Arms Race: Free Agency and 2021’s Bullpen Options

Free agency is now upon us, having started on November 1st. It has become abundantly clear that the MLB free agent market is going to be depressed, as teams are reluctant to spend coming off a season with no revenue. Additionally, there is surely some lingering doubt about a full 162 game season beginning in April of 2021, with or without fans.

For those looking for an escape from all that, we know that offseason in the MLB means that hope springs eternal. Here, as always, will be a place for optimism. We see patterns year by year: Playoff hopefuls make splash moves, established powerhouses shore up their depth, and cellar dwellers take meaningful fliers on value propositions. Your Houston Astros have two big question marks coming off of an…interesting 2020 season, and if you’re looking to read up options for the holes in the outfield, you can do so here.

The other potential area of weakness, then, comes in the form of an extremely young and somewhat thin pitching staff. We saw injuries have a tremendous domino effect in 2020, with ten (10!) pitchers slated to be on the opening day roster hitting the IL at some point over the 60 game season. Roberto Osuna was waived, leaving the closer position to Ryan Pressly for 2021 without a signing. Brad Peacock’s shoulder appears to be more consistently aggravated than a Yankees fan. Chris Devenski has experienced a nearly unprecedented fall from grace, even granting MLB relievers’ volatility. Josh James struggled mightily and potentially will be out for the first half of the season recovering from hip surgery.

Luckily, the rookie arms showed plenty of promise in 2020. Enoli Paredes, Andre Scrubb, Blake Taylor, and Brooks Raley all earned jobs in the 2021 bullpen, and you can read some of my previous, more in-depth work about them here.

Those four arms combined with Pressly, and perhaps Pruitt do not constitute a fleshed out MLB bullpen, however, and if James Click and the Tampa Bay Rays did anything in his tenure there it is establish a deep and effective relief corps. Here, I’ll run down some affordable names as I have them personally ranked on the free agent market, and make the case for each of them. Feel free to let us at Apollo know where your preferences lie!

  1. Liam Hendriks

Liam Hendriks needs no introduction, and I am not going to spend much time discussing it because he is the clear-cut best reliever available on the market. Every team would be better by signing him, and so odds are he will not be coming to Houston. The 2020 AL Reliever of The Year Award winner was flat out dominant, with a 0.67 WHIP and 2.32 xERA. He has now replicated this success over two straight years, and FanGraphs projects a 3 year/$30-$32m payday, a depressed value due to the current market. The Astros could certainly use a real closer to bump Pressly back to being elite in the 8th inning role, but I would be surprised if Hendriks is the one they go after. Regardless, he would be an excellent addition for any team, Astros included.

2. Trevor May

Surprised not to see Brad Hand at number 2? We can get to that in a second. Minnesota employed a sort of closer-by-committee approach this past season, and so Trevor May didn’t get to rack up the saves in the same way Hand did. In his high leverage role, May managed to show his strikeout stuff with a 39.6 K%. That’s not just elite, that’s in the 98th percentile of the entire league, and in fact makes May the most strikeout-dominant arm available in an offseason where the position is completely loaded.

May has three true pitches. A firm fastball (seriously, watch it fly out of his hand) averaging 96 and topping at 99 MPH, which he has built velo on top of in each of the last six years, is his best offering. It flashes above average active spin and slated an unconscionable 46.9 Whiff% in this shortened season. On a 4 seamer! Additionally, he possesses a wipeout slider with good vertical depth, and a plus changeup. After getting rid of a loopy curveball that got absolutely hammered in 2019, May has been nothing short of electric. Because of the lack of saves and experience in a closer’s role, May has a good chance to represent the best value of all FA relief arms in a vacuum.

FanGraphs projects May’s deal to be in the range of 2 years/$12m, which is more than affordable and would provide the club with another backend option, should they choose to rely more on a high-leverage approach than the traditional closer.

3. Brad Hand

If the Astros wanted Brad Hand for $10m, they could have had him. The Indians closer was waived earlier in the offseason, along with his $10m club option for 2021. The fact that no team bit on Hand for that price on a one year deal speaks volumes, both to this market and to his value. He saw a clear dip in fastball velocity in 2020, which has been steadily declining as he ages. Regardless of the fastball, he is a funky lefty with a sidewinding release point and a devastating slider. Hand has recently shown an increase in platoon splits, indicating that righties may begin to have more success against him in the future. Even with all that, though, he was so dominant in 2020 that he will command a significant payday, and is a viable closing option.

