Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon are about to set a new standard for paydays for free agent closers, but it doesn’t mean they’re the only examples of relief help available this offseason.
The rest of the reliever market is littered with pitchers who are familiar with dealing with high-leverage situations and several who have been primary closers for previous teams. Those hurlers won’t get as much attention (or salary) as the big three at the top of the market, but it doesn’t mean those arms aren’t without value.
With Chapman, Travis Wood and Joe Smith hitting free agency, coupled with the fact that Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop have been among the most used relievers over the last few years (and dealt with injury issues at the end of 2016), Joe Maddon’s bullpen will need (and receive) some offseason tweaking.
No Cubs reliever has faced more batters in high-leverage situations since 2014 than Rondon. The 272 batters he has faced in those spots are 14th most among qualifying relievers and the 70.2 high-leverage innings is the 10th most. Meanwhile, Strop’s 176.1 innings pitched since 2014 puts him among the 50 most-used relievers in the last three years.
Help is on the way in the form of both internal and external options, though.
For the sake of this exercise, here is a look at some external arms that might go undervalued this offseason, and could plausibly fit into the Cubs’ bullpen, at least as added depth with late-inning experience.
Koji Uehara: He will be 42 in 2017, but Uehara still has an effective split-finger offering that serves as the kind of wipeout pitch a reliable high-leverage arm needs. Uehara has thrown it at a 49.6 percent rate since 2013 and according to BrooksBaseball.net, it has received whiffs on 25.3 percent of the 1,771 offerings. However, the number of whiffs has dropped in each of the last three years, peaking at 163 in 2013 and bottoming out at 77 in 2016.
Fernando Rodney: The changeup is as good as it has ever been for the former Cubs reliever and it has been the third most valuable among relievers since 2015 by FanGraphs‘ Pitch Value measure. He even saw an increase of 4.3 percentage points in whiff rate last year. Rodney will pitch in his age 40 season in 2017, so there is risk in age-related decline, despite a 26.2 percent strikeout rate in 2016. Still, walks (13.1 BB%) are a major issue, and he struggled in the second half.
Brad Ziegler: Only Trevor Rosenthal, Mark Melancon, and Fernando Rodney have faced more batters than Ziegler (407) in high-leverage situations since the start 2013, and opponents are slugging .318 in those spots. He picked up 62 saves for the Diamondbacks between 2014 and 2016, when he was dealt to the Red Sox. While he is no stranger to recording big outs, the groundballer doesn’t get many strikeouts (despite posting a career best 20.1 K% in 2016). He also posted his highest walk rate this past season (9.0 BB%) since 2010.
Shawn Tolleson: Emerging from the Rangers bullpen to save 35 games in 2015, Tolleson took a step back in 2016 and finds himself on the free agent market. He owned a 25.5 K% and 5.5 BB% when things went well in 2015, but opponents owned a .372 BABIP and he posted a 5.24 FIP in 2016. There is a buy low feel to Tolleson, whose LOB% dipped from 82.9 percent in 2015 to 59.9 percent a year later. The fall to a 17.3 K% could be a red flag, though.
Drew Storen: An up-and-down career makes him a risky investment and a borderline reclamation project at this stage of his career, but an intriguing one at that. The former Nationals closer is coming off a year in which he posted a career-worst 5.23 ERA and 4.21 FIP with the Blue Jays and Mariners. Further, he owned a 21.1 K% that was 8.3 percentage points lower than what he put up in 2015. Since 2010, Storen has faced 448 batters in high leverage situations, limiting them to a .187 average, .271 slugging percentage and .244 wOBA.
Neftali Feliz: Everyone knows about Aroldis Chapman’s fastball velocity, but Neftali Feliz’s four-seamer, which averages 96 mph, is the second hardest among free agent relievers. Feliz is five years removed from his last 30-save season, but he struck out 28 percent of the batters he faced as a member of the Pirates in 2016. He received career-best whiff percentages with his four-seamer (15.4%) and slider (20%), according to BrooksBaseball.net, and will only be 29 in 2017. There still could be some mileage left in that arm.
If you missed it yesterday, Michael wrote about one of the bigger names on the market in Kenley Jansen.