Indians need bullpen help. Who are the top free agent relief pitchers?

Harry How

A look at the best bullpen arms in free agency this offseason



Other entries in LGT's free agency series:

I should say at the start, that I'm against a team like the Indians going out and signing relief pitchers to big free agent deals. Their overall budget isn't large enough to spend big on someone likely to throw no more than 65-70 innings in a season, and relief pitchers are too volatile for them to commit to for more than a couple years. A 2-year deal will likely be enough for almost all of the pitchers on this list, but I think $8-10 million for 2014 is better spent on a starter or an upgrade to the lineup (most likely in right field). That said, the Indians will almost certainly add someone to the pen this offseason, so here are the best arms available:

10) Edward Mujica

2013 Team 2014 Age Throws IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 FIP ERA ERA+
Cardinals 30 Right 64.2 6.40 0.70 1.25 3.71 2.78 131

Mujica took over as St. Louis' closer early in the year, and pitched very well. He had a 1.73 ERA through April and seemed headed for a major payday this offseason, but he suffered shoulder soreness in September, allowed 9 runs in 7.1 innings that month, lost the closer job, along with untold millions. He'd never looked like more than a decent reliever before 2013, and he probablyisn't more than that. He looked headed to 3 years, $30 million, but I bet 2/$14M gets it done now, maybe less.

9) Boone Logan

2013 Team 2014 Age Throws IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 FIP ERA ERA+
Yankees 29 Left 39.0 11.54 3.00 1.62 3.82 3.23 126

The only left-handed reliever in baseball with an ERA+ of at least 100 and a better strikeout-rate than Logan was Aroldis Chapman. Logan was troubled by the homerun ball in 2013, but Yankee Stadium can do that to a fly ball pitcher (which is what Boone rates as, when balls are put in play). He's the youngest pitcher on this list, and will likely get something like 2/$10M.

8) Javier Lopez
2013 Team 2014 Age Throws IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 FIP ERA ERA+
Giants 36 Left 39.1 8.47 2.75 0.23 2.41 1.83 184

Lopez is one of the most extreme ground ball pitchers in baseball, and has the second-lowest home run rate of any pitcher in baseball over the last decade (min. 300 IP). He's getting up there, but has a case as the best left-handed reliever on the market, which should be enough to earn him one more multiyear deal, likely for something in the 2/$12M ballpark.

7) Joe Smith

2013 Team 2014 Age Throws IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 FIP ERA ERA+
Indians 30 Right 63.0 7.71 3.29 0.71 3.60 2.29 165

Smith has been a solid reliever for the Indians over the last three seasons, pitching at least 63 innings each year, with a fairly consistent walk-rate and a strikeout rate that's actually climbed in each of the last two years. He took over as closer near the end of the season, and with a bit of that shine on him, no injury history to speak of, and relative youth, he might be the best-bet of any reliever to get a 3-year deal, perhaps for $18 million or so.

6) Fernando Rodney

2013 Team 2014 Age Throws IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 FIP ERA ERA+
Rays 37 Right 66.2 11.07 4.86 0.41 2.84 3.38 113

Rodney set the record for best ERA in baseball history in 2012 (min. 50 IP), but came down to earth in a big way in 2013, with an ERA and ERA+ well below average among closers. Walks and a spike in his BABIP allowed were the major culprits. There should be enough goodwill for him to land something like 2/$16, or, given that he'll be 37, teams may prefer to give him just 1 year, for something like $10M.

5) Brian Wilson

2013 Team 2014 Age Throws IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 FIP ERA ERA+
Dodgers 32 Right 13.2 8.56 2.63 0.00 2.02 0.66 556

Wilson led MLB in saves from 2008 to 2011, with 163. He was especially great in 2010, the year San Francisco won its first World Series since 1954 (sigh...). WIlson began to have injury problems in 2011 though, pitched just 2 innings in 2012, and missed most of 2013 too. He signed with the Dodgers and debuted in late August. He allowed only 1 run in 18 appearances, then added six scoreless innings in the playoffs. His velocity was strong, and while signing him would seem to carry a lot of risk, I think he'll be in demand, and land something like 2/$16M. He might also take a 1-year deal for ~$10 in order to rebuild more value and hit the market again in 12 months.

4) Grant Balfour

2013 Team 2014 Age Throws IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 FIP ERA ERA+
Athletics 36 Right 62.2 10.34 3.88 1.01 3.49 2.59 145

Balfour has been a very good reliever with Oakland for the last four years, with an ERA of 2.47 over that time, and an ERA+ never worse than 145. He served as the team's closer most of the last two seasons. His rising walk-rate should be of some concern, but he's in line for a handsome contract, perhaps something like 2/$20M.

3) Jesse Crain

2013 Team 2014 Age Throws IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 FIP ERA ERA+
White Sox 32 Right 36.2 11.29 2.70 0.00 1.52 0.74 586

Crain was probably the best relief pitcher in baseball during the season's first half. He led all relievers in ERA, ERA+, and fWAR. IN late June though, Crain strained his right shoulder, and while he was initially expected to miss 6 weeks or so, he wound up missing the final 3 months of the season. Crain was very good in 2011 and 2012 too, and was set up for as big a payday as a middle reliever gets, but FanGraphs' crowdsourcing now projects just 2/$12M for him. If the Indians sign a big reliever, Crain would be an intriguing choice.

2) Joaquin Benoit

2013 Team 2014 Age Throws IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 FIP ERA ERA+
Tigers 36 Right 67.0 9.81 2.96 0.67 2.87 2.01 209

Benoit has been a solid set-up man for years, and was clearly the Tigers' best relief pitcher entering 2013, but it wasn't until late June that Jim Leyland installed Benoit as his regular closer. Benoit saved 20 games in 22 chances from that point on, with a 2.02 ERA and better than a strikeout per inning, but there seems to be a sense that he'll still not suited to be a closer, which I think is silly. That and his age will keep him on a 2-year deal, probably for $18-20M

1) Joe Nathan

2013 Team 2014 Age Throws IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 FIP ERA ERA+
Rangers 39 Right 64.2 10.16 3.06 0.28 2.26 1.39 297

Nathan has been the second-best relief pitcher in baseball over the last decade, and is still going strong. His pitches have lost a couple miles per hour, but were no less effective in 2013 than they were in his prime. By WAR, this was the 4th-best season of his career. He's too old for a longterm deal, but too good to settle for 1 year. I expect something like 2 years, $24 million for the best reliever on the market.

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