The 2017 MLB Ultimate Free-Agent Tracker: relief pitchers

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist
Wade Davis enters free agency after saving 32 games for the Cubs last season. (AP)

We ranked 2017’s top free-agent relievers. Overall ranking in the 2017 free-agent class is in parenthesis.

[More FA rankings: Complete list: Nos. 1-184 | C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | UT | OF | SP]

1. (9) Wade Davis, RP: No longer is Davis the cyborg who stared down batters and bodied them with a hail of fastballs, cutters and curveballs. A year after Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen each cashed in for five years apiece at $17 million-plus, the prospect of Davis reaching that threshold in dollars and especially years is unlikely. He will get paid, though, and he will get paid a lot, because of how bullpens matter, because his stuff is still boss even if it’s not what it once was and because the winter somehow convinces decision makers that a quarter million dollars an inning is about the going rate for a closer of Davis’ ilk.

2. (19) Greg Holland, RP: First-half Holland would’ve been even higher on the list. At one point toward the end of the season, Rockies fans were grumbling that maybe Chris Rusin should be closing. Holland kept the gig, and if his second year back from Tommy John surgery gives a command bump and leaving Coors Field tamps down his home run rate, suddenly he’s looking a lot more like the elite-of-the-elite closer he was from 2011-14.

3. (21) Addison Reed, RP: The 11 home runs he allowed in 76 innings do not exactly scream elite, nor does the 92-mph fastball in a bullpen world of 95-or-you’re-a-scrub. Reed’s late-inning success, not to mention his control, have him on top of a number of teams’ relief wish lists this offseason, ahead even of Davis and Holland.

4. (22) Juan Nicasio, RP: Mostly he sticks with a grip-and-rip 96-mph fastball, and it’s a devil of a pitch, the sort suited for the eighth or even the ninth inning. He may not be in as high demand as some of the relievers to follow, but he’s every bit as good if not better.

5. (24) Brandon Morrow, RP: Nobody needed winter more than Morrow, who finished his breakout season getting Joe Torre’d by Dave Roberts. Morrow threw 43 2/3 near-immaculate innings for the Dodgers this season, and at his best in October, his fastball sat 99 and he buoyed it with a power cutter and slider. His stuff is hard, harder and hardest, and teams will crawl over one another to lock him into their eighth inning, hopeful his arm holds up under duress as it never before has.

6. (25) Mike Minor, RP: Multiple teams are toying with the idea of asking Minor to start again after he reinvigorated his career out of the bullpen with Kansas City. With a 95-mph fastball and wipeout slider from the left side, Minor was a poor-man’s Andrew Miller – and that’s no insult. He may be the Brett Cecil of this winter, with enough three-year offers that teams will jump to four just to land him, amazing considering he hadn’t pitched in the major leagues for two years before 2017.

7. (27) Pat Neshek, RP: Strikes dudes out? Check. Walks no one? Check. Doesn’t allow home runs? Check. Aside from generating groundballs, Neshek did just about everything a team wants last season. He’ll get paid handsomely. It’s just a matter of whether a team is willing to give a third year to a guy who’s already 37.

8. (31) Anthony Swarzak, RP: Proof that all it takes to make $20 million in Major League Baseball is one well-timed season. At this point last year, Swarzak was scrounging for minor league deals. Now, after striking out 91 over 77 1/3 of the best relief innings in baseball, his market may swell to three years at $7 million a pop.

9. (33) Jake McGee, RP: Amid the breaking-ball revolution, McGee pumps his fastball more than 90 percent of the time, and for both teams that have bend-heavy relief corps and those who could use a hard-throwing lefty – that covers just about everyone – he should be in high demand.

10. (34) Steve Cishek, RP: One of the best sinker-slider combinations around – and it has gotten particularly potent as Cishek has taken more than 7 mph off the breaking ball since his rookie season to offer a true off-speed pitch. The dip in fastball velocity is a bit troublesome, but as long as he’s generating 56 percent groundballs as he did last season, it’s all well and good.

11. (38) Joe Smith, RP: Get past the 90-mph fastball and focus instead on the walkless stint with the Indians down the stretch. Or the 11.8 strikeouts per nine. Or the four home runs in 54 innings. On peripherals alone, Smith was an elite reliever in 2017 and should find himself getting multiple years accordingly.

12. (39) Bryan Shaw, RP: A legitimate workhorse who will get multiple years based on his consistency. The big question: Will all those appearances – 442 over the past six seasons – take a toll going forward, or can he keep throwing cutter after cutter to great ends?

13. (40) Yoshihisa Hirano, RP: A classic fastball-splitter reliever, the 33-year-old Hirano will be a hot item as he brings closing experience from Japan and won’t cost any money via the posting system.

14. (42) Tommy Hunter, RP: A full