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Free agency preview: Relief pitchers

The Royals need relief.

MLB: ALCS-New York Yankees at Houston Astros Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

The Royals had a bad bullpen - although better than the National League pennant-winning Washington Nationals by most metrics. Still, a 5.07 bullpen ERA and 23 blown saves left much room for improvement. The Royals may be hesitant to jump back into free agency after last year’s free agent relievers - Brad Boxberger and Wily Peralta - were largely disasters. But Jake Diekman performed adequately, and there are many others out there who may prove to be much more worthwhile. Let’s look at this year’s free agent relief pitcher market.

Top of the Shelf Relievers

Aroldis Chapman is almost certainly going to opt out of the two years and $30 million remaining on his deal and will be the most coveted reliever on the market.

Will Smith bounced back from Tommy John surgery in 2017 to have two very solid seasons, including an All-Star appearances and 2.1 WAR season this year with one of the best bullpen sliders in baseball.

Kenley Jansen can opt out of the final two years and $38 million remaining on his deal, but considering his declining numbers, it seems unlikely he will test the free agent market.

Proven Closers

Sergio Romo is 36 years old, but has saved 45 games over the past two seasons and was a 1.0 WAR pitcher this year, according to Fangraphs, but his very low home run-to-flyball rate could be a warning for regression.

Brandon Kintzler saved 29 games in 2017 with the Twins, and the 35-year old has settled into a decent groundball middle reliever with one of the most effetctive fastballs, posting a 2.68 ERA this year.

Sean Doolittle could have become a free agent had he finished ten more games this year, but instead the Nationals will hold a $6.5 million option on him that they will certainly exercise.

Fernando Rodney began his professional career during the Clinton administration so I’m not sure he fits with a rebuilding team, but he does have 327 career saves and is still chugging in the postseason.

Brad Brach has some experience as a closer, and while he had a poor ERA of 5.47 this year, his FIP (3.73) was much better and the 33-year old still posted strong strikeout rates.

Greg Holland can still strike hitters out, but he has a 15 percent walk rate over the last two years and the 33-year old former Royals closer was released by the Diamondbacks in August.

Trevor Rosenthal was a disaster in his first season back from Tommy John surgery, but the Kansas City native is still just 29 and throws in the upper-90s.

Cody Allen was let go by the Angels in July after a 6.26 ERA, but he can still miss bats, and the 30-year old has 153 career saves.

Brandon Morrow didn’t throw a single pitch this year and will need an offseason procedure on his elbow, so his health for next year is a question mark, as it has always been in his career.

Solid Middle Relievers

Will Harris has a 2.36 ERA with 9.5 strikeouts-per-nine innings over the past five seasons, and while he is 35, he should have a good market for his services.

Chris Martin returned from Japan and has put together two solid seasons, striking out 65 in 55 23 innings with a 3.40 ERA at age 33 this year.

Yoshihisa Hirano can miss bats, but he was a bit wild this year, leading to a 4.75 ERA for the 35-year old.

Craig Stammen has been pretty versatile and effective in San Diego, putting up a 2 WAR season in 2018 and a 3.29 ERA in 82 innings last year.

Joe Smith keeps sidearming at age 35, and although he only threw 25 innings this year, his minuscule 1.80 ERA shows he can still baffle hitters with his delivery.

Steve Cishek doesn’t get much attention, but the 33-year old has a 2.52 ERA since 2016, seventh-best among all relievers, using a lower arm slot that befuddles hitters.

Dellin Betances was once one of the most dominating setup men in baseball, but has seen his numbers slide a bit and suffered an Achilles injury that kept him out virtually all season, however at age 31 he should still be a pretty coveted reliever.

Jeremy Jeffress was let go by the Brewers in September with a 5.02 ERA, but expect a decent market for the 32-year old after a 1.29 ERA and an All-Star appearance in 2018.

Pedro Strop had been a very solid reliever the last few years for the Cubs, but his ERA regressed to 4.97 due to shaky command and the long ball, although he can still miss bats.

Hector Rondon saw his strikeout numbers plummet this year, but he was still reasonably effective and the 31-year old has been able to miss bats in the past.

Reliever or starter?

Drew Pomeranz has made 29 starts over the last two seasons, but he pitched much better once he moved to the pen with the Brewers, putting up a 1.88 ERA in that role compared to a 5.97 ERA in 18 starts this year.

Collin McHugh won 19 games with 2.7 WAR just four seasons ago but he struggled in his eight starts this year and has fared much better as a reliever, plus he has an elbow injury.

The Bargain Bin

Juan Nicasio has un umimpressive 5.34 ERA over the last two years, but has struck out 9.9 hitters-per-nine with a 3.46 FIP and could be cheap, especially with a rotator cuff injury late in the year.

David Hernandez has been inconsistent his entire career and was let go by the Reds in August with an ERA over eight, but he has always struck hitters out and can be effective if he can limit walks, posting a 2.53 ERA in 2018.

Cory Gearrin has bounced around to five different teams over the last two seasons but he has always been a decent, just over replacement-level reliever who could be an adequate fourth or fifth option out of the pen.

Josh Tomlin revived his career with the Braves, posting a 3.76 ERA despite the sixth-lowest strikeout rate among all relievers.

Dan Otero had a few seasons of effectiveness in Cleveland but has really struggled the last two seasons as he gives up too much contact.

Adam Warren was decent in 2018 but ineffective in 2019 and missed time with a forearm strain.

David Phelps was fairly effective in his return from Tommy John surgery, although the 33-year old has had trouble throwing strikes at times.

Others: Matt Albers, Anthony Swarzak, Pat Neshek, Darren O’Day, Tony Barnette, Shawn Kelley, Seunghwan Oh, Wily Peralta

LOOGYs (Lefty-handed One Out Guys)

Jake Diekman had the highest strikeout rate of his career, but also the highest walk rate leading to an inconsistent season and a 4.65 ERA with the Royals and A’s.

Tony Sipp had a 4.71 ERA and lefties hit .255/.283/.383 against him, leading the Nats to let him go over the summer.

Others: Aaron Loup, Mike Dunn, Tony Watson, Zach Duke, Jonny Venters

Damaged goods

Arodys Vizcaino had a 2.95 ERA with 10.2 strikeouts-per-nine innings and 50 saves with the Braves but missed almost all of this season after labrum surgery.

Nate Jones was acquired by the Rangers despite a season-ending injury for the right-hander, so perhaps they’re picking up his $5.15 million club option and he won’t be a free agent, but the 33-year old hasn’t pitched over 30 innings in a season since 2016.

Tyler Thornburg was a 2.5 WAR pitcher with 12.1 strikeouts-per-nine innings in 2016, but hasn’t pitched effectively since being traded to the Red Sox due to a shoulder injury.

Tony Cingrani was once a top pitching prospect, but has had trouble staying on the mound and the 30-year old lefty did not pitch at all this year following labrum surgery.

Luke Gregerson has pitched just 18 13 innings over the past two seasons combined due to a shoulder injury.