5 trade pieces that could shake up the RP market

Lack of star free-agent relievers opens door for blockbuster deals

November 21st, 2019

The July Trade Deadline is a seller’s paradise when it comes to dealing relief pitchers, but this offseason has ingredients for the same kind of brand-name, blockbuster reliever trades.

Left-hander Will Smith rejected the Giants’ qualifying offer and signed a three-year, $40 million deal with the Braves. Now that Smith, Aroldis Chapman (who signed an extension with the Yankees) and Chris Martin are off the board, Will Harris, Sergio Romo and Jake Diekman are the only remaining 1 WAR relievers from last year, per FanGraphs, and each of them will be 33 or older in 2020.

While that’s a good quartet of relievers, it’s still a shockingly low-profile group of headliners. Slim pickings in the free-agent aisle could persuade clubs to start shopping relief stars under contract, and we could see some bidding wars if those stars become available.

That hasn’t happened yet, but let’s have some fun with it. Here are five trade candidates that could shake up the reliever market.

, RHP, Blue Jays
2019 stats: 1.87 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 14.1 K/9

Giles put his difficult, head-thumping struggles with the Astros behind him, quietly putting together one of the best reliever seasons in baseball this year. The righty threw his elite slider more than ever and finished fourth in strikeout rate, fourth in FIP and fifth in ERA among qualified relievers, while also cutting down on homers allowed.

Giles would have topped the summer relief market if right elbow inflammation hadn’t flared up right before the Trade Deadline. But he was still effective down the stretch, posting a 2.50 ERA, striking out nearly 37% of hitters and converting all nine of his save opportunities from Aug. 1 through the season finale. MLB Trade Rumors projects Giles to earn $8.4 million in 2020 via arbitration, and he’ll be a free agent next winter. But the Blue Jays are still far from contention, and Giles likely won’t carry as much value by July. This is the time for Toronto to try to add a Major Leaguer to its stable of young stars.

Best fit: The Nationals struck gold when they traded for unlikely bullpen hero Daniel Hudson at the Deadline, but Hudson is now a free agent. In the summer, MLB.com’s Jon Morosi reported that Washington checked in on Giles, and now he could slot into Hudson’s vacant spot.

, RHP, Padres
2019 stats: 1.19 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 15.0 K/9

Yates was even better than Giles, topping qualified relievers in ERA and FIP, and finishing third in strikeout rate and runner-up in fWAR to Liam Hendriks. He was also baseball’s second-best pitcher in expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA), Statcast’s quality of contact metric, behind Emilio Pagan.

So, why would the Padres want to trade baseball’s best closer?

For starters, Yates is a year away from free agency. The Dodgers aren’t going away, and San Diego has a lot of ground to make up -- 36 games, if one goes by this year’s standings -- to match Los Angeles. There’s Padres stars on the rise like Fernando Tatis Jr. and MacKenzie Gore, but San Diego also has plenty of holes to fix in a heavily right-handed lineup. As hard as it would be to give up a closer like Yates, it’s an opportunity to add outside reinforcements and build around the youngsters. The Padres do have right-hander Andres Munoz, who averaged 99.9 mph on his fastball as a rookie, to help soften the blow.

Best fit: Red Sox co-closers Matt Barnes and Brandon Workman were good for stretches of 2019, but Boston clearly missed a back-of-the-bullpen anchor like Craig Kimbrel. Could the Padres be a club that takes on David Price's contract via trade -- especially if they miss out on Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg?

, LHP, Indians
2019 stats: 3.30 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 13.2 K/9

In some respects, Hand was better this year than when he headlined the 2018 Trade Deadline market. He’s still elite at missing bats, ranking 16th among qualified relievers in strikeout rate, and he’s durable: Only three pitchers own a higher ERA+ than Hand while appearing in at least 250 games over the last four seasons.

Hand is under team control for potentially two more seasons (his contract contains a club option for 2021), but his $7.58 million price tag for ’20 could motivate the Indians to shop around. Getting Hand off the books could enable Cleveland to be a little more aggressive in free agency, and there’s room for the Tribe to upgrade at the corner outfield spots and second or third base (depending on which spot José Ramírez mans full-time).

Best fit: We saw how important lefty Adam Kolarek was for the Dodgers’ bullpen, especially when Los Angeles didn’t tab him to face Juan Soto in NLDS Game 5. Hand shuts down lefty hitters (.214 SLG, .500 OPS in 2019), and he represents an established safety option if Kenley Jansen’s struggles continue.

, RHP, Athletics
2019 stats: 4.91 ERA, 1.62 WHIP, 9.1 K/9

Treinen could be a non-tender candidate, a rather shocking reality after he was the AL’s best reliever in 2018. The control that made him so wicked vanished in ’19 (37 walks in 58 2/3 innings), and his season came to an early end after he suffered a stress reaction in his back in September. Treinen is projected to earn nearly $8 million in 2020 through arbitration, further expanding the possibility that Oakland non-tenders Treinen and releases him to the free-agent market.

But the A’s could and should try to recoup value before they take that step, and Treinen still has some selling points. His average fastball velocity was down just a tick from 2018, but it remained elite at 96.7 mph. Treinen’s year-end stats were also somewhat inflated by three outings where he coughed up a combined 11 runs over 2 1/3 innings; take those away and his ERA would sit at a more respectable 3.35. And despite the command issues, Treinen still finished among the top 25 pitchers in chase rate. Maybe Oakland can find someone that believes he can turn it around again next year.

Best fit: The Phillies are a club with cash to spend, and they need answers in the back of their bullpen. They could take a flier on Treinen in a possible low-risk, high-reward move.

, RHP, Orioles
2019 stats: 4.57 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 12.3 K/9

Few pitchers suffered from 2019’s home run explosion more than Givens, who saw his homer-per-nine innings rate balloon from 0.5 to 1.9 in the span of a year. He was far from the only Orioles pitcher afflicted with the long ball, and he certainly seems like someone who could benefit from a change of scenery. Givens stuffed a ton of strikeouts between those dingers -- 86 in 63 innings, to be exact -- and still has youth on his side at age 29.

Best fit: The Braves showed their commitment to bullpen mending by signing Smith and re-signing sidearmer Darren O’Day earlier this month. Givens’ dropdown arm angle could broaden the Atlanta ‘pen even further, and the Braves have top-level pitching prospects that the Orioles desperately need.