B/R MLB Offseason 100: The Top 15 Relief Pitchers Available for 2017
After looking at the top 25 starting pitchers, Bleacher Report's look at the top 100 players available in the 2016-17 offseason now moves to the bullpen.
We'll look at 15 relief pitchers who are either free agents or trade candidates pulled from rumors and/or plausible speculation. Since relievers have limited roles, their scoring system adds up to 85 possible points rather than the usual 100.
- Talent Outlook: Out of 60. The idea is to look at how each pitcher has performed and how his performance will or won't change in the future. Think of a score of 30 out of 60 as a league-average reliever, with 60 out of 60 essentially being Andrew Miller.
- Durability Outlook: Out of 15. This is a look at how durable guys are going to be based on their past workloads and injury histories. Think of 15 out of 15 as no concern whatsoever, whereas a seven or eight out of 15 says a healthy future is a toss-up.
- Value Outlook: Out of 10. This is a discussion about the contracts or trade packages guys are going to command and about whether they could justify it. Think of five out of 10 as a fair deal, with zero out of 10 being a megabust and 10 out of 10 being a megasteal.
In the event of ties, the nod will be given to the player we'd rather sign or trade for.
Step into the box whenever you're ready.
15. Joaquin Benoit, RHP, Free Agent
Joaquin Benoit got off to a rough start with the Seattle Mariners in 2016, putting up a 5.18 ERA in 26 appearances. Walks were a problem, as he tallied 15 in only 24.1 innings. He got that ironed out once he arrived in Toronto, walking nine with 24 strikeouts in 23.2 innings.
That was more like the Benoit who was quietly an elite reliever between 2013 and 2015, posting a 2.15 ERA in 237 appearances. He throws harder now at 39 than he did at 29, and he does a good job of keeping hitters on edge with high fastballs and low sliders and changeups. Provided he makes a full recovery from the torn calf he suffered in October, he should have more where this came from.
That torn calf wasn't Benoit's first injury of 2016. He also missed about a month with a bad shoulder. By my count, that was the seventh time he's been on the disabled list with either an arm or shoulder injury.
That's a bad look that's made even worse by the fact Benoit has over 1,000 innings on his arm. At his age and with his track record, his durability is a sizable question mark.
Benoit just finished a three-year contract that paid him $22 million. He actually provided a good return on that despite his injury issues, but those issues will do him no favors in negotiations this winter.
Still, Benoit's track record will make him an appealing target for teams that don't want to splurge for one of the big-money relievers on the open market. I'd put a rough guess for a one- to two-year deal at $6 million per. A solid deal if he stays healthy, but that's obviously a big "if."
14. Sergio Romo, RHP, Free Agent
Sergio Romo had a four-year run between 2010 and 2013 when he was one of baseball's best relievers. He put up a 2.03 ERA with a 6.4 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He's been up and down ever since, and in 2016 he watched his velocity dip to the mid-80s.
But with a 2.64 ERA and a 4.7 K/BB ratio, Romo fought through that. He continued to lean heavily on his slider, but he basically scrapped his four-seamer in favor of his sinker. That means more movement to keep a handle on, but he maintained good command anyway. The caveat is that he's a lot more effective against right-handed batters, but he should still get some looks as a late-inning reliever.
Romo throws a lot of sliders from a 5'11" and 185-pound frame. That basically makes him an arm injury waiting to happen. To this extent, it's not to be ignored that the flexor strain he suffered in 2016 was his third arm injury since 2009.
With Romo heading for his age-34 season, nobody should be expecting him to put these issues behind him.
Romo earned $9 million in the second year of a two-year contract in 2016. He's not likely to find a salary like that on the open market. He could be in line for something more like Steve Cishek money: $10 million over two years.
That would be a solid investment if Romo were to stay healthy. But good luck with that.
13. Santiago Casilla, RHP, Free Agent
Santiago Casilla had a strong run between 2010 and 2014, but spent much of the last two seasons infuriating San Francisco Giants fans. He blew six saves in 2015 and nine in 2016. He fell out of favor with Giants skipper Bruce Bochy throughout 2016, reducing Casilla to tears in the end.
Despite the bad times, Casilla looks like a good change-of-scenery candidate. The 36-year-old still has a good fastball, sitting at 93-94 mph in the last two seasons. He's also coming off a career-high rate of 10.1 strikeouts per nine innings while walking only 3.0 batters per nine. The blown saves thus overstate how bad he was in 2016, and shouldn't convince any teams not to stay away.
Casilla at least managed to stay on the mound the past two years, with at least 60 appearances in each season. But the only other time he's made that many appearances was in 2012.
That's not many for a 13-year veteran reliever. Casilla has been on the disabled list five times, mostly with lower-half injuries. It's fair to assume that, at his age, he's probably not out of those woods.
Casilla is coming off a four-year, $20.5 million contract that paid him $6.5 million in 2016. This sort of money does not await him on the open market.
Still, last winter saw once-respected veteran relievers like Steve Cishek, Jason Motte, Jonathan Broxton and Oliver Perez land two-year deals in the $7 million to $10 million range. Casilla could end up there too and provide a pretty good return if he just keeps doing his usual thing.
12. Daniel Hudson, RHP, Free Agent
Daniel Hudson had a rough time in 2016. He appeared in 70 games but pitched to a 5.22 ERA in only 60.1 innings. His Tommy John troubles between 2012 and 2014 ended any notions of him being a starter. Now there seems to be a question of whether he's even cut out for relief work.
However, he's obviously represented here for a reason. He still has a live arm, averaging 95-96 mph on his fastball. He also had a changeup that collected one of the top whiff-per-swing rates of any relief changeup in 2016. He used these weapons to strike out a batter per inning over the last two seasons. Despite what his 2016 ERA may say about him, Hudson has the goods to be a late-inning reliever.
Hudson basically missed three seasons recovering from Tommy John surgery. There have been no ill effects from that in the last two seasons, but an injury-related gap that wide will always loom large.
Plus, Hudson's not young anymore. He's going into his age-30 season in 2017. His durability isn't in clear and present danger, but it's not something to take for granted.
After earning $2.7 million in 2016, Hudson is going out onto the open market as more of a reclamation project than a tried-and-true reliever. Going off what Fernando Rodney and Tommy Hunter got last winter, the going rate for a pitcher like that should be in the $2 million to $3 million range.
In other words, pennies by today's standards. Durability questions aside, Hudson has the talent to make good on such a low-risk deal.
11. Koji Uehara, RHP, Free Agent
Koji Uehara is now several years removed from a magical 2013 season in which he couldn't be touched. The 41-year-old's velocity is down. And with it, so is a swinging-strike rate that peaked at 19.1 percent and fell to 15.0 percent in 2016.
However, Uehera still struck out 12.1 batters per nine innings despite that. He also walked just 2.1 batters per nine innings. The command-and-deception act he puts on with his fastball and splitter has certainly seen better days, but is still alive and well. Provided he wants to keep pitching, he still has the goods to be an effective late-inning reliever in a one-year contract.
This is the bigger reason to worry about Uehara. He's been limited by injuries to 93 appearances over the last two seasons. One injury was a broken wrist on a batted ball, while another was a pectoral strain.
All this for a guy who had been on the disabled list five times even before the past two seasons. At his age, putting all this behind him and staying healthy in 2017 is no sure thing.
Uehara earned $9 million in each of the last two seasons. He'll have to take a pay cut if he wants to keep pitching. A good guess would be something like $5 million with incentives.
That could prove to be a very nice deal if Uehara were to stay healthy. It's a shame that's such an iffy proposal.
10. Joe Blanton, RHP, Free Agent
Joe Blanton's major league career seemed finished as recently as 2014. His reinvention as a reliever since then has gone very well. He's made 111 appearances and posted a 2.65 ERA with 9.2 strikeouts and 2.4 walks per nine innings.
Blanton's trick has been to make his slider his primary pitch. His velocity has also ticked up. He sat at a career-high 91.2 mph with his heat in 2016. I wouldn't call him overpowering, but these are good reasons to be sold on his reinvention. There's also his ability to go more than one inning at a time, a valuable skill in today's MLB.
Blanton's big injury scare came in 2011 when he ran into trouble with his right elbow. But that's pretty much been it in a career that's now spanned 12 seasons.
This doesn't erase the fact that Blanton is a 35-year-old with a lot of mileage on his arm. But in what's likely to be a short-term deal, he's a better bet than many veteran pitchers to stay healthy.
The Los Angeles Dodgers signed Blanton for just $4 million last winter. After making good on that, he has a Mark Lowe vibe that could lead to a similar deal: two years at $5 million to $6 million per.
Money like that wouldn't be buying a classic shutdown reliever. But it would be a fair price for an effective reliever who can succeed in a variety of roles.
9. Greg Holland, RHP, Free Agent
Greg Holland was having a rough time when he was last on the mound in 2015. After managing a 1.86 ERA from 2011 to 2014, he had just a 3.83 ERA. He was dealing with a significant velocity loss, which not surprisingly had an effect on his strikeout rate.
Then Holland had Tommy John surgery. Teams interested in the soon-to-be 31-year-old will be wondering if that could restore some of his lost velocity. That would give him a plus-plus fastball once again, to be paired with a slider that's been great at missing bats regardless. He wouldn't be the first to regain velocity after Tommy John, so he's undeniably an intriguing option.
Holland had a track record of durability before 2015, appearing in over 65 games each year between 2012 and 2014. But 2015 brought a pectoral strain even before it brought the Tommy John surgery.
Holland should be fully recovered from that by the time Opening Day rolls around, but nobody will know for sure until he starts airing it out like his old self.
What do you give a reliever who's coming back from Tommy John surgery? Well, Ryan Madson once got $3.5 million plus incentives less than a year removed from Tommy John surgery.
But since Holland is a formerly elite reliever who's represented by Scott Boras, that could be the bare minimum for his asking price. Boras may have a Brian Wilson deal ($10 million salary) in mind, possibly over two years rather than just one. Even if he doesn't quite get his wish, whoever signs Holland will be risking more than a little.
8. Brad Ziegler, RHP, Free Agent
Brad Ziegler has a better adjusted ERA+ over the last two seasons than Mark Melancon, Kenley Jansen, Dellin Betances and a smattering of other big-name relievers. He was effective long before 2015 and 2016, too. His career ERA in 604 appearances is 2.44. Not too shabby.
One catch is that Ziegler is only dominant against right-handed batters. Another is that he's a 37-year-old who only throws in the low 80s. Nonetheless, he gets it done. His funky submarine delivery makes it tough to track the ball, and he only throws low and lower. That's where his career 66.3 ground-ball percentage comes from. As long as he keeps those coming, he'll keep doing his job.
You can only be so comfortable with a reliever in his late 30s with over 600 appearances. But Ziegler hasn't been overworked. He may have over 600 appearances, but he's logged under 600 innings.
Plus, one reason he's been so prolific is that he hasn't been injured that often. He had a scare when he needed microfracture knee surgery in 2014, but it's otherwise been smooth sailing.
Ziegler's last contract paid him $15 million over three years, a respectable sum for a reliever. His reliability should get him paid at a similar rate this winter, albeit for one or two years rather than three.
With the prices about to be paid to the big-name relievers on this year's market, that doesn't sound so bad for an unspectacular yet reliable reliever like Ziegler.
7. Brad Brach, RHP, Trade
Source: Rich Dubroff of CSN Mid-Atlantic
Brad Brach was something of a hidden gem before 2016. Now he's an All-Star. He put up a 2.05 ERA in 71 appearances in 2016, with strong peripherals to boot. He struck out 10.5 batters per nine innings and, just as important, finished with a career-low walk rate at 2.8 per nine innings.
The 30-year-old did regress a bit in the second half, but not enough to ruin his trade value. Teams can still look at him and see a reliever with upward-trending velocity that seems to play up even more thanks to his funky delivery. Right-handed batters are especially flummoxed, managing just a .399 OPS against Brach in 2016. He's going into his last two seasons of club control with momentum.
Unless I'm totally missing something, Brach's injury track record is a clean sheet.
Of course, relievers are known to randomly flame out. But that's a relatively minor concern with Brach. Even beyond being healthy, he's also been relatively well preserved during his career. The 288 appearances on his record aren't that many for a reliever his age.
Zach Britton is the reliever everyone wants the Baltimore Orioles to trade. But Dubroff makes a good case in suggesting Brach as an alternative. Brach's value is up after his All-Star season and could draw a crowd of teams that don't want to pay top dollar for an established closer.
The Orioles won't be giving up Brach for spare parts, though. A team that wants him better be prepared to part with a major league or major league-ready piece. Nobody's going to steal Brach.
6. Wade Davis, RHP, Trade
Wade Davis owns the lowest ERA (1.18) and OPS allowed (.456) of any reliever with at least 100 appearances since 2014. He's done it with electric stuff, sharp control and a mean competitive streak. The only thing he's been missing is a Bane mask.
Butttttttttt some warning signs did arise in 2016. Davis, 31, missed time with an arm injury. He also lost a mile per hour off his fastball and cutter and watched his strikeout rate dip accordingly. It was another successful season despite all of this, but these could be reminders that elite relievers can stop being elite very quickly. Teams eyeing a trade for his walk year in 2017 should proceed with caution.
The injury that kept Davis out from late July to early September was a flexor strain in his right forearm. In what may be a related story, his release point dropped after he returned. That could be a bad sign.
It's also worth remembering that the 185 appearances Davis has made in the past three seasons aren't the whole story. He also made 20 appearances in the postseason. That's a lot of mileage in a relatively short amount of time. His durability should be approached with caution too.
Heyman reports that the Kansas City Royals want to cut payroll. In a mission like that, it does make sense to offload a reliever with a $10 million salary.
But since the Royals aren't about to rebuild, they're going to need at least one piece of established talent in return for Davis. Probably for their starting rotation. For a reliever who's starting to show some cracks, buyers should beware.
5. David Robertson, RHP, Trade
David Robertson earned his $46 million payday with the Chicago White Sox by putting up a 2.20 ERA in 268 appearances between 2011 and 2014 with the New York Yankees. He hasn't been as good in Chicago with a 3.44 ERA in two seasons. He's coming off a year in which he struggled with his control, walking 4.6 per nine innings.
That could be a mirage, however. There aren't any notable red flags with the 31-year-old's arm slot. Meanwhile, his stuff is just fine. Robertson is still working in the low 90s with his fastball velocity and missing a ton of bats with his curveball. This is where his rate of 11.5 strikeouts per nine innings since 2015 comes in. He should be productive in the last two years of his contract.
Robertson has appeared in at least 60 games every year since 2010. He's had injuries here and there, but they've mostly been to his lower half. His arm and shoulder have remained largely intact.
Robertson's age and the 500-plus innings he has on his arm mean continued durability is only so much of a certainty. But compared to other relievers his age, he's in A-OK shape.
Robertson is one of several White Sox players mentioned by Sherman as candidates to be traded this winter. A team in their position doesn't need a closer who's owed $25 million.
Given the glut of relief options on the open market, it will be difficult for the White Sox to offload Robertson's contract and get something back. They might be convinced to merely get his contract off their hands, which would make him a solid get for a contender.
4. Mark Melancon, RHP, Free Agent
Mark Melancon first showed promise as a shutdown reliever in 2011, but it's in the last four seasons that he's made a name for himself. He's appeared in 297 games and put up a 1.80 ERA with a 6.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He has a great handle on the movement of his cutter and curveball.
The red flag is how the 31-year-old's velocity has fallen off in the last two seasons. It's not by accident that he's remained effective, however. Over the last two seasons, he ranks behind only Zach Britton in soft-contact percentage. This is a skill that should allow him to age well in a multiyear deal.
Melancon does have a Tommy John operation on his injury record. But literally nothing else. He's been healthy enough to make over 70 appearances four years in a row and five years out of six.
Of course, his age and that kind of workload could attract the injury bug eventually. But there are relievers his age in much worse shape than he is.
Melancon was barred from a qualifying offer when he was traded from the Pittsburgh Pirates to the Washington Nationals. Not having ties to draft-pick compensation will help his market.
Still, he'll be Plan C behind Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen. So much so that he may settle in the Andrew Miller-David Robertson range ($35 million to $45 million) rather than in the $50 million-plus range. Considering that he's nearly as good as Chapman and Jansen, this would make him a bargain.
