Plenty of prized bullpen arms still available

Players pivot quickly to camps with lockout over

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Last winter, Steve Cohen’s shopping spree was frantic and expensive – and even the lockout didn’t stop it. The New York Mets owner grabbed a general manager (Billy Eppler), the most expensive starting pitcher ever (Max Scherzer, for a record annual salary of $43.3 million), a center fielder (Starling Marte), a third baseman (Eduardo Escobar), a left fielder (Mark Canha) — and then during the labor stoppage, a manager (Buck Showalter).

But free agency shut down before Cohen and Eppler could do all they wanted — and needed — to do. Now that transactions have resumed, the Mets are expected to be right in the middle of the bullpen frenzy, addressing the most suspect part of their roster — likely with a focus on left-handers.

Dozens of relievers are unsigned and others are under contract but likely to be dealt. What follows is a list of some of the best options available to the Mets and other teams.

Kenley Jansen

As one evaluator notes, Jansen’s situation seems similar to that of Justin Turner the last time Turner reached free agency. Jansen, like Turner, has longstanding ties to the Los Angeles Dodgers organization and has been important to its success. There is a general belief that Jansen would strongly prefer to stay.

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“Turner took a long time to sign back,” the evaluator said, “and maybe that’s what happens with Jansen.”

The right-hander had a bounce-back season in 2021, generating his highest average fastball velocity since 2017 and wielding a cutter that recovered some of the mojo he has lost through the years. He has 350 career saves and his credentials are starting to invade Hall of Fame territory.

Jansen is 34, however, and teams don’t really pay for past performance — and few relievers get paid big dollars these days for demonstrating closer dominance. This is why his relationship with the Dodgers might be pivotal. If Corey Knebel turns out to be the ninth-inning guy for the Phillies, as expected, it’s difficult to identify a free-spending team that is prepared to spend big on a closer … other than the Dodgers.

Collin McHugh

Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash and pitching coach Kyle Snyder properly rested the veteran right-hander last season and McHugh thrived: Over his last 33 appearances, he surrendered just 5 earned runs in 58? innings, with 69 strikeouts, just 11 walks and 2 homers allowed. He never pitched on consecutive days during those outings. According to Elias Sports Bureau, via Sarah Langs, McHugh is the only pitcher in baseball history to fit into the following qualifications for a season:

• 50-plus innings pitched
• An ERA below 1.75
• No more than three innings in any outing
• Not one outing while working on consecutive days

A decade ago, many teams would have shied away from a reliever not available on consecutive days, but front offices have gotten much more comfortable stitching together pitching day to day — and McHugh’s results were special. His stuff was special. He was so good, Tampa Bay went into the offseason believing a team with a big payroll would recognize his excellence and dangle a bid beyond the Rays’ budget limitations.

Andrew Chafin

The fact that he is left-handed pretty much guarantees he is on the Mets’ radar, as New York will likely dive into this corner of the free-agent market wielding Cohen’s checkbook. The Mets need lefties to give bullpen maestro Showalter a range of weapons and to help replace Aaron Loup, who signed with the Los Angeles Angels.

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Last year, left-handers mustered just one home run against Chafin in 104 plate appearances — and he was pretty good against righties, as well, holding them to a .551 OPS. He doesn’t miss bats at the same rate a lot of his peers do, which concerns evaluators — rather, he tends to generate a lot of soft contact. But Chafin did have the 15th-best rate among all relievers in enticing swings at pitches outside the strike zone.

Ryan Tepera

Just 16 months ago, Tepera was not tendered a contract by the Chicago Cubs despite a strong 2020 showing. He wound up re-signing with the Cubs for a pay cut, from $900,000 to $800,000, and the right-hander had another good year. Pitching for the Cubs and Chicago White Sox, Tepera had a 2.79 ERA in 65 outings, with 74 strikeouts, 19 walks and 4 homers allowed.

Archie Bradley

Over eight outings from Aug. 14 through Sept. 4, Bradley allowed nine earned runs in eight innings, a string of ugliness that marred his final numbers. Some teams may prefer to focus on his body of work over his career as a reliever: Over the past five seasons, he has an ERA+ of 144. But teams do wonder why his production using his curveball plummeted dramatically last season, and how his rate of missed swings fell to a career-low of 7%.

Joe Kelly

He’s pitched in plenty of big moments with success, making him attractive to a wide range of teams. But the information contained within his medical files will shape some of the offers Kelly will receive. The Dodgers could have brought him back for a $4 million option, but after Kelly finished the year unavailable because of a biceps strain, L.A. declined.

Brad Hand

He has lived the full life of a major league reliever, with some failure (switched from a starter to the bullpen in the 2015 season), some great peaks (three All-Star appearances), some lows (waived by the Toronto Blue Jays late in the ’21 season), and some redemption (16 outings in 29 days for the Mets, with success). Somebody will snag him quickly (here, too, the Mets are a good fit).

Tony Watson and Trevor Rosenthal

Watson suffered a shoulder strain after an excellent 2021 season, and Rosenthal didn’t pitch at all after being sidelined with a hip problem. Because of their high upside, one would assume teams will want to get scouts’ eyes on them as soon as possible — and depending on what the pitchers show, they could get a lot of interest.

Jake Diekman

He’s experienced, he’s left-handed and he generated a big strikeout rate last season, with 83 punch-outs in 60? innings. Interested front offices will have to get comfortable with the enormous split between his home and road numbers last year, and his second-half fade — of the 26 earned runs he allowed last season, 10 were in the last month of the season.

Joe Smith

After being dealt from Houston to Seattle in July, he finished nicely, allowing an opponents’ average of .188 over his last 23 outings. He has plenty of track record: His 832 appearances are more than any other active pitcher, and Smith has pitched in five postseasons.

Craig Kimbrel

He’s not actually a free agent, but he’s available — the White Sox picked up his $16 million 2022 option with the intention of trading him. But some within the industry believe dealing him away will be extremely difficult unless Chicago is willing to absorb some kind of a value hit — eating some of Kimbrel’s salary, taking some dead money back in return, or throwing a decent prospect into the deal to get Kimbrel’s salary off the books.

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“Something tells me that if they were going to find a deal for him, they would’ve done so before the lockout,” an industry evaluator said. “They might have to keep him.”

The White Sox traded Nick Madrigal and Codi Heuer for Kimbrel last summer, when he reigned as one of baseball’s best relievers. But Kimbrel really struggled after joining the White Sox as a setup man for Liam Hendriks. Plus, performance issues are only one of three major concerns for rival execs: Kimbrel has made it clear in the past that he strongly prefers the role of closer, in an era in which fewer teams feel the need to crown a particular closer, and his salary will be outsized for a lot of teams.

“I just don’t know how many teams actually feel they need a closer,” one exec said, “let alone somebody making that much.”

To put Kimbrel’s $16 million salary into context — that’s more than the biggest deal given to a reliever this winter so far: Raisel Iglesias, who got $54 million over four years.

And the biggest wild card: Josh Hader

Rival executives have reported that the Brewers have dangled Hader as a trade candidate, albeit for a high price. But as Hader moves closer to free agency — he’ll be eligible after the 2023 season — he costs more through arbitration and his trade value dips. But his impact is undeniable: The left-hander struck out 46% of the batters he faced last season. Other teams have wondered if the Brewers will be looking to shave payroll in the aftermath of the lockout, and per MLB Trade Rumors, Hader is projected to make about $10 million in salary for the upcoming season.

Source: ESPN MLB


Author: Ellen Garcia