Here are two things you know about the free-agent market, as it pertains to relievers. First, you know that the cream of the crop -- Kenley Jansen, Aroldis Chapman, and (to, perhaps, a slightly lesser extent) Mark Melancon -- are going to get paid. Second, there's a pretty big dropoff
Here are two things you know about the free-agent market, as it pertains to relievers. First, you know that the cream of the crop -- Kenley Jansen, Aroldis Chapman, and (to, perhaps, a slightly lesser extent) Mark Melancon -- are going to get paid. Second, there's a pretty big dropoff after that.
That's true, at least in name value, because there are obviously more than three teams in need of a closer. The Cubs, Dodgers, Giants and Nationals badly want one, and clearly that's not the end of the list. The Marlins, who have A.J. Ramos, are reportedly interested in Jansen. The Yankees, who had Chapman and Andrew Miller before trading both of them, now want to rebuild their bullpen. Given what the 2014-15 Royals did, and what Miller and Cody Allen just did with Cleveland, it's a safe bet that every team is trying to stock up with multiple quality bullpen arms.
That's especially true, given how few starting pitchers are available this offseason, particularly with Jeremy Hellickson taking Philadelphia's qualifying offer and Bartolo Colon signing with Atlanta. Rich Hill and Jason Hammel are the best starters around, and that means that some teams may just prefer to strengthen their bullpen instead.
Let's help them. You don't need to spend millions on one of the Big Three in order to improve, and you already know about the bullpen success of Brad Ziegler, Joe Blanton, Boone Logan and Sergio Romo. With one fewer reliever available after Brett Cecil reportedy agreed to a deal with the Cardinals, here are a few more reasonably priced pitchers who can provide value -- and potentially even serve as closers.
RH Juan Nicasio
Nicasio may be the best example of "don't bother looking at career numbers to judge what a player is now," because while Nicasio's 4.80 career ERA is unimpressive, he spent his first four years in the big leagues trying to be a starter in Coors Field. He joined the Dodgers in 2015 as a reliever, added 2 mph to his fastball, and saw his strikeout percentage jump from 15.4 percent to 25 percent, though his walks were too high.
Last season, he went to Pittsburgh, and something interesting happened. Buoyed by a strong spring, he spent most of the first half in the rotation. It didn't go well: 12 starts produced a 5.05 ERA and an 18.3 percent strikeout rate. After moving back to the bullpen in June, he was again impressive, as his whiff rate jumped up to an elite 31 percent, and FanGraphs called him one of the 10 best relievers in baseball in the second half. With only two main pitches (fastball/slider), he's long profiled best as a reliever.
There's also this: 109 pitchers threw 1,000 pitches last year. Using the new Statcast™ metric Barrels, which identifies the most high-value batted balls based on exit velocity and launch angle, Nicasio was the fifth-best at fewest barrels allowed per swing. That's behind Noah Syndergaard and Kyle Hendricks, and ahead of Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester. It's an extremely impressive skill. Assuming they don't force him back into the rotation, someone is getting a quietly good reliever.
RH Koji Uehara
It feels as if Uehara too quickly became the forgotten man in Boston. As the Red Sox spent most of a year adding names like Craig Kimbrel, Carson Smith and Ziegler, Uehara seemingly became overshadowed, and it's true that his 3.45 ERA was his highest as a reliever, that he missed several weeks with a pectoral injury, and that he'll be 42 in April.
Despite all that, Uehara still showed flashes of the same old brilliance. His 34.2 percent strikeout rate was his highest since 2013, ranked 11th among the 176 relievers with 40 innings, according to FanGraphs, and was was better than those of Allen, Alex Colomé or Zach Britton. When he came off the DL, he pitched 11 scoreless innings, striking out 12, then added two more scoreless frames in the postseason.
Sure, he's no longer young in baseball terms. Yes, at some point it feels as if it'll all fall apart. But clearly the strikeout skills are still there, based largely on that excellent splitter, and his closing experience is clear. There's more value here yet.
RH Daniel Hudson
You're seeing a 5.22 ERA in 2016 and a history of arm injuries. You're panicking. Don't. We're trying to find value here, and this is how you do it. Despite the pair of Tommy John surgeries, Hudson has returned as a reliever over the last two seasons with quality velocity, averaging nearly 97 mph on his fastball and striking out 129 hitters in 128 innings.
But what about that awful ERA? It's a good indicator of the dangers of ERA for relievers, since even a small period of struggle can blow that up for an entire season. Over Hudson's first 30 games, spanning nearly three months, he was very good, with a 1.55 ERA, but an unsustainably low .149 Batting Average on Balls in Play. Over his final 25 games, he was very good, with a 1.66 ERA and a 2.35 ERA against.
In between? Well, in between there was a stretch of 15 games with 26 earned runs and a hilarious 24.21 ERA. It was 9 2/3 innings of awful performance combined with bad luck, carrying a .625 BABIP, and if you want to see what that looks like weekly, well, enjoy this chart:
As you can see, that rough stretch ruined Hudson's entire season stat line, and the "real" Hudson is somewhere between those two extremes, but given his history, he's likely not going to cost much at all. You don't want him as your best reliever, of course. It's just that the world of baseball is changing in such a way that your best reliever isn't always your closer. Wherever Hudson signs, the reaction will point to that ERA; the truth will be something much better.
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast.