three-year, $40 million deal with Atlanta. Sergio Romo, who re-signed with the Minnesota Twins for $5 million this week (with a $5 million option for 2021), is one player who ranked higher than Martin in WPA. One agent indicated Romo, who will be 37 in March, would be the floor for many middle relievers seeking contracts.
Of course, WPA is not the only way to rate relievers, as righty Brandon Kintzler might be licking his chops thanks to his 1.018 WHIP to go along with a 166 ERA-plus, which is the best mark of his career. Likewise, Harris’ numbers were off the charts in 2019, when he featured a nifty 1.50 ERA while stranding 81% of his inherited runners.
So are teams going to get the post-holiday bargains they normally expect or are the tea leaves telling pitchers there’s still money to go around? Some players are talking to each other about the current landscape.
“I know some of us were hoping we’d see more action at the winter meetings, but traditionally it’s been after the holidays,” one free-agent reliever said via text message. “I’m not worried.”
Another interesting aspect of the market for middle men is the new three-batter-minimum rule. It affects them the most, obviously. Teams always have wanted as many relievers as they could acquire who can get both lefties and righties out — but now it’s essential. And that is a big part of the free-agent conversations in offseason war rooms.
“You have to consider it now,” one executive said last week at the winter meetings. “The lefty specialist may still have a role since he can be done after facing one batter to end an inning, but those situations won’t always present themselves. We’re trying to find any diamond in the rough that can get out both sides of the plate.”
With that in mind, several relievers are potential under-the-radar signings based on their 2019 seasons. Sinkerball hurlers aren’t always market favorites, but with the rule change, teams might need to do some reevaluating. Here are some names to consider:
The righty Stammen’s OPS against right-handed hitters was a bit inflated, but his numbers against lefties jump off the page. Stammen, who pitched 82 innings for the Padres, gave up just four home runs in 143 at-bats against lefties and his 4.87 strikeout-to-walk ratio was second best of his career behind the 2018 season. That ratio improved to 6-to-1 versus right-handers, perhaps helping neutralize a home run percentage against righties (1.87 HR/9 IP) that was the highest of his career. Then again, pretty much every pitcher’s home run percentage jumped in 2019. In any case, Stammen is a guy who can be counted on against both sides of the plate.
Kintzler was an even better version of Stammen as lefties hit just .163 off him. He wasn’t used by the Cubs in high-leverage situations to begin the season, but that quickly changed once he proved he could get out hitters from both sides of the plate. And in the new three-batter-minimum world, getting the ball on the ground for a double play could be huge, as a reliever can be removed if he finishes a half-inning, no matter how many batters he has faced. Kintzler’s 23.4 double play percentage was second best among relievers with a minimum of 30 opportunities. A repeat of that will play in 2020.
With Cleveland, the righty compiled a measly .465 OPS against left-handed hitters last season, which was more than 100 points lower than his career average. A lot of that was achieved while the Indians were trailing — hence lower-leverage spots — but his career numbers fit the profile for three-batter outings against both right- and left-handed hitters.
Honorable mention: Francisco Liriano
The former lefty starter is a prime candidate to excel under the new rules as he faced many more righties than lefties last season, holding them to a .246/.329/.401 slash line. Though it feels as if Liriano has been in the majors forever, he is “just” 36, coming off a decent season for the Pittsburgh Pirates, who tanked for most of the summer. That came after he signed a minor league deal last February, the very definition of “under the radar.”
League sources say some of the relievers mentioned should come off the board in the next week, and while this offseason has been different from the previous two, one thing may end up being the same: January is for the middle men.