Here's where market for top pitchers stands, and who might move first

January 18th, 2024

's market has been remarkably quiet this winter, though some believe his desire to establish a new record for the largest free-agent contract ever signed by a relief pitcher should make it less surprising. 

But what about the rest of the relievers? Why has that market been so dormant?

“I’m really not sure what’s holding things up,” an American League executive said. “A month ago, everyone was saying it was [Shohei] Ohtani, but it’s not like things have suddenly started moving now that he’s signed.”

agreed to a four-year, $44 million deal with the Giants last week, though San Francisco’s plan is to use the right-hander as a starter. The same goes for , who signed a two-year, $26 million deal with the Reds with the idea of letting him compete for a rotation spot.

Yariel Rodríguez reportedly agreed to a deal with the Blue Jays on Wednesday, pending a physical, though it remains to be seen whether he will work as a starter or reliever.

Of the free-agent relief deals signed this offseason, only (3 years, $30 million to the Braves), Yuki Matsui (5 years, $28 million to the Padres), (2 years, $16 million to the Reds) and (1 year, $13 million to the Orioles) have landed deals worth more than $10 million.

Aside from Hader, some prominent free-agent relievers remain unsigned, including , Hector Neris, , , and , leaving a number of options available for teams seeking a bullpen boost.

“I think the Hader domino needs to fall first,” a National League executive said of the reliever logjam. “I can’t see any other reason the market is slow for them. Sometimes these guys at the top can hold up everything.”

Hader continues to search for a deal of his liking, though with each passing day, it appears his chances of surpassing the five-year, $102 million contract Edwin Díaz signed with the Mets last year become less likely. Many clubs have become averse to spending big money on closers, even those with Hader’s track record, so it will be fascinating to see what his final deal looks like – whenever it’s signed.

None of the non-Hader relievers have the same résumé or contractual expectations as the five-time All-Star, so why would his contract have a direct impact on the likes of Stephenson, Neris and Chapman?

“He’s holding up Stephenson, which is holding up the next guy, and so on,” an AL executive said.

Neris’ market began picking up steam in the past week, with the Yankees and Rangers emerging as frontrunners, according to a source. The Phillies, Cubs and Astros are among the other clubs said to be seeking bullpen help (the Astros’ situation became a little more dire with the news that Kendall Graveman will be sidelined for all of 2024), and with less than a month before camps open, the market could begin to move soon.

Deals done?

The free-agent market isn’t all that has stalled throughout January; the trade market for starting pitchers, which seemed to have a lot of promise when the offseason began, has also gone quiet in recent weeks.

There have been some deals, including the early-January Giants-Mariners trade that sent Robbie Ray to San Francisco for Mitch Haniger and Anthony DeSclafani. The Braves and Red Sox swapped Chris Sale and Vaughn Grissom three weeks ago, while the Dodgers acquired Tyler Glasnow from the Rays in mid-December.

But some of the names many have expected to be moved this winter – namely and – remain with their long-time teams, leaving a couple of notable arms in limbo.

“I would say Cease doesn’t get moved at this point,” an NL executive said. “The White Sox are not budging on price, and teams don’t seem to have interest in paying that price.”

“I think [the Guardians] keep Bieber,” an AL executive said.

While Cease and Bieber have seemingly been on the trade block for the whole winter, a source said the Marlins have been open to discussing deals involving and . Beyond those four, a source indicated that “few starting pitchers are being dangled” by clubs, contributing to the high asking prices.

“I don’t think the trade market will be very hot in the next month,” an NL exec said. “I think people are trying to get [free-agent] deals done at this point.”

A second NL executive agreed with that sentiment, citing the surprising number of free agents still available, including and .

“There are still a lot of teams with some cash to spend,” another NL executive said. “I think they’ll work hard to sign guys without trading away talent, and then if that doesn’t work, they’ll probably shift back to the trade market.”