Off-season stuff: Relievers in Free Agency.

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It’s not like the Diamondbacks have not tried, but do you actually remember when the Diamondbacks deliberately signed a reliever that had some (moderate) success? Like one of those pitchers you say “wow, that guy was a good signing?” Not a waiver claim nor a minor league signing, but a reliever signed to guaranteed money?

Junior Guerra wasn’t terrible in a shortened 2020 season but was deemed expendable, Yoshi Hirano had a fine 2018 season but did not get a new contract after a rather bad 2019 season...we had quite some “meh” guys but the closest I got to a “successful” reliever that was signed in free agency was Oliver Perez (the original release). We are talking here about a signing the Diamondbacks realised in 2014.

That is a rather poor track record for a team, although something can be said about the Diamondbacks having relied more on internal options (Archie Bradley, Andrew Chafin, Daniel Hudson) and occasionally a trade (Brad Ziegler) in the past decade.

But now, with the club gaining a bit of a momentum towards the 2023 season and with farm products not being able to establish themselves in the bullpen, Mike Hazen will be forced to look outside to reinforce what has been one of the worst reliever corps in all of baseball in 2022. We might assume that some pitchers that have been deployed as starters might get moved to the bullpen, but we probably won’t know their names until spring training. On the other hand the D-Backs’ General Manager has hinted at the possibility of trades.

Reliever, oh reliever, volatility is thy name. Moving prospects for relievers wouldn’t be my preferred option if I were General Manager, although the 2018 Rockies showed that spending heavily on relievers in free agency comes with a risk as well.

Still, let’s see what the 2023 free agency market has to offer to the Diamondbacks. Theoretically, those “bounce back” closers I mentioned in a previous article could be options to reinforce the bullpen in an other role as well, but in this article we will focus exclusively on “pure” relievers with recent success.

Power arms.

Robert Suarez

Technically Robert Suarez can be a member of the San Diego Padres’ bullpen in 2023, because the Venezuelan holds a $5,000,000 player option for next season. My guess though is that Suarez will return to the free agency market after a successful season to demand more guaranteed money in a new 2 to 3 year contract. A team that is willing to offer that will take into account that Suarez has pitched just one year in the MLB and will reach the age of 32 when the new season starts.

What is the risk here? Suarez’s 11.5 K/9 was well above his average, as in, despite what you might think with the velocity, his strikeout rates in the NPB just once surpassed the 10.0 K/9. His success in the NPB in 2021 and what catapulted him to the MLB was a career low 1.2 BB/9, a shark contrast with his awful 4.0 BB/9 this season. So the strikeout rate is probably due for a regression, but whether the walks will move to better numbers remains to be seen.

Other than that, his 2022 season was good. His strike% is a healthy 63% and just two times he allowed more than one run, the first time in his MLB debut against the Diamondbacks when he took his only loss over the season after allowing 3 runs without getting a batter out. He had 36 scoreless outings, but despite that the Padres rather recurred to others in high leverage situations, hence his rather low Save & Hold-numbers.

Carlos Estevez

With Estevez I get Yoan Lopez vibes as in a pitcher that seems to have a good fastball but just isn’t able to get batters out. That looks especially true for the Dominican who will soon be 30 years old, who saw his strikeouts dip some more and his walks go up.

The Rockies are reportedly interested in reuniting with Estevez, and they might pay more than what the market would be willing to offer the reliever with a career average WHIP of 1.407. Estevez relies heavily on his fastball (over 70% of his pitches thrown) that has elite speed with which he basically tries to blow batters away. Somehow though, probably because of the increased horizontal movement, batters just weren’t able to get solid contact to his pitches and thus the Rockies reliever posted a career low ERA although FIP is obviously less impressed.

Carlos Estevez is basically a “what-you-see-is-what-you-get” kind of guy. I wouldn’t pay $3,000,000 for that, but maybe others do and still think there is something more in it.

Rafael Montero

Montero made his MLB debut in 2014 for the Mets and had 4 seasons of subpar performances until he went out with a shoulder problem and missed the entire 2018 season. He reappeared for the Texas Rangers in 2019 with increased velocity. Ever since the strikeout appeal is certainly there, but from time to time Montero was still too hittable. That changed in 2022. He kept his BB% in check and was able to convert the hits to strikeouts. Hence the good ERA and WHIP numbers for the 2022 Astros. Montero will hit free agency once his 1-year $2,700,000 contract will end and will look for more money on the market.

