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Best Free Agent Relief Pitchers

James Schiano ranks the RPs left on the market

1. Kenley Jansen, 34

 

Still an elite reliever by most accounts, Jansen has worked incredibly hard the last few seasons to combat the aging curve. It looked like the beginning of the end in 2018 when his ERA more than doubled and his K% dropped by 14 points compared to the season before. However, he has pulled the nose of the plane back up.

Jansen leaned on his cutter for his most effective seasons. He threw it 85.6% of the time between 2012 to 2018, but its loss of velocity and ride became the key factor in his regression. Needing a fix, he went to Driveline after the 2019 season to rework his deteriorating cutter and become a more balanced pitcher overall.

He threw the cutter just 58% of the time last year, its lowest usage rate in more than a decade, and it had more ride and velocity than each of the last three seasons. Also, his slider (which behaves more like a curveball) had a 40.3% whiff rate while his sinker allowed just one barrel on 39 balls in play.

The downside to Jansen’s resurgence was a spike in his walk rate. It has been steadily climbing for a few years and mooned at 12.9% last season, one of the worst marks in the league for a reliever. That is just a byproduct either of learning to harness his new pitches, though. It will pay dividends to have better stuff and worse command rather than the inverse.

Jansen can still pitch at a high level. He is the top available reliever despite not being the dominant force he once was.

 

2. Jake Diekman, 35

 

Similar to (this iteration of) Jansen, Diekman has nasty stuff with below-average command. However, he realized the top-end of his variance in the shortened season with a devastating 0.42 ERA in 21.1 innings for the A’s. The sample makes that number easy to discount, but his 36.9 K% was meaningful. Of course, that number was coupled with a ridiculous 14.3 BB%.

He reverted back to his norm in 2021 with a 3.86 ERA but still turned in a 31.7 K% with a slightly more palatable 13.0 BB%. Strangely, his groundball rate fell below 40% this past season after sitting at or above 50% for most of his career.

Such a wonky trend, especially without a drastic change to his pitch mix or location last season.

Nevertheless, Diekman is one of the most desirable options on the market because of his slider. The pitch is near the top of the league in horizontal movement and has better than a 45% whiff rate for his career. Its usage rate has dropped in each of the last three seasons, but I’d try to reverse that trend if I brought him in.

Whether that adjustment happens or not, there are few relievers available with a swing-and-miss pitch better than Diekman’s slider. That plus the upper 90s heat (from the left side no less) gives him tremendous upside.

 

3. Joe Kelly, 33

 

The number one thing Kelly (still) has is elite velocity. His fastball and sinker each sat around 98 mph last season, no small feat for a 33-year-old. That, plus his nasty curveball, gives him a very high baseline for success.

Kelly has made one key adjustment over the last few seasons to remain steady: less four-seam fastballs and more sinkers. He came into the league throwing mostly sinkers but opted for more fastballs after being acquired by the Red Sox in 2014.

That flipped in 2019 after the Dodgers signed him away from Boston. The change has helped him get more ground balls, and not at the expense of his strikeouts!

Joe Kelly Adjustment

Don’t the memes fool you, Kelly still has an elite arsenal and has been highly effective over an extended window with no end in sight.

 

4. Tony Watson, 36

 

If only the Giants’ former players could bring the Giants’ data and information with them to their new homes. Watson made a handful of adjustments last season that revived his career after a rough 2019, namely deepening his repertoire.

Once a committed sinker-baller with Pittsburgh and for one year in LA, Watson would mix in a smattering of sliders and changeups to keep the opponent honest.

He has cut his sinker’s usage sharply since signing with the Giants in 2018. It is down from 50.7% in his first year to just 17.4% last season. He threw his changeup, slider, and new four-seamer more often creating a legit four-pitch mix. Few relievers have a repertoire as deep and that gives Watson a reasonably high floor.

 

5. Adam Conley, 31

 

Conley transitioned to a relief role with the Marlins in 2018 and has flashed brilliance since without sustaining. He enjoyed a massive velocity bump after that switch and had the 16th highest average fastball velocity for a LHP last season (min 250 total pitches) at 95.7 mph. The pitch’s shape is a bit unconventional with significant glove-sider un, but it has gotten more ride in each of Conley’s last three seasons.

His changeup moves on the same plane with greater than a 10 mph difference than the fastball and their nearly identical spin direction out of Conley’s hand makes them difficult to distinguish.

Those two pitches can make a very successful reliever, but his slider is a bit of an ugly duckling. You can see how inconsistent its spin direction is.

Still, the pitch somehow sat above 30% whiffs last season. It’s possible Conley’s new org can harness that pitch and give him one of the most devastating three-pitch mixes of any reliever in baseball. He’s well worth an upside play.

 

6. Ryan Tepera, 34

 

The former NL MVP candidate has been lauded as one of the best relievers on the market and seeking a multi-year. That would give me some pause, but he made a critical adjustment last season that could help him retain his value.

Tepera had been a cutter dominant pitcher for his career. Usually, relievers who lack elite velocity or a plus breaking ball use the cutter to generate weak contact. The timeless Mark Melancon has turned this into an art form. However, Tepera has always used his cutter as a whiff pitch.

It consistently ran a whiff rate north of 40% before ballooning to 62.2% in 2020! More critically, he threw it 42.2% of the time during the shortened season. That set a new career-high in usage.

Now, back to last year’s adjustment: Tepera got with the times and basically blended his cutter and scarcely thrown slider into a new pitch that was about five ticks harder than his old slider while both dropping and running more than the old cutter. Check out the difference here.

The dominance of this pitch combined with how often Tepera throws gives him a stable floor, talent-wise. Although, the length and terms of a potential deal for the 34-year-old will have a lot to do with how he’s viewed going forward.

 

7. Adam Ottavino, 36

 

An old friend, Ottavino still has the tools to be a high-quality reliever. His fastball velocity remains well above league average and his slider had the most horizontal movement in baseball last season. All the pieces are there for him to be very good, just don’t expect 2018-2019 Ottavino to walk through the door.

 

8. Ian Kennedy, 37

 

Kennedy became a full-time reliever in 2019 and that move gave his fastball the life it needed to remain afloat and revive his career. 2020 was a disaster for him with 14 ER in just 14 IP, but 2019 and 2021 were remarkably steady (3.20 and 3.46 ERAs respectively).

One concern with Kennedy is his reliance on that fastball. He threw it 69.9% of the time in 2019 and then it jumped all the way up to 82.5% last year. The increase helped him get more whiffs but was in some part responsible for him having the fourth lowest GB% among all qualified relievers. His new team’s home park could play a significant factor in his success.

 

9. Andrew Chafin, 31

 

Billed as one of the ’safest’ relievers left on the market, Chafin presents more risk than many would lead on. His stuff leaves a lot to be desired with a flat, running, 92 mph four-seamer and sinker with a completely uninteresting movement profile. He threw those two pitches a combined 73.8% of the time last season.

Chafin’s out-pitch is his slider. It was dominant last season allowing almost no meaningful contact (.166 xwOBA) and generating a ridiculous 54.6% whiff rate. But even that pitch lacks sharpness!

Otherwise, Chafin’s 24.1 K% was his lowest since 2015 and his 38.8 FB% was the highest of his career. Paying him as an elite reliever could be a mistake.

 

10. Brad Boxberger, 33

 

Boxberger experienced a renaissance of sorts last season. The Brewers coaxed some life out of his fastball and it became one of the most effective in all of baseball. Its average velocity jumped up to 93.5 mph, its fastest since 2014, and it had 10% more ride than league-average. In turn, it had a 33.5% whiff rate (13th best in league) and -11 Run Value (30th best in league).

That fastball along with a still very good slider (34.5% whiff rate, above-average horizontal movement) and passable changeup makes the 33-year-old a fine middle relief option.

 

11. Jeurys Familia, 32

 

Two rough years in 2019 (5.70 ERA) and 2020 (3.4 K-BB%) made it seem like Familia was ready to fade into obscurity. Well, he rebounded in a big way last year and showed he can still be a highly effective middle reliever.

He fixed his nearly league-worst BB% from 2020 by throwing more pitches in the zone, especially sinkers. This was how Familia attacked hitters during the earlier and more successful parts of his career. One major difference this time around was the Mets’ willingness to shift. They shifted on just 13.7% of his PAs against in 2019, 19.5% in 2020, and 42.3% last season.

Additionally, Familia’s stuff remains nasty. His patented sinker picked up more than an inch of drop last season while maintaining its 90th percentile velocity. His slider moves more vertically than horizontally but works well off the sinker and regularly touches 90 mph. Lastly, his four-seamer catches hitters off guard despite a poor shape and generated enough whiffs (31.9%) to be a highly effective third option (14.2% usage).

All in all, Familia turned in his highest K% since 2016 last season and could present a useful bargain to a team that can palette the free passes.

 

11. Heath Hembree, 33

 

There is plenty of projection here since Hembree’s 2021 results were so bad (5.59 ERA) but he could be one of the best value buys in this market.

He started the season in Cincinnati and got crushed when pitching at Great American Ballpark. Over 21 appearances (21 IP), he allowed 21 ER and 7 HR. Never an extreme fly ball pitcher, he had a ridiculous 63.5 FB%. These issues compounded with a .333 BABIP and 21.2% HR/FB.

Despite this horrific batted ball luck, Hembree turned in a 38.0 K% while with the Reds. Still, they waived him on August 16th and he closed out his season with the Mets. There he got his ERA in check (3.68) but the strikeouts dried up (23.4 K%).

Realistically he is somewhere between these two stretches. His fastball has good ride and better than average velocity while his slider is plus. I’d bet on him being solid next season.

 

12. Richard Rodríguez, 32

 

Similar to Kennedy, Rodríguez throws an extraordinary amount of fastballs (86.1% in 2021). Unlike Kennedy, the pitch does not miss many bats (17.9 Whiff% in 2021).

So many fastballs and so few whiffs make Rodríguez susceptible to the long ball. He gave up six in just 26 innings with Atlanta against just nine strikeouts. That poor stretch could be a statistical anomaly or the beginning of the end for Rodríguez.

 

13. Sergio Romo, 39

 

Timeless is an understatement for Romo. The 15-year veteran remains effective with a steady diet of sliders that keep hitters off-balance. Once a pioneer, Romo has thrown his patented slider at least 49% of the time for an unbelievable 11 consecutive seasons. Looks like he started the slider revolution.

He made a critical adjustment last year nearly tripling his sinker usage. It has both plus drop and fade while only allowing one barrel on the season (60 BBE). Romo is flying under the radar and will likely be effective once again in 2022.

 

14. Bryan Shaw, 34

 

Shaw was part of Cleveland’s strong reliever collective of five or so years ago that featured him, Andrew Miller, and Cody Allen, among others. He relied on his cutter for ground balls and got enough soft contact to be highly effective.

He parlayed that success into a three-year, $27M deal with the Rockies. His tenure in Colorado was a disaster and he was released before the contract was up.

He resurfaced in Cleveland last year and got his career back on track. They bumped his cutter usage back up to its pre-Rockies level and that created a steady floor.

Where Shaw could truly be great is in the usage of his slider and curveball. Both pitches have exceptional movement profiles and could be highly effective if thrown more. The right organization will see this and get more out of Shaw than many expect.

 

15. Mychal Givens, 31

 

Colorado is a tough place to pitch. So is Baltimore. Cincinnati is too. These are the three ballparks that Givens has called home over his seven-year major league career and he STILL has a career 3.41 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, and 28.6 K%. That is very solid.

His fastball is his best pitch despite a seemingly average moving profile. It has plenty of spin and velocity but comes in very straight and flat. Still, it has the second-lowest SLG% against in the Statcast era when thrown at least 97 mph!

The Reds had him throw significantly more changeups last season than any other year in his career likely to coax more groundballs. Another team may tinker with his repertoire a little more, as he has three fine pitches (FF, CH, SL). Givens can be highly useful and will (likely) enjoy a more friendly home park.

 

16. Hunter Strickland, 33

 

Strickland started last season as a Ray. He pitched well and was later traded to the Angels for cash. They DFA’d him after a disastrous month at which point he was picked up by the Brewers and finished the season very strong.

His slider is a true out-pitch and it alone can make him reasonably effective. It ran a 37.7% whiff rate last season and broke 64% more than league average. He threw it more than 40% of the time, too. That, along with a fastball that sits 95 mph, makes Strickland a relatively safe option in this market.

 

17. Juan Minaya, 31

 

Minaya’s changeup may be the most unique pitch in this group. It often touches 90 mph with hard break, similar to Devin Williams‘ air-bender.

Crazy, right? It drops 26% more than average and had a 31.5% whiff rate while inducing a ridiculous 65.4 GB% across 52 BBE in 2021. His fastball has more run than ride, but has enough velocity to be effective.

Minaya has struggled with command in his career but could be a monster with the right series of adjustments.

 

18. Sean Doolittle, 35

 

A far cry from the former high leverage reliever he once was, Doolittle can still get lefties out. He struck them out at a 30.3% clip last season and will continue to be useful in that role.

Righties hit him hard though and I am not the biggest fan of him throwing 80% fastballs with average velocity, even though the pitch has great ride. Proceed with caution.

 

19. JD Hammer, 27

 

Similar to Minaya, Hammer has one pitch that vaults him into this top 20: his slider. The pitch acts more like a sweeper with plenty of horizontal and vertical movement.

Very solid. Paired with a fastball that has adequate ride and some run that mirrors the sweeper and there is a solid pitcher here. There is a foundation here for a quality reliever if he can issue less free passes.

 

20. Joe Smith, 37

 

The submariner might have finally fallen off the proverbial cliff last season when his strikeout rate sank to 19.7% and ERA ballooned to 4.99. However, his FIP was more than a full run lower than that ERA and I’d bet on him regaining some of his former production after not pitching for all of 2020. Someone is likely to get a bargain with Smith.


The rest of this list is loosely ordered and contains plenty of players that have been around for a while with obvious warts. I highlighted a few of my favorites with legit potential who are less known.

 

Chris Martin, 35

Alex Colomé, 33

Hunter Wood, 28

Andrew Miller, 36

Rafael Dolis, 34

Preston Guilmet, 34

Not appearing in the major leagues for nearly three full seasons, Guilmet struck out more than 30% of the batters he faced in AAA last season for the Marlins affiliate. He also debuted a new splitter that was downright filthy and could catalyze his reclamation.

Greg Holland, 36

Tyler Chatwood, 32

Matt Strahm, 30

Armed with a true starter’s repertoire, Strahm simply needs to stay on the field to be an effective relief pitcher. He has dealt with chronic knee issues, though.

Adam Morgan, 32

Yusmeiro Petit, 37

Andrew Vasquez, 28

Owner of a very unique ‘power-curve’ that sits 82 mph and sweeps all the way across the zone makes Vasquez intriguing.

Trevor Megill, 28

Andrew Bellatti, 30

Ryne Harper, 32

Conner Greene, 26

Greene throws heat along with a slider that had a 42.3% whiff rate last season. He should be invited to Spring Training somewhere.

Chaz Roe, 35

Ramón Rosso, 25

Hansel Robles, 31

Matt Andriese, 32

Grant Dayton, 34

Danny Coulombe, 34

Chris Devenski (TJ), 31

Dan Winkler, 32

Blake Parker, 36

Steve Cishek, 35

Keone Kela (TJ), 28

Wander Suero, 30

Joakim Soria, 37

Marcos Diplán, 25

Archie Bradley, 29

Wade Davis, 36

Brad Brach, 35

John Curtiss (Torn UCL), 28

Brad Hand, 31

Tyler Clippard, 37

Shelby Miller, 31

Chasen Shreve, 31

Nate Jones, 36

Derek Holland, 35

Josh Tomlin, 37

Pedro Strop, 36

Daniel Norris, 28

Jesse Chavez, 38

Austin Pruitt, 32

David Robertson, 36

Kyle Barraclough, 31

Erasmo Ramírez, 31

Justin Miller, 34

Jason Adam, 30

 

Photos by Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Shawn Palmer (@PalmerDesigns_ on Twitter)

James Schiano

Graduate of The Ohio State University and New York City dweller, I am a die-hard Mets fan who can generally be found screaming at the TV or making wise-cracks to anyone who'll hear them. Follow me on Twitter @JeterHadNoRange

  • tim says:

    Trevor Rosenthal?

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