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Checking the Market: Relief Pitchers

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Our final look at the market before things hopefully start to heat up.

Division Series - Oakland Athletics v Houston Astros - Game Three Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The offseason is officially upon us, and the Red Sox should be active. Coming off one of the worst seasons in the history of the franchise (the length of which notwithstanding), they have plenty of needs all over the roster. To get us ready for all of the possible moves that could be made over the next few months, we’re going to spent the next week looking at every portion of the roster and the available players that could be targeted both in free agency and via trade. Today, we’ll finish things off with a look at the relief pitcher market.

Where the Red Sox stand

The Red Sox need help all over their pitching staff, and while the most notable holes on the roster lie in the rotation the bullpen can’t be neglected as well. Even as someone who is probably more optimistic than most about this unit, I see a major hole in the ninth. Matt Barnes can be a lot better than he was in 2020, but at this point they simply can’t go into next season with him as their best reliever. It’s easier said than done to find a top-flight reliever, particularly in a winter where teams are going to be spending as little money as possible and trades could be harder to come by on the heels of a season without minor-league ball, but the Red Sox have to figure something out.

Beyond the top spot, they could probably use a couple more middle relief arms as well. Right now, in terms of guys you can probably pencil in to start next year, you have Barnes, Ryan Brasier, Darwinzon Hernandez, Phillips Valdez, Austin Brice and Josh Taylor. Assuming a 13-man pitching staff, that leaves room for one more reliever on top of the top-flight arm discussed above. You also have to account for needed depth due to injury, so targeting three relievers would be ideal for this winter.

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

The Top Free Agent

Liam Hendriks

A couple of years ago, in 2018, the Athletics designated Liam Hendriks for assignment and every other team in the league had a chance to acquire him for nothing. Nobody did, and he eventually made his way back to the majors for Oakland. Since that time, he’s been arguably the best reliever in baseball and has easily made himself into the best reliever in this winter’s market. In a normal offseason, there’s probably a decent chance he would’ve received a qualifying offer.

He is coming off a season of pure domination for the Athletics, having pitched 25 13 innings, finishing up with a 1.78 ERA that is actually 64 points worse than his FIP. In one of the most dominating displays of controlling the zone, Hendriks struck out 40 percent of his opponents while walking only three. That isn’t even too far of a jump from 2019, when he tossed a whopping 85 innings with a 37 percent strikeout rate and six percent walk rate.

There are always concerns in giving too much of a committment to a reliever, which is the most fickle position in baseball. Hendriks is also going to be 32 by the time next season starts, so a decline could come relatively quickly. That said, he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down and for a team like the Red Sox who need a top-flight arm, there’s no safer bet available for just money this winter. In terms of how much money, MLB Trade Rumors projects a three-year deal worth a total of $30 million. Again, there is risk for sure, but that is not an insurmountable price for someone with his talent, particularly with no draft pick compensation attached.

Other Free Agents

Brad Hand, Kirby Yates, Trevor May, Blake Treinen, Trevor Rosenthal, Trevor Cahill, David Robertson, Andrew Chafin, Joakim Soria, Justin Wilson, Keone Kela, Jake McGee, Brandon Workman, David Phelps, Aaron Loup, Mark Melancon, Ian Kennedy, Brandon Morrow, Alex Colomé, Andrew Kittredge, Shane Greene, Tommy Hunter, Tommy Kahnle, Kelvin Herrera, Roberto Osuna, Darren O’Day, Ken Giles, Sean Doolittle, Greg Holland

As with the starting pitcher market yesterday, there are too many options here for me to touch on every single one of them. It’s Friday and people have stuff to do, ya know? But there are some very interesting names on this list, even if none are quite at the level of Hendriks. The closest to that is Hand, who has been consistently fantastic for years now. Every team had the chance to take him off the market for $10.5 million for one year, but no one bit. That means he’ll almost certainly get less than that on an annual basis. It’s going to be a competitive market, but there’s no reason for the Red Sox to be right in the thick of it.

Things take a fairly steep dive after Hendriks and Hand, though there are still good options. There are a couple of old friends with Brandon Workman and Mark Melancon, both of whom have closing experience as well. Sean Doolittle has battled injuries, but could be a good buy-low. Roberto Osuna has talent, but given his domestic assault history most would agree the Red Sox should absolutely not go there.

Kirby Yates was in the conversation for best reliever in the game in 2019, but is coming off a rough, injury-shortened 2020. He’s the best buy-low option on the market. There’s also David Robertson, who hasn’t pitched in a couple of years but before getting hurt was among the most consistent relievers in the game for the Yankees and White Sox.

I’d also take a look at Ken Giles, though that would be more of a long-term deal. Giles underwent surgery at the end of 2020 and is going to miss most, if not all, of the 2021 season. However, sometimes you see teams sign injured pitchers for a two-year deal, allowing them to rehab in-house and having them for the following season. I’d at least approach that idea with Giles.

Trevor May could be the best under-the-radar name on this list. Obviously he won’t be under-the-radar for teams, but he hasn’t really risen to prominence in Minnesota despite consistently putting up strong ERAs with peripherals to match for three years running.

Best Fit: I would like to see the Red Sox go after Hendriks or Hand, but given all the holes they need to fill I won’t be terribly surprised if that doesn’t happen. In that case, Kirby Yates is the best option. MLB Trade Rumors projects him to get only $5 million on a one-year deal. Given his talent and track record, that could prove to be an absolute steal.

Potential Trade Partners

Orioles, Tigers, Rangers, Reds, Rockies, Marlins, Brewers, Pirates

The reliever trade market is always more robust than this and there will absolutely be names thrown out there that I am not thinking of right now. That said, these are the most likely sellers with relievers that would be attractive to other teams. And the best of the bunch is in Milwaukee with Josh Hader. The Brewers aren’t guaranteed to do this, but with the emergence of Devin Williams and Hader getting expensive in arbitration, it wouldn’t be terrible surprising if he was shopped. Similarly, the Reds don’t have to deal Raisel Iglesias, but if they are worried about payroll this is an easy way to shed some of that.

Beyond those two, you’re looking more at middle relievers on this list than true closers. There could be a buy-low opportunity with Joe Jiménez in Detroit or with José Leclerc with the Rangers. A reunion with Daniel Bard could be a lot of fun, though probably very unlikely. Colorado could also put guys like Carlos Estévez and/or Mychal Givens on the block. The Orioles, Marlins and Pirates all have solid, but ultimately unspectacular, names they could shop as well.

Best Fit: As I said, there are going to be more names than this out there, but of these Raisel Iglesias would be my favorite. It wouldn’t be super cheap, but also wouldn’t cost a haul like Hader would. Iglesias could slot in as the top reliever in the bullpen right away.

Parting Thoughts

As I said, the Red Sox have multiple spots to fill here but the focus should be on finding a new top arm. There are options here both in free agency and on the trade market to fill that role, but it’s a question as to how much they will be willing to spend, in terms of money and/or prospects, for that role. It’s less important and less of a focus, but there are also some intriguing middle relief type options in free agency that could be had for very little money as well. My expectation is they wait on this market and see who falls through the cracks, but whenever it happens they should be active here.