The BB/9 will probably not improve: it’s been hovering around 3.1 for the last 3 years. It’s the K-potential that should be valued here and in 2022 the 32 year old added both velocity and spin and movement to his pitches.

Montero has similar split against righties and lefties, where the first are offered a sinker-slider combo, while the latter get to see his fastball-change up combination, which is a bit more successful than the other. All in all, a team that believes Montero can maintain his 2022 success will probably have to pay a $7,500,000 AAV but you are basically paying for a 1 year track record here: just one season ago, in 2021, the Mariners DFAd and later traded Montero to the Astros. Probably a risky match for the Diamondbacks, but Montero certainly looks to be one of the better reliever options out there in free agency.

Trevor May

The previous owner and front office of the New York Mets signed Jomboy and Twitch guy Trevor May in 2020 to a two-year $15,000,000 contract. After a disappointing 2022 and at the age of 33 May might not see that money again in free agency, but the righty might still demand a good bag of dollars despite the lost season.

May had lost velocity and lower spin rates that lead to an 8.64 ERA until he went onto the IL in May 2022 with a “stress reaction on the right humerus” that held him out of action for 3 months until his return in August. He was a bit rusty on return, but slowly regained his normal velocity and spin rates again to finish the season with 14 scoreless outings in 18 appearances. That is what teams in free agency will focus on and what the Diamondbacks should look at as well.

It’s kind of a risky profile, because May needs his velocity and movement to have hitters to whiff on his pitches because otherwise they trend to make solid contact leading to line drives. With his injury history (TJ in 2018, the arm issue in 2022) he certainly is not a no-doubter, but I guess quite some teams are willing to take the risk because of the strike out appeal and I don’t see reason why the Diamondbacks wouldn’t be one of them.

Chris Martin

Chris Martin is such a risky profile, you really have to believe a lot in the man if you are willing to put up big money. Martin has always been a pitcher with great command and the SO/BB numbers have always been strong. This 2022 that ratio is really insidiously insane since he has now also added a superb control thus location to his pitching. That has lead to a terrific 1.46 ERA for the Dodgers during the regular season and the only “but” here is that it were just 24.0 innings in Dodger blue.

Martin has had just once a 4.00 FIP and every other season i was below that mark, so the stats truly love the man. It means he will either pitch well or is probably just a bit unlucky. He has maintained his velocity ever since debuting for the Rockies in 2014, so age shouldn’t be a concerning factor for now for the 36-year old. The biggest question is if he is actually available as a free agent as Martin has one year of arbitration remaining and it makes sense for the Dodgers to put him through that process after a very successful stint in LA.

Relievers that offer something else.

Adam Ottavino

In my Dynasty fantasy teams Ottavino is one of the fixed names I sign on a 1 year contract. From time to time you can deploy him in the lineup to add to the SVH, ERA and WHIP categories for which he is, most of the times, a steady though unspectacular contributor. Quietly Ottavino is one of the most reliable relievers out there, now close to age 37, and just coming off a season in which he basically repeated his successful 2016 season for the Rockies. Ottavino lost a bit on his average velocity when compared to last season, but it was still above his career average and for the lower velocity he added much better command: his 2.2 BB/9 in 2022 was a repeat of his career low.

That came with an increase in chase rate, especially of his slider. Whether Ottavino is able to maintain that success remains to be seen. Ottavino will have many suitors in free agency after the season he has posted, which will drive his asking price up. Whether the Diamondbacks are prepared to take battle in that is a big question mark, but there is probably no doubt that Ottavino would be a great reinforcement for the bullpen.

Seth Lugo

The last five years Seth Lugo has been pitching out of the bullpen for the New York Mets and especially the first two years he had quite some success. Lugo has been a household name in reliever land the last years and probably considers recognition for that, but he probably isn’t the high leverage guy the Diamondbacks might want to end up with in the free agency market.

Lugo has one of the worst chase rates in the entire MLB. He is not a real strikeout guy, although he has a very healthy SO/BB ratio, is a bit homer prone as his pitches get hit quite hard and is not the man who easily puts guys away: 47% of inherited runners scored, a percentage similar to Joe Mantiply although in much lower leverage situations.

The biggest problem in 2022 for Lugo has been getting right-handed batters out, who have hit .279/.333/.442 against him. Compared to 2021 there hasn’t changed that much in Lugo’s pitch arsenal, velocity and spin rates, which implies that 2023 would be pretty much of the same for the 32-year old right hander. I don’t see the D-Backs spending for that.

Michael Fulmer

The former rookie of the year and All Star starting pitcher for the Detroit Tigers saw his rise in the MLB getting wiped out by a 2019 TJ surgery and after a Robbie Ray-like 2020 Detroit moved Fulmer to the bullpen. That move provoked a return in his fastball velocity and the right-hander was moderately successful for an ailing Tigers team, notching 14 saves during the season. While he wasn’t able to repeat that success in 2022 in Detroit and, after a deadline trade, in Minnesota, Fulmer won’t reach the age of 30 until next March and can therefore have still plenty of upside.

Fulmer looks like a good project to work with and needs to work on his command to return to his 2021 numbers and maybe some more. Consistency was Fulmer’s biggest problem in 2022 as his velocity continuously moved up and down between 93.5 and 94.5 although in September he was getting back to 95.7 again and when he was reaching those heights, batters barely squared up against him.

Because of the troubles he had with his velocity, Fulmer relied heavily on his slider, that isn’t a great pitch, but has enough quality to get batters out. The expected stats on his pitches for 2022 are actually close to what was expected in 2021, so a reliever like Fulmer should pitch somewhere between a 3.00 ERA and 3.50 ERA, which probably puts him a bit below 2022 Mantiply on the reliever ranking. Not sure if that is worth a $5,000,000 contract, but given Fulmer’s age it might be reasonable to bank on some improvement.

Mychal Givens

The reason why I included Mychal Givens here is that he will probably be mentioned somewhere as a possible acquisition. Givens has always faulted when given too high leverage situations and his trade history is rather unlucky: each time he was pitching well and was traded, he botched for his new club. That happened this year in New York as well after he got traded from the Cubs to the Mets.

Givens has always had poor command over his pitches, but in 2022 also lost velocity and spin on his pitches. He got away with it in the NL Central but once he encountered tougher opponents in the NL East he gave up 12 runs in 20 innings. We’d rather stay away from this.

Who else?

Relievers with recent success and with player options are Nick Martinez and Andrew Chafin. The first one will probably opt in and take the $6,500,000 while the former Diamondback is touted by many to opt out of $7,000,000 and look for more guaranteed money in a new contract. With Mantiply on the team I don’t see the D-Backs make a run after Chafin if he returns to the market.

Tommy Kahnle and Scott Alexander have both been good to excellent for the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants but in rather small sample sizes. Chad Green is in a similar situation, but in his case he has been on the injured list since mid May 2022.

Anthony Bass, Jose Leclerc (mentioned in the article on closers), Chris Flexen and Hirokazu Sawamura will probably see their club options lifted and those that will be released, amongst them Ian Kennedy, obviously lack recent success.

Zach Eflin’s contract has a $15,000,000 mutual option for 2023 with a $150k buyout. Eflin has been a back-of-the-rotation starter for the Phillies and recently returned from a knee injury as a reliever. Philadelphia surely won’t opt in here, making Eflin another reliever possibility on the open market according to Spotrac. My guess is that Eflin will try to find a spot in a rotation somewhere.

Trevor Williams has regained some of his early success in the MLB, but now as a pitcher that has been freely moved between the bullpen and the rotation, as the Mets have had to cover injuries in their rotation all season long. While his numbers are acceptable, he has just 1 hold over the entire season, making him a bit of a question mark for higher leverage situations. I guess in 2023 some team will find appeal in Williams to use him in a similar role as he had on the Mets.

All other relievers on the free agency market might become part of the 2023 Diamondbacks as well, but it is hard to see any game changers amongst them at the moment.

Now you have read my opinion, feel free to share yours in the comments!

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