With the 2023 season behind us and the Hot Stove already burning, we're taking a close look at some of the most prominent players on the free-agent market.
For the second consecutive offseason, the game’s best closer was headed for the free-agent market. Unlike last year, however, that pitcher didn’t re-sign with his club before free agency even got underway.
A year ago, Edwin Díaz stayed with the Mets, signing a record five-year, $102 million contract to remain in New York. It was a foregone conclusion that Josh Hader would test the market this winter, especially with the Padres talking about cutting payroll heading into 2024.
What type of market will Hader have this offseason? He’s fresh off of a brilliant season, posting a minuscule 1.28 ERA over 61 appearances, though there were questions toward the end of the season regarding his willingness -- or lack thereof -- to pitch more than one inning down the stretch as the Padres tried to hang on to their fading postseason hopes.
POTENTIAL SUITORS (listed alphabetically)
New Cubs manager Craig Counsell is quite familiar with Hader, having managed him in Milwaukee from 2017-22. Chicago got a solid performance from Adbert Alzolay last season -- he saved 22 games with a 2.67 ERA in 58 appearances -- but adding Hader would further strengthen Chicago’s ’pen. Hader has enjoyed great success at Wrigley Field, throwing 20 scoreless innings there during his career.
The Dodgers had the second-lowest bullpen ERA in the National League last season, and although Evan Phillips and Brusdar Graterol have been outstanding, the issues in the starting rotation could prompt Los Angeles to form a super bullpen. Adding Hader into the mix would accomplish exactly that, taking some of the pressure off of the starters in the process.
With Craig Kimbrel having signed with Baltimore, the Phillies could be looking for another late-inning arm to go with Seranthony Domínguez and José Alvarado. Although both of those pitchers can close, they seem to be most effective in the seventh and eighth, leaving the ninth available for Hader. Philadelphia already signed Aaron Nola to a seven-year, $172 million deal this winter, but it won’t be surprising to see the Phillies continue spending to bolster the pitching staff.
Texas ranked last in save percentage from the eighth inning on in 2023, converting only 60 percent of its opportunities. José Leclerc had a solid season, but with Will Smith and Aroldis Chapman both on the free-agent market, the Rangers could use another late-inning arm to pair with Leclerc at the back end of the bullpen. Texas has shown a willingness to spend money during the past two years, so why not add the best closer on the market?
Clay Holmes has established himself as a legitimate closer during the past two seasons, but the Yankees’ bullpen is in need of help this offseason, especially if the club plans to use Michael King in the rotation in 2024. Should the Yankees miss out on the top starting pitchers they’re pursuing this winter, GM Brian Cashman could pivot to a big bullpen buy in an effort to shorten games. Hader could step into the closer’s role, moving Holmes back into a setup group along with Jonathan Loaisiga and Tommy Kahnle.
“Josh is an accomplished closer coming off of a dominant year and is in line to do well in a market that has limited options at his position. He relies primarily on a fastball/slider combo that is well above average, with swing-and-miss qualities to both pitches. The fastball velocity has regressed and longstanding issues with walks are causes for concern as he ages over the course of his next contract. Josh is a loose and athletic player who should continue to hold his stuff over the next several years, which will allow him to be an impactful closer for the team that values that spot on its roster.”
As mentioned above, Hader’s walk rate of 13 percent (4.8 per nine innings) ranked in the bottom five percent of the league in 2023, when he issued 30 free passes in 56 1/3 innings. That’s the worst of his career, while his whiff rate of 33.1 percent was also a career low, though the latter still ranked in the 91st percentile of pitchers. If Hader’s swing-and-miss stuff continues to decline, might that be a sign that his overall effectiveness will, too?
FOR COMP'S SAKE
Díaz set a new standard for relief pitchers last winter when he signed a five-year, $102 million deal to return to the Mets. Díaz was coming off of a platform year eerily similar to the one Hader posted in 2023, pitching to a 1.31 ERA with 32 saves over 62 innings. Hader is a year older than Díaz was at the time of his deal, but many expect Hader -- a five-time All-Star compared to two for Díaz -- to set a new record with a contract just north of the one Díaz signed.