There’s no doubt that signing a reliever to a big-money deal is a risky move, given the volatile nature of the position. But that doesn’t mean some relievers aren’t worth the risk.
Take Liam Hendriks, for instance. The 31-year-old is a free agent at a time when he's arguably the best reliever in the game, coming off a two-year stretch in which he posted a 1.79 ERA with 161 strikeouts and 24 walks over 110 1/3 innings for the A’s.
Although Hendriks had a 4.72 ERA in eight seasons before that, he’s a much different pitcher now, throwing his four-seam fastball at higher velocities with a much higher average spin rate and combining it with elite breaking stuff. Further boosting Hendriks’ free-agent value is the fact that the A’s opted not to extend him the $18.9 million qualifying offer, which means he isn’t tied to Draft compensation.
While every club could benefit from acquiring him, these are the playoff hopefuls that need Hendriks the most, ranked in order based on the urgency of each club’s need.
The Phillies had the highest bullpen ERA in the Majors (7.06) and tied for the MLB lead in blown saves (14) this past season, when they missed the postseason by a single game. The team’s relief corps will have a different look next season, with Brandon Workman, Tommy Hunter, David Phelps, Blake Parker, José Álvarez, Adam Morgan and Heath Hembree free agents, and Héctor Neris a candidate to be non-tendered before the Dec. 2 deadline. While Philadelphia needs to add more than one reliever, Hendriks would be a good place to start. He won’t come cheap, but he could fit into the Phillies’ budget if they aren’t able to re-sign catcher J.T. Realmuto.
The Angels’ failure to build a reliable rotation is assigned much of the blame for the fact that Mike Trout has reached the postseason only once in his career, but the club hasn’t exactly done well with bullpen construction, either. Hansel Robles, the team’s saves leader in 2019, had a 10.26 ERA in ’20. The Halos tied Philadelphia for the most blown saves in the Majors with 14, and their 4.63 bullpen ERA was the game’s 10th highest. Improving the starting staff remains the priority, but the Angels should take a long look at Hendriks to help solidify the late innings.
The Giants finished with the same record (29-31) as the Brewers in 2020, but they lost a tiebreaker and missed the postseason for the fourth straight year. It could have been a different story if San Francisco had a better closer, but Trevor Gott, Tyler Rogers and Sam Coonrod combined to blow seven of their 17 save chances. The team suffered a string of particularly devastating losses in mid-August, when Gott surrendered ninth-inning leads of five runs, three runs and one run in a four-day span from Aug. 14-17. The first two of those losses came against Hendriks’ A’s, and the right-hander picked up the save in both. In general, the Giants could use some added firepower in their ’pen: San Francisco relievers posted a 20.9% strikeout rate last season, the fourth lowest in MLB.
4. Blue Jays
Although closer Ken Giles battled injuries all year and eventually underwent Tommy John surgery, Toronto did a good job to cobble together a solid bullpen in 2020, with Anthony Bass, Rafael Dolis, A.J. Cole, Jordan Romano and Ryan Borucki all making key contributions. Bass is a free agent, however, and none of the others has a track record of success in the big leagues. Signing Hendriks would go a long way toward keeping things stable in the Blue Jays’ bullpen as they try to take a step forward in '21.
With Roberto Osuna, Brad Peacock, Chris Devenski and Joe Biagini all missing significant time due to injuries, the Astros had to rely heavily on rookies Andre Scrubb, Blake Taylor and Enoli Paredes out of the bullpen in 2020, while veteran Ryan Pressly capably handled the closer role. The outfield is a more pressing need for Houston, and Pressly’s presence lessens the need to spend substantial resources on a high-end reliever such as Hendriks. But with so many inexperienced arms in this ’pen and the Astros trying to keep their contention window open, Hendriks would be a worthwhile target.
Heading into 2020, the Padres seemed likely to have one of the best bullpens in the game, having added Drew Pomeranz, Emilio Pagán and Tim Hill to a group that already included elite closer Kirby Yates. However, Yates got hurt and Pagán, Hill, Craig Stammen and Javy Guerra all struggled. Trade Deadline acquisition Trevor Rosenthal was excellent during his brief time in San Diego, but he’s a free agent, as is Yates. While Pomeranz could close, the rest of the Padres’ relief corps is filled with question marks.
The Twins’ bullpen is in a state of flux, with Tyler Clippard, Trevor May and Sergio Romo reaching free agency. Taylor Rogers, Tyler Duffey and Matt Wisler are still in the fold, but Rogers was inconsistent last season, and Wisler had a career 5.20 ERA before posting a 1.07 mark in 2020. Hendriks started his big league career with the Twins back in '11, and a reunion would make sense.
A's: Oakland has to replace multiple free agents in its bullpen and may be interested in re-signing Hendriks, but he might be out of the team's price range.
Red Sox: Boston needs reinforcements up and down its pitching staff, but the club may deem a top-tier closer an unnecessary expenditure at this stage of its retooling process.