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2017-18 MLB Free Agency Preview: Relief Pitchers

This segment of the market is never short on options.

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at Colorado Rockies
Greg Holland.
Russell Lansford-USA TODAY Sports

MLB Free Agency has officially begun, and the Milwaukee Brewers figure to be active players on this year’s market. The Brewers have a talented core of controllable ballplayers in place thanks to the deft dealings of Doug Melvin and David Stearns over the past few years, and the franchise will enter 2018 with increased expectations after narrowly missing out on the postseason this past year. With just over $61 mil in commitments projected for next year, the Brewers will be able to make a splash or two this winter if they so choose.

We’ve already taken a look at the former Brewers that are available this winter as well as gauged the market for starting pitching. Today we’ll take a gander at the relief pitching that is available through free agency. Relief pitchers are historically volatile from year-to-year, but that hasn’t stopped teams from spending boatloads of money on them in recent seasons. As the game has shifted and managers have become more reliant on their bullpens, we’ve seen franchises become more willing to dole out significant contracts to relievers.

At the top of the market this offseason is Wade Davis, the 32 year old righty who served as Cubs’ closer last season. After struggling early on his career as a starter, Davis has thrived since converting to full-time relief back in 2014. He’s lost a couple MPH on his average fastball over the last two years, but that hasn’t seemed to affect him negatively. He’s coming off a season in which he posted a 2.30 ERA and 63 DRA- in 58.2 innings while striking out 79 batters and notching 32 saves. His walk rate of 4.30 BB/9 was the worst of his career, however. Davis received a Qualifying Offer from the Cubs, but MLB Trade Rumors still predicts that someone will have to pony up 4 years and $60 mil in order to sign him.

After Davis, there’s another former Royal in soon-to-be 32 year old Greg Holland. He spent last season with the Rockies after missing 2016 with Tommy John surgery. His velocity isn’t quite back to the level is was pre-surgery, but the righty managed to successfully navigate the hell that is Coors Field with a 3.61 ERA, 72 DRA, 11.0 K/9 and 4.1 BB/9 while tossing 57.1 innings. He declined his player option in order to hit the open market this winter in search of a multiyear deal, and even with the Qualifying Offer attached he’s projected to receive a 4 year, $50 mil contract.

The next tier of the market includes several set-up men coming off terrific performances. Addison Reed will only be 29 when next season begins and last year compiled a 2.84 ERA and 87 DRA- across 76.0 innings with the Mets and Red Sox. He could get a 4-year deal this winter. After missing all of 2015 and 2016, soon-to-be 30 year old Mike Minor returned to the mound this year and logged 77.2 innings in Kansas City with a 2.55 ERA and 60 DRA-, and could also net a 4-year pact. 33 year old Brandon Morrow has battled injuries throughout his career and only converted to full time relief within the last two seasons, but he was an integral part of the pennant-winning Dodgers’ bullpen with a 2.06 ERA and 67 DRA- in 43.2 innings. Juan Nicasio never quite made it as a starter, but he was able to produce a 2.61 ERA and 79 DRA- last season in 72.1 innings with the Pirates, Phillies, and Cardinals. Bryan Shaw has been perhaps the most durable reliever in baseball, taking the mound an average of 74 times in the last 6 seasons. Last season wasn’t his best (3.52 ERA, 95 DRA-) but he’s a reliable workhorse who only just turned 30. Finally, lefty Jake McGee bounced back from a tough first season in Colorado to post a 3.61 ERA and 92 DRA- in 57.1 innings before hitting the open market.

After that group comes the guys who have a little bit more of a question mark attached to them. Anthony Swarzak was outstanding for the Brewers and White Sox last season, enjoying a career-year at age 31 after signing a minor league. Steve Cishek got a delayed start to last season after an injury but logged a terrific season with Tampa Bay and Seattle. Brandon Kintzler isn’t your typical late-inning reliever with his pitch to contact style, while Tommy Hunter has enjoyed a string of productive ERAs but the peripherals haven’t always lined up. Pat Neshek was dominant last year after a couple of middling seasons with Houston, but he’ll also be turning 38 during the 2018 campaign. Tony Watson produced a 3.38 ERA last season, but DRA says he was a below replacement-level hurler and is probably best deployed as a lefty specialist.

There are of course plenty of other options out there too, some of which will be able to be signed for minor league deals with invites to spring training. The market for relief pitching is flooded with a high quantity of arms every single winter. The emergence of Corey Knebel and Josh Hader have given the Brewers quite a formidable duo at the back end of their bullpen, and with high-octane arms like Jacob Barnes, Taylor Williams, Adrian Houser, and Jorge Lopez in the mix there’s plenty of room for further upside alongside veterans Jared Hughes and Jeremy Jeffress (if both are retained). Still, if the Brewers are truly committed to competing in 2018 they ought to seriously pursue at least one more set-up type arm to add into the mix. A re-signing of Anthony Swarzak could make sense as he’s indicated a desire to return, but there’s obviously no shortage of arms available. Beyond that, count on Milwaukee to bring in a host of arms on minor league deals as just about every franchise does each winter.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball Prospectus