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2018-19 MLB Free Agency Preview: Relief Pitchers

Which bullpen arms are for hire?

Colorado Rockies v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images

MLB Free Agency has officially begun, and without a top-ranked farm system in place, it’s likely that our Milwaukee Brewers will have to survey the open market if they want to make any truly impactful additions this offseason. The Brewers treated us to their best season in a generation in 2018 and have quite an array of talent under control for next year, but there are still a few spots around the diamond where the team could use an upgrade or additional depth. With close to a projected $110 mil on the books already for 2019, Slingin’ David Stearns and company may have to get creative in their dealings this winter.

In the coming days we’ll be surveying the free agent market to get an idea of who the strongest available players are and at what positions. We’ve already taken a look at the players available on the infield and in the outfield, and today we peruse the free agent relievers that are on the market this winter:

At the top of the heap of relievers stands Craig Kimbrel, who has been one of the top closers in the game for going on nearly a decade. He wasn’t the untouchable arm he has been previously during the 2018, but Kimbrel still turned in a tremendous performance on his way to his first World Series ring with the Red Sox. In 63 appearances and 62.1 innings for Boston, Kimbrel posted a 2.74 ERA with 96 strikeouts against 31 walks. His velocity, swinging strike rate, and rate of hard contact allowed were all in line with his career averages, but his walk rate of 4.48 BB/9 was the second-highest he’s ever allowed in a full season and Kimbrel has never before served up dingers at a higher rate than his 1.01 HR/9 in 2018. Still, the 30 year old was seen as 43% better than league average according to Deserved Run Average (57 DRA-) and is expected to score one of the richest contracts ever for a reliever, even with a Qualifying Offer attached to his name.

Kimbrel is the only really “elite” bullpen arm available this winter, but there are several other strong ones out there. Jeurys Familia has previously dealt with a domestic violence suspension as well as blood clots in his shoulder, but hits the open market after producing a 3.12 ERA, 88 DRA-, and 83:28 K/BB ratio in 72.0 innings for the Mets and A’s in 2018. Zach Britton has struggled with injuries in recent seasons but posted a 3.10 ERA and 73% ground ball rate 40.2 innings this past season for the Yankees and Orioles. David Roberton lacks elite velocity but worked to a 3.23 ERA with 91 strikeouts versus 26 walks in 69.2 innings in the Bronx in 2018. Adam Ottavino learned how to control his pitches and remade himself into a dominant reliever this year, logging a 2.43 ERA and 112:36 K/BB ratio in 77.2 innings for the Rockies. Andrew Miller could manage only a 4.24 ERA in 34.0 innings in between DL stints this year, but had previously posted earned run averages of 2.64 or lower in each season dating back to 2013. Joe Kelly has yet to pair his great stuff with truly outstanding results, but his stout playoff performance (1 run across 11.1 innings) along with his perceived upside should make him a hot commodity on the market. MLB Trade Rumors predicts that each of the above-mentioned hurlers will net themselves a three-year guarantee.

Next comes the hurlers who have some type of question mark attached to their name that figures to depress their market in some manner. There’s the inconsistent Kelvin Herrera, who is now dealing with an unknown recovery timeline from a Lisfranc injury. Joakim Soria was an effective out-getter in 2018, but the years and mileage continue to pile up on the 34 year old’s arm. Cody Allen saw his walk rate and home run rate rise quite a bit in 2018, taking his ERA along with them. Bud Norris went in the tank in September and could be seen by some as a pariah in the clubhouse. Brad Brach’s season was a tale of two halves, a good second one with the Braves following an awful first one with the Orioles before a midseason trade. Jesse Chavez was excellent following a midseason trade to the Cubs, but has only posted a better-than-average ERA three times in his 11-year career.

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. Guys like Justin Wilson, Jake Diekman, Adam Warren, David Phelps, and Drew Storen are names you have probably heard of, but for one reason or another they aren’t seen as highly sought-after options on the market this winter. The Milwaukee Brewers will undoubtedly sign multiple pitchers to deals this winter; it will be interesting to see who David Stearns and his front office scouting and analytics departments deem worthy of investment.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs