Evaluating risk factors for top 10 free-agent relievers

Relief pitchers threw 17,422 innings in 2018 — that’s up from 14,977 just five years ago. That’s an average increase of 81.5 innings per team, so on just a pure volume level relief pitchers are more important than ever. I suspect we may see some of the free-agent relievers start signing this week — they’re usually the first to go. Here’s my analysis of the top 10 with a risk rating relative to their potential contract.

Craig Kimbrel

The good: With a 1.91 career ERA and 14.7 K’s per nine over eight-plus seasons in the majors, Kimbrel still brings upper 90s heat with that unhittable curveball. Batters hit .146 off him in 2018 — right in line with his career mark of .154 — and his overall strikeout rate of 38.9 percent ranked sixth among relievers with at least 40 innings.

The bad: He struggled big time in the postseason: 10 2/3 IP, 9 H, 7 R, 8 BB, 10 SO, 2 HR. Though he managed to convert all six of his save opportunities, it wasn’t pretty and highlighted the command issues he had in the regular season as well, when he walked 31 in 62 1/3 innings and also served up a career-worst seven home runs.

Risk: High. The stuff is still there and he has been healthy, but he comes with a lot of risk if his ultimate payout is similar to what Wade Davis received last year from the Rockies (three years, $52 million). Note that Kimbrel has had high walk rates in two of the past three seasons, so there’s concern if he suddenly becomes a little more hittable. The Red Sox, Phillies and Mets are three big-market teams who might be willing to give out a Davis-like contract (with a return to the Braves a less likely possibility).

Jeurys Familia

The good: He owns a 2.73 career ERA, has plenty of closing experience, including a league-leading 51 saves with the Mets in 2016, does a good job limiting home runs and has averaged 96.5 mph with his heavy sinker.

The bad: He had a 15-game domestic violence suspension at the start of 2017 and then missed much of the season with an arterial clot in his shoulder. His ground ball rate, above 60 percent from 2015 to 2017, dropped to 47.1 percent (although he still gave up just three home runs in 72 innings).

Risk: Low. The command can waver a bit at times and though he’s not a super-elite guy, he has been a consistent, reliable reliever other than in 2017.

Adam Ottavino

The good: He was one of the best relievers in the game in 2018, posting a 2.43 ERA for the Rockies with 112 strikeouts and 41 hits in 77 2/3 innings. He ranked 12th in relief innings, 10th in strikeout rate (minimum 40 innings) and eighth in wOBA allowed — all despite pitching half his games at Coors Field. His Wiffle Ball-like slider was effective against both lefties and righties.

The bad: He’s one season removed from a 5.06 ERA and 39 walks in 53 1/3 innings. He had Tommy John surgery in 2015. His ERA increased from 1.62 in the first half to 3.51 in the second half and his SO/BB ratio fell from 3.72 to 2.50. He allowed 24 stolen bases — fourth most in the majors among all pitchers, an incredible result for a relief pitcher.

Risk: Medium. As terrific as he was, he’s not likely to get overpaid as he’s 33, so there could be good value here. He probably wore down a bit pitching at altitude and might hold up better in an easier environment. There’s some risk he goes backward against lefties, but he was so good in 2018 that he should be an attractive option for a contending team. He’s from Brooklyn and lives in the city in the offseason, so the Mets and Yankees are possible destinations.

David Robertson

The good: He had another good season with a 3.23 ERA for the Yankees while striking out 91 in 69 2/3 innings and limiting batters to a .183 average. He can still spin that curveball and added an effective slider to his arsenal in 2018. He pitches 60 games every year and has never had a bad season.

The bad: He’ll turn 34 in April and doesn’t throw hard, relying on a 92 mph cutter as his fastball, but that pitch wasn’t especially effective (batters hit .259/.388/.494 against it). Any drop in velocity could be a problem.

Risk: Low. Robertson is acting as his own agent this winter and it will be interesting to see if he goes back to the Yankees or looks for a closer’s job somewhere else (he had 110 saves with the Yankees and White Sox from 2014 to 2016). Either way, you know what you’re getting, exactly the kind of reliable reliever any contending team would want (including the Dodgers or Cardinals).

Zach Britton

The good: The hard sinker that he throws more than 90 percent of the time is still a big weapon and almost impossible to elevate — he has allowed just 12 home runs in 287 innings since 2014. He’s not that far removed from his 2016 season, when he saved 47 games and had a 0.54 ERA.

The bad: After suffering knee and forearm injuries in 2017 and then a ruptured Achilles while working out after the season that delayed his start to 2018, he has pitched just 78 innings the past two seasons with a 3.00 ERA and a mediocre 63-39 K-BB ratio.

Risk: High. One issue is that hitters have learned to lay off that sinker. Compare his overall rates from 2016 to 2018:

In zone: 44 percent versus 44 percent

Swing rate: 47.4 percent versus 40.9 percent

Miss rate: 37.8 percent versus 32 percent

Chase rate: 34.8 percent versus 25.8 percent

He’s throwing the same percentage of pitches in the strike zone, but hitters are swinging less often and chasing less often. As a result, his walk rate is up and his strikeout rate is down. I think there’s still a solid reliever here, but I’m skeptical we’re going to see the guy who posted three straight sub-2.00 ERAs again unless he adds to his pitch mix.