3. Aroldis Chapman, LHP, Free Agent
Aroldis Chapman has done nothing but dominate since becoming a closer in 2012, putting up a 1.84 ERA in 314 appearances. He also owns a rate of 15.2 strikeouts per nine innings for his career, the highest of any pitcher who's ever made over 300 appearances.
The knock on Chapman, 28, used to be about his wildness. He corrected that in a big way in 2016, finding the strike zone with 52.3 percent of his pitches. This narrows the list of concerns down to how age will impact an arm that's produced more 100 mph fastballs (by far) than any pitcher on record. To this extent, his velo has actually gotten better over time. Even if age robs him of a mph or two, he'll still be throwing very hard throughout his inevitable multiyear deal.
Chapman went on the disabled list with shoulder inflammation in 2011. Since then he's only had to go on the DL after a scary line drive to his face in spring training in 2014.
The natural concern is whether his arm only has so many high-velocity fastballs left. But since he's still relatively youthful, his breaking point may still be a couple of years away, if it even comes at all.
The trade that sent Chapman from the New York Yankees to the Chicago Cubs barred him from a qualifying offer. Without ties to draft-pick compensation, it should be that much easier for him to top the four-year, $50 million contract that Jonathan Papelbon got five years ago.
Would that be fair based on Chapman's track record? Sure. Is any reliever worth that kind of money? Probably not, no.
2. Kenley Jansen, RHP, Free Agent
It's astounding that Kenley Jansen didn't make his first All-Star team until 2016. He's been dominant from Day 1 in 2010, compiling a 2.20 ERA and striking out 13.9 batters per nine innings in 409 appearances. Since he's done all this with a filthy cutter, comparisons to Mariano Rivera are valid.
In fact, it's a good sign that the 29-year-old has remained dominant despite his cutter's velocity going up and down. It doesn't need to light up a radar gun to miss bats or miss barrels. He's efficient with it, too, throwing over half his career pitches in the strike zone. Everything points to a rarity: a reliever whose elite talent should age well.
Jansen has had some injury scares in his career, including shoulder inflammation, foot surgery and heart problems that required him to undergo a procedure in 2012.
Fortunately, those heart problems appear to be behind him. And through it all, it's a positive that he's appeared in at least 65 games in four of five seasons. It's fair to have some unease about his durability, but not too much.
Not surprisingly, Jansen got a $17.2 million qualifying offer from the Los Angeles Dodgers. He's a lock to reject it and take his chances on the open market.
The goal for him will be to try to beat Papelbon's 2011 contract. His ties to draft-pick compensation will complicate that somewhat, but likely won't stop him from beating it. He's awfully good, but all that money plus a draft pick is a big price.
1. Zach Britton, LHP, Trade
Source: Roch Kubatko of MASN Sports
Zach Britton was superb in 2014 and 2015. He was something else entirely in 2016. His 0.54 ERA is the lowest ever for a reliever who appeared in over 60 games. With that in the bag, he now owns a 1.38 ERA in 204 appearances over the past three seasons.
The 28-year-old should keep this up in his final two seasons before free agency. His sinker has 96-97 mph velocity and absurd movement, and he's very good at keeping it below the knees. His rewards are strikeouts and lots and lots of ground balls. And as a former starter, he may have the ability to make like Andrew Miller and start stretching himself out more if he's asked.
Britton had some trouble with his left shoulder earlier in his career, missing a substantial amount of time in 2011 and 2012. It's been smooth sailing ever since he moved into a relief role.
The fact that Britton is still new to relieving and also relatively youthful are two things that bode well for his durability in the two years of club control he has left.
Kubatko is far from the only one to wonder aloud if the Baltimore Orioles will trade Britton. It would be a good way to take advantage of his sky-high value and avoid the massive raise he's going to get in arbitration. MLB Trade Rumors has him projected to go from $6.75 million to $11.4 million.
This summer's trade of Miller would be a good template for the Orioles to follow if they were rebuilding. But they're not. They're only likely to entertain offers that would substantially improve their major league roster. A team that trades for Britton would be out of some valuable pieces and would also be on the hook to pay him a lot of money. That's a lot for a mere relief pitcher to live up to.