The Brewers have the most dominant reliever in baseball in Devin Williams. They also have the best reliever in baseball for the previous few seasons in Josh Hader. Corey Knebel is in position to return to being effective. Eric Yardley was really good in 2020. Brent Suter continues to get people out. Starter candidates Freddy Peralta, Eric Lauer, Adrian Houser, and Josh Lindblom could and have fared well in the bullpen. Drew Rasumssen, Justin Topa, and potentially other young relievers are set to take a next step. Why would Milwaukee even contemplate bringing in a free agent reliever?
First of all, relief pitching is the most volatile position on the field. Having a plethora of arms to choose from only makes a team stronger. Secondly, David Stearns could be thinking about building a super bullpen, and some of the relievers available would offer that opportunity. Third, bringing in a reliever allows Milwaukee more flexibility in how they utilize their staff, i.e. moving Williams to a starting role or creating a piggy backing system for two slots in the rotation. Finally, bringing in a reliever(s) allows for the Brewers’ to put Hader on the trading block (not that I advocate that). With that in mind, here is just a taste of what is available.
If there is a reliever in baseball that could challenge “most dominant reliever” status over the past couple of season over Williams and Hader, it is Liam Hendriks. Since 2019, he has struck out more than 13 per 9, posted a 1.79 ERA, and actually has led all relievers in WAR over this period. Whatever team signs him is getting him at the apex of his performance value. That will not translate as it has in other seasons, but Hendricks contract will likely be too rich for Milwaukee.
Cleveland decided not to pick up the $10M option on Hand. That is baffling in that he was really good in 2020, and he has been really good for some time. This suggests that there will be a depressed market for relievers if not all free agents. Hand has posted a sub-3.00 ERA in every season since 2016 except 2019 (3.30 ERA). He posts elite level peripherals year-after-year. Tim Dierkes predicts he will get a 2-year/$14M contract. Hand is near the top of relief pitchers in baseball, and that price tag is a bargain.
Like Brent Suter, Colome just gets people out. He does not blow people away, and he does not put up huge strike out numbers. Yet he posted a 0.84 ERA in 2020. He just gets the job done. A 1-year/$6M contract is the prediction for him according to Dierkes.
Rosenthal has been dominant in the past. Injuries, including Tommy John in 2017 and a lost 2018, derailed him. In 2019 he struggled, a la Corey Knebel in 2020. In 2020, Rosenthal got it back. Pumping 98 mph of gas, he struck out more than 14 per 9 and posted a 1.90 ERA and a 2.22 FIP.
This left hander throws hard. He posted 14.66 K/9 in 2020. He also posted 1.93 HR/9. Both were higher than his career norms. May generally strikes out 11-12.5 per 9 and gives up a HR/9 around 1.4-1.5. He is not as good as the other relievers mentioned, but is there a tweak that takes him to another level?
It was not long ago we would have put Jeffress in the dominant category. Yet he fell to Earth in 2019, and is the epitome of the volatility of this position. Signing with the Chicago Cubs in 2020, Jeffress performed well, posting a 1.54 ERA. However, his strike out numbers were not there (6.56 per 9) and his walks were up (4.63 per 9). Peripherals were not kind to him in 2020? Would a reunion with the Brewers bring the best out in our old friend once again?
Again the list above is just a taste of what is out there. There are good relievers to be had. There are relievers positioned for bounce back seasons that were not mentioned in this piece. David Stearns could make this team better by building a super bullpen, and there are several names that could make that happen. The challenge is finding who those names will be. Here are some of the rest: Kirby Yates, Blake Treinen, Greg Holland, Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, Jake McGee, Darren O’Day, Sean Doolittle, Jose Alvarez, Juston Wilson, Pedro Baez, Roberto Osuna, Tommy Kahnle, Pedro Strop, and many more.
Heck the Brewers could build a team with free agent reunions, and relievers are no exception. As mentioned Jeffress would fall into that category, but there are more: Joakim Soria, Brandon Kintzler, Tyler Thornburg, Oliver Drake, and Jared Hughes all are available.
Baseball statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Savant