Andrew Miller

The good: From 2014 to 2017 he was arguably the best reliever in baseball, going 22-11 with a 1.72 ERA and dominating peripherals. He could handle multi-inning outings if needed (as we saw in the 2016 playoffs) and didn’t complain about his role even as he went from a closer with the Yankees in 2015 to primarily a setup guy with the Indians.

The bad: He missed a month near the end of the 2017 with right knee tendinitis and then missed two months in 2018 with the same problem — as well as shorter DL stints for a hamstring issue and then a left shoulder impingement. He pitched just 34 innings with a 4.24 ERA. He allowed 31 hits — the same number as 2017, except he pitched 62 2/3 innings that year.

Risk: High. Obviously, two years of knee problems has to place him in the high-risk category. Maybe he’ll look for a one-year contract to rebuild value — in which case he could be a bargain — or maybe he gets a much riskier three-year deal. Even with the injury problems, his strikeout rate was still high last year and a .329 BABIP may have inflated his hit rate. He could end up being the best reliever in this group or maybe never be vintage Andrew Miller again. Possible destination: The Astros and Red Sox could both use a lefty reliever.

Joe Kelly

The good: He’s coming off a dominant postseason for the Red Sox in which he allowed one earned run in 11 2/3 innings and struck out 13 with no walks. He pitched in all five World Series games without allowing a run. That performance is going to leave a lasting impression, along with a fastball that averaged 98.1 mph and regularly hit triple digits in October. He also does a good job avoiding the long ball, with seven home runs in 123 2/3 innings the past two seasons.

The bad: As his 4.39 ERA in the regular season in 2018 suggests, Kelly can be maddeningly inconsistent and more hittable than you’d expect from a reliever with his stuff. His postseason performance shows he can throw strikes when he remains focused, but it’s a matter of getting him to do that for six months.

Risk: Medium. At worst, you have a solid flame-throwing setup reliever. At best, he starts throwing more strikes and becomes a dominant late-inning guy. He’d fit almost anywhere and I could even see a team such as the Angels or Twins giving him a chance to close.

Jesse Chavez

The good: He had the best year of his career with a 2.55 ERA between the Rangers and Cubs and ranking second to Tampa Bay’s Ryan Yarbrough with 95 relief innings (Yarbrough was really a starter who often followed the opener). Chavez threw more fastballs in 2018 and fewer curveballs and changeups (especially after going over to the Cubs), focusing on his fastball/cutter/slider repertoire and it paid off, especially in a decreased walk rate.

The bad: He’s 35 and has a 4.45 career ERA and can be prone to the home run (13 in 2018, 28 in 138 IP in 2017, 12 in 67 IP in 2016).

Risk: Medium. Teams will like him as a multi-inning relief option. The Cubs seemed to find a new pattern of pitching that worked better for him and if that carries over into 2019, he could have a nice late-career run in the bullpen.

Kelvin Herrera

The good: He has a 2.88 career ERA, his fastball averaged 96.5 mph and, at 29 (in December), he’s younger than the other free agents here.

The bad: He missed the final month of 2018 with a torn ligament in his left foot and missed a couple weeks right before that injury with a sore shoulder. He didn’t hit 100 mph once in 2018 after regularly getting there earlier in his career. He has allowed 15 home runs in 103 2/3 innings the past two years (with most of those innings coming in pitcher-friendly Kansas City), a little high for an elite reliever.

Risk: Medium. He throws a lot of strikes and has generally been effective, but there are some red flags here between the injuries and the declining velocity and strikeout rates the past couple of seasons. The shoulder issue may have affected him last season, but leaving Kansas City could also have a significant effect. I’d be wary.

Tyson Ross

The good: After missing much of 2016 and 2017 with thoracic outlet surgery on his shoulder, returned to pitch 149 2/3 innings with a 4.15 ERA, mostly as a starter with the Padres. He has always been tough on righties with that fastball/slider combo and they hit just .176/.250/.315 against him in 2018.

The bad: Injuries, struggles against lefties (.294/.381/.467 in 2018). He introduced a cutter in 2018, but it wasn’t effective (.279/.404/.512).

Risk: High. While he returned to prove he’s a viable back-end starting pitcher, the health will always be a concern. I like him as a multi-inning relief specialist who could give you 80 to 100 innings and make some spot starts if needed. Check his OPS allowed each time through the order in 2018 as a starting pitcher:

First: .588 (207 PAs)

Second: .720 (204 PAs)

Third: .902 (142 PAs)

He might want to start — even as a fourth or fifth starter he could make more money than as a reliever, but he’s going to be in high demand as a potential bullpen guy. If he agrees to that role, Ross could end up being one of the big surprises of 2019.

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