4. Alex Colome

Alex Colome is a tank, and one of the safest options around for a position with so much volatility. His last trip to the IL was four years ago, and durability after this nightmare season is more valuable than ever. His most significant weakness in the past has been a scattered release point leading to inconsistency in the movement of his bread and butter pitch, a nasty cutter averaging right around 90 MPH. In 2020, however, Colome finally got to a consistent release point on the cutter and experienced career bests in every run prevention stat you can imagine en route to a 0.81 ERA. He ditched the changeup, which has been used on and off for the last few years, and focused entirely on his two pitch mix: A mid 90s four seamer and the cutter that he uses 77% of the time. Extremely deceptive, Colome hides the ball well and exemplifies pitchability.

Alex Colome’s 2020.

Colome’s peripherals indicate some significant regression. He stranded 86% of baserunners, a completely unsustainable pace over a 162 game season. However, his xERA of 3.09 and FIP of 2.97 are still fairly elite. While expecting complete replication of the 2020 season is unrealistic, some optimism for Colome turning a true corner into a top shelf closer is not out of the question. For the price, he would represent a clear choice to bump Pressly back into the high-leverage role he so exceled in during 2019, and one with virtually no injury concerns. FanGraphs projects Colome to receive a 2 year/14m deal, which I think fits into the Astros roster and payroll structure beautifully. Additionally, new GM James Click is familiar with Colome from his time in the Rays bullpen from 2013-2017.

5. Blake Treinen

When the Dodgers grabbed Blake Treinen on a 1 year/$10m deal last offseason, it was the epitome of a prove-it deal. And prove it he did, with a respectable 3.86 ERA and 3.15 FIP. He might not ever repeat the untouchable 2018 campaign in which he looked like a pitcher that has never been thought or dreamt of before, with his 101 MPH turbo sinkers. Fortunately, he doesn’t have to in order to be valuable. Treinen induced the third-highest groundball% of all relievers, an extremely desired skill in the current climate with hitters trying to lift every pitch. He’s certainly better suited for a setup role, but in an Astros bullpen starved for at least two arms, a setup role is up for grabs.

The sinker came surging back, averaging 97 mph and inducing a negative launch angle. The slider too, with a more than serviceable 36 whiff%. Treinen tried chalking up his horrible 2019 campaign to changes in the MLB baseball, with its lower seams, and it it beginning to look more and more like an aberration as his raw stuff continues its return to form. FanGraphs predicts 2 years/$18m on a Treinen deal, indicating that teams are willing to pay for the upside that somebody like Colome does not bring to the table. In my opinion, the Astros are not in a position in which they need to take risks with the bullpen arms, and instead Colome at a discount provides enough security to leapfrog Treinen in the rankings.

6. Trevor Rosenthal

He’s back. And serving as a testament to the highs and lows of a flamethrowing reliever in the MLB. After performing his best Rick Ankiel impression in coming back from TJ surgery for 2019, Rosenthal flipped a switch and was nothing less than dominant in 2020. He compiled a 1.9 ERA and 38 strikeouts in 23.2 IP(!). The fastball was a slight tick down from his 2017 pre-surgery velocity, but was even more effective and with the same active spin. The slider, too, came back with a vengeance and even more vertical bite than it had during his mid-2000s heyday. Rosenthal has experience in a true closing role, having accrued 40+ saves in two different seasons previously. If a team believes that the control is back, or that the raw stuff makes the control inconsequential, Rosenthal is a value dream.

He had a bad postseason in a gassed bullpen with three injured starters. Kirby Yates was injured, and while Yates would usually be discussed on this list, there’s almost nothing to be able to say about a guy coming off of 3 innings and a bone spur removal. The Padres losing two of their backend arms leads me to believe they will be bringing one back, if not replacing them with another one of these top options. Both Yates and Rosenthal will carry closer expectations, and both have proven some unreliability in recent years, but I trust that Rosenthal’s are behind him.

Best fits for the Astros

Aside from the top arms, there are a few options of depth bullpen pieces that are always critical to a 162 game regular season’s success. Guys to bridge the middle innings into your horses are increasingly important in today’s game, and building an effective, deep bullpen has been this new front office’s MO for years. Here are your Astroball (Rays-ball? Sometimes, getting a read on James Click is like trying to grab a stick of butter in a warm wind tunnel) signings.

7. Anthony Bass

Anthony Bass, to put it as simply as possible, is the absolute epitome of a sabermetric darling. I honestly don’t remember the last time I saw somebody so holistically outperform his outcomes by every peripheral, and it wasn’t just in 2020. 2019 carries that pattern as well, although admittedly to a much lesser extent. Bass played his way into a psuedo-closer role for the Blue Jays, racking up 7 saves after Ken Giles’s injury (who is also available! family reunion, anybody?) while posting a respectable 3.51 ERA and 1.01 WHIP. Additionally, he ranks in the 95th or better percentile in xBA, xSLG, wOBA, xwOBA, Barrel%, and xERA. The man simply did not allow the ball to be hit hard.

Anthony Bass’s 2020 via baseballsavant.com

Bass has a unique three pitch arsenal: Sinker, Slider, Splitter, the last two of which are the strikeout offerings. He uses the splitter exclusively against left-handed bats, as Robinson Cano will demonstrate how its movement dives away from the barrel of lefties. The slider is the go-to K pitch to right handed batters, as you can see here. Couple the plus offspeed offerings with a sinker that reaches into the mid-90s and you have a really, really solid buy-low candidate with setup man potential and the ability to chew through middle innings without walking people. He should be cheaper than Trevor May as he lacks the strikeout upside, but his 2020 may have opened some eyes.

8. Chaz Roe/Oliver Drake

The story on these guys is pretty much the same, so I’m going to throw them in to a category together. They are both contract year Tampa Bay Rays. They were both injured for all or most of this abbreviated season. Both possess a double-plus pitch that is relentlessly featured in highlight videos on Twitter. In the case of Roe, it is his slider that he throws 60% of the time. For Drake, it is this devil magic that he calls a splitter. Neither guy will be particularly expensive, but Roe has a longer track record of success and should command more. Roe profiles as a setup man contender that mows down RHB thanks to the frisbee of a slider, while Drake is more of a middle innings and matchup guy against LHB with his reverse splits. Either one represents a low-cost weapon out of a bullpen, available to all.

9. Brandon Workman

Do you like gambling? I like gambling. Brandon Workman is the baseball equivalent of taking a haymaker from a professional boxer for $5,000. That’s admittedly a lot of money, while only truly lifechanging in very specific circumstances. But there’s always a chance that you’ll wake up with no memory of the risk and only the reward. Look at the difference a year makes! He’s only 32!

Bandon Workman’s 2019 vs. 2020

Workman just sort of doesn’t throw strikes anymore. The control issues showed themselves in Boston, where he was dominant and worked around them, and then became completely unbearable in Philadelphia last year, where he was getting shelled in the middle of the carousel of walks. In 2019, he allowed a 0.7 barrel%, sitting alone atop the throne; the lowest in Major League Baseball. Nobody touched him as Boston’s closer for 71 innings. In 2020, his barrel% exploded to 12.3%, good for the…seventh percentile. It is truly hard to understand what to even make of that kind of volatility. It is both easy and tempting to chalk it up to sample size.

Workman has a three pitch mix, almost evenly distributed between a knuckle curveball, cutter, and four-seam. The fastball reaches into the mid 90s and the curveball is a hammer, the clear best offering. His raw stuff did not change from 2019 to 2020 with the velocity, spin rates, and movement remaining consistent. However, his K% dipped by 12 percentage points and the xERA nearly tripled. He just got smoked. But, again, in the larger sample size away from this gimmicky season he was always above-average to dominant, and can be had for pennies on the dollar. There’s certainly some baked-in risk, but the Astros wouldn’t be signing Workman to compete for a closing job, leaving some margin for error. Strom would have an opportunity to work his magic, and if he returned to 2019 form it would go a long way towards securing another playoff spot. The Astros have a pattern of trading for/signing pitchers with one very elite pitch and telling them to throw it more; see Cole, Gerrit, Harris, Will, or Biagini, Joseph…alright bad example, my bad. It doesn’t always work out.

10. Collin McHugh

If there is anything left in his arm at all, and if health is not an issue, please bring him back. He honestly fits into a hybrid long/middle relief role extremely well with limited risk and this isn’t solely me missing one of my favorite pitchers, but it is also that. Come on home.

Thank you for reading. Go ‘stros.

– Ben (@Midzee4)

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