Here is an exhaustive, well-researched list of contending clubs that definitively won’t need relief help between now and the July 30 Trade Deadline:
OK, now that we’ve gone over the list, let’s look at some relievers who could be available to help.
Two caveats here …
1) This far away from the Deadline, a ton can change within an area as volatile as the bullpen. So don’t take these names as gospel.
2) Major League executives are creative when it comes to concocting deals, and they are especially creative when it comes to midseason bullpen trades. Identifying a relief trade candidate is not as simple as “pending free agent having a good year on a bad team,” because sometimes teams target a guy they feel they can adapt or fix on the fly, and sometimes teams are more willing to move a controllable relief piece than they are a controllable bat or starter.
So, these are just some names to think about for the moment in the moving target that is the relief market, ranked in order of intrigue.
1) Craig Kimbrel, RHP, Cubs
At this point, the Cubs are clearly contenders in what is likely to remain a close NL Central race. So we can probably cool it with the Kris Bryant, Javier Báez and Anthony Rizzo talk.
But you might have noticed that clubs aren’t grouped into distinct “buyer” and “seller” categories much anymore. The Rays have mastered the art of using pieces on the Major League roster as trade chips even while contending, and the Cubs could take a similar approach with Kimbrel, whom they have a $16 million club option for 2022. Ryan Tepera could conceivably assume closer duties, the Cubs could conceivably address their pitching staff in other ways, and Kimbrel, who has had a resurgent season, could conceivably bring back a couple long-term pieces for a system in need. So … it’s conceivable!
2) Daniel Hudson, RHP, Nationals
Want somebody to seal the last out of Game 7 of the World Series? This is your man!
Hudson is in the final year of the contract he signed with the Nats after his incredible run in 2019. He has rebounded from a rough 2020 to post a 2.59 ERA, 0.90 WHIP and career-best 37.2 percent strikeout rate in 24 1/3 innings entering Saturday. As is the case with Max Scherzer, the Nats have to decide if they want to try for another mathematically improbable postseason run, or take advantage of the value of their pending free agents in a market hungry for pitching.
Hudson was placed on the 10-day IL on Saturday (retroactive to June 10) with right elbow inflammation, however an MRI did not show signs of structural damage so it's likely this is a mostly precautionary move and his trade value isn't seriously affected.
3) Richard Rodríguez, RHP, Pirates
No, this Rich Rod has never coached a college football game. He closes out games for the Bucs and has a sparkling 1.78 ERA and 0.71 WHIP through 25 1/3 innings this year while throwing almost exclusively fastballs. His stuff and strikeout rate are not jaw-dropping, but he gets weak contact and doesn’t walk people.
Oh, and he’s under team control via arbitration through 2023. The Pirates need to be in prospect-accumulation mode right now, and dealing a 31-year-old reliever in a market in which his services are highly prized is the way to go.
4) Raisel Iglesias, RHP, Angels
It has been seven months since an Iglesias trade, so perhaps we’re due. After four seasons as the Reds’ primary closer, Iglesias was dealt to the Halos in December in hopes that he’d be a big part of repairing their ailing pitching staff.
He’s mostly held up his end of the bargain, with excellent strikeout, walk, whiff and chase rates leading to a 1.04 WHIP in 24 innings. But the Angels, as a whole, haven’t taken that big step forward. They’ve played much better of late, even with Mike Trout on the shelf, so this is very much a wait-and-see situation. But if they fall out of it, dealing Iglesias just ahead of his free agency makes sense.
5) Ian Kennedy, RHP, Rangers
A few years ago, it would have been literally impossible to predict that Kennedy would be a prized reliever at the 2021 Trade Deadline, but here we are. After spending most of his career as a starter, Kennedy converted to relief work with the Royals in 2019 and had a solid season as their closer.
He labored in the shortened season last year and wound up signing a Minor League deal with the Rangers in February. It has proven to be a steal. Kennedy has a 2.53 ERA, 12 saves and a 1.08 WHIP in 21 appearances, and the Rangers have every incentive to take advantage of his trade market. His affordable $2.15 million base salary adds to his value.
6) Kendall Graveman, RHP, Mariners
Yet another converted starter who will be available as a rental relief option. Graveman had an encouraging return in 2020 after missing most of '18 and '19 following Tommy John surgery, but he’s really turned it up a notch in 2021.
Through 14 appearances covering 16 2/3 innings, Graveman and his sinker-slider-changeup combo have yet to allow a run, yielding just six hits with three walks and 17 strikeouts. A stint on the COVID-19 injured list hampered him, though he was activated by Seattle on Friday.
7) Taylor Rogers, LHP, Twins
The Twins have several pending free agents who could be trade pieces should they decide to cry uncle in this difficult year, but Rogers, as a quality late-inning lefty who is under team control through 2022 and can close or set up, has more trade value than the rental pieces.
Rogers has been durable, making anywhere from 57 to 72 appearances in each of the last four full seasons. His 33 percent strikeout rate and 4.7 percent walk rate are both exceptional, and he’s in the 100th percentile in inducing swings outside the strike zone.
8) Yimi García, RHP, Marlins
The Dodgers non-tendered García prior to 2020, and all he’s done in two years in Miami is put up a 1.76 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in 41 innings. He’s a pending free agent, so the Marlins have to consider moving him if they decide the postseason math works against them (as of now, it certainly does).
Hey, you know who might be a good fit? The Dodgers!
9) Daniel Bard, RHP, Rockies
Bullpen mate Mychal Givens, who has a 2.91 ERA in 21 2/3 innings, is a pending free agent and could be on the move for the second consecutive Trade Deadline. But if we’re ranking the most intriguing names here, then Bard has to be on the list just because of how unusual his story is.
Bard overcame injury issues and a full-blown case of the yips to return to the big leagues last season after seven years away. And with a 3.62 ERA and 137 ERA+ entering Saturday while pitching his home games in Coors Field, it’s been an exciting return, with particularly good results since he moved to the center of the pitching rubber last month. He’s under contractual control through 2022, which adds to his value.
10) Michael Fulmer, RHP, Tigers
Fulmer was the Tigers’ big return piece when Yoenis Céspedes was dealt to the Mets at the 2015 Trade Deadline. He could potentially be on the move again now that he’s converted from starting to relieving and proven effective at it.
The 2016 AL Rookie of the Year has a 3.34 ERA in 35 innings and ranks in the 88th percentile in opponent hard-hit percentage and the 78th percentile in chase rate. He also comes with one more season of arbitration control. The big holdup here is the right shoulder strain that currently has Fulmer on the shelf, but, as of now, the Tigers are expecting that to be a brief injured list stint.