Free agency is now upon us. The Cincinnati Reds, as currently constructed, project for the 2020 season according to ZiPS to be in that 82-85 win range. That’s a good place to start. But it’s also not likely to be enough to make the playoffs. And that is the Reds stated goal for 2020 – as it should be. They’ve reportedly got plenty of money to spend, too.
We’ve already taken a look at options among the position players on the free agent market. Yesterday we also took a look at the starting pitchers. Today we will wrap up the series by looking at the relief pitching options.
But before we hop into that, let’s talk a little bit about the Cincinnati bullpen in 2019. They rated out as a middle of the pack group overall, posting a 4.28 ERA on the year. That ranked 13th in baseball. For comparison the Tampa Bay Rays led the league at 3.71 and the Orioles were dead last with a 5.79 mark. But the Reds aren’t bringing back their entire bullpen, either.
What they are bringing back includes Raisel Iglesias, Michael Lorenzen, Robert Stephenson, and Amir Garrett. That group of four combined for 271.0 innings and a 3.49 ERA. Beyond that group they have decisions to make on Lucas Sims, Sal Romano, and Cody Reed – all of whom are out of options moving forward. Prospect Joel Kuhnel has options, but will be competing for a spot in the bullpen, too. There’s room for an upgrade or two, but the bullpen also seems solid as it stands, too. And that’s without talking about Kevin Gausman, who seems unlikely to be tendered a contract for 2020 given his expected arbitration number – but could be brought back as this is just speculation and not official yet.
You can see the entire list of free agent relievers at MLB Trade Rumors at this link. You can also see their list of the Top 50 free agents and where they are projected to land here, as well as Fangraphs Top 50 free agent list with projected contracts (but no projections to which team).
The 8th and 9th inning types
While the modern bullpen doesn’t quite have roles like “closer” or “set-up man”, we tend to also know the types of guys that fill those descriptions. They aren’t the guys that are usually throwing 93 MPH with solid stuff. They are the group made up of 97 MPH guys with at least a good breaking ball and decent control.
He’s at the top of the list among relievers for MLB Trade Rumors and Fangraphs. He won’t exactly be a cheap acquisition, projected to get $12-14M a year for three years. That’s not exactly expensive in today’s game, but for a reliever, that’s near the top of the scale – though not at the very top. The 30-year-old lefty has been very good since making the full time transition to the bullpen. In his career he’s posted a 3.03 ERA out of the bullpen. Over the last two years he’s been even better, posting a 2.66 ERA for the Giants with 48 saves while striking out 167 batters in 118.1 innings. He misses tons of bats, walks no one, and he’s got a long track record of success. The price may not be ideal, but he’d be a clear upgrade to the bullpen.
It must be the name. Harris is coming off of an outstanding season with the Houston Astros. While it took him a while to reach the Majors – debuting as a 27-year-old back in 2012 with the Rockies, Harris has a career 2.84 ERA. In 2019 he posted a 1.50 ERA for the Astros in 68 appearances and 60 innings. He allowed just 42 hits, six home runs, walked 14 batters, and he struck out 62 of the 229 batters he faced. He’s projected to get a little less money than Smith is, but still seems to be looking at around $9-10M a season. Both sites project him for a 2-year deal. He’s got a rare combination of a high strikeout rate coupled with a high ground ball rate. Like Smith, he’d be a clear upgrade in the bullpen.
The not-quite closer types
Much like Will Harris, Chris Martin didn’t exactly have the best route to the Major Leagues. He didn’t debut until he was 28-years-old, and he was in Japan at age 30. He returned the the Majors in 2018 and had a breakout year in 2019. Harris is 33-years-old, and really only has one truly above-average season in his career. Splitting time between Texas and Atlanta he posted a 3.40 ERA in 55.2 innings. He allowed nine home runs and walked just five batters on the season. The right-handed reliever also struck out 65. He pounds the strikezone with the absolute best of them.
Recording the final out of the World Series is a nice line on your resume. And for Daniel Hudson that is always going to be there. He began 2019 with Toronto but was traded to the Nationals at the deadline. Between the two stops he posted a 2.47 ERA in 73.0 innings where he walked 27 batters and had 71 strikeouts. It was the best season he’s had in quite a while – dating back to his 2010 or 2011 seasons when he was still starting.
After missing the 2016 season, Craig Stammen returned to the mound with the San Diego Padres in 2017. Since that return he’s posted a 3.06 ERA in 241.1 innings in 209 games. That’s come along with just 60 walks – eight of which were intentional, and 235 strikeouts. He’s also been a guy with a high rate of ground balls, getting them at a 50.6% rate in that stretch. Stammen doesn’t throw hard – but in 2019 he picked up a full MPH on his fastball and it was easily the best velocity he’s had in his career despite being 35-years-old and in the Major Leagues for 11 years. He’ll be 36 next season, but he gets grounders, he misses bats, he actually GAINED velocity in 2018 and 2019, and he doesn’t walk anyone. That’s a pretty good set of skills, and it’s one that won’t cost much, either.
The starters group
There’s always a handful of former starting pitchers who could find jobs as relievers. While I don’t have a list of guys who may find that role for 2020, feel free to check the list linked above and search out some options. They are out there.
The wild card
When healthy, Dellin Betances has been a dominant reliever for the Yankees. From 2014-2018 he posted a 2.22 ERA in 373.1 innings for New York. That came with an absurd 607 strikeouts and 162 walks. That’s a 40.3% strikeout rate. It’s the third highest rate in baseball since 2014 behind only Josh Hader and Aroldis Chapman.
What makes him a wild card, then? Well, he threw 0.2 innings in 2019. He missed the first five months of the year with shoulder injuries. When he finally returned in September his season ended that first night he took the mound. The right-handed reliever suffered a tear in his achilles. The injury won’t require surgery, which is good, but how long he will be out isn’t exactly known to the public at this point, either.
On one hand you could possibly get him on a short-term, 1-year deal where he’s looking to rebuild his market coming off of two significant injuries. If he goes that route and returns to what he had been, he’s be a dominant force for any team. But on the flip side you’re taking a risk on a guy coming off of two significant injuries who was down a few MPH in his only outing of 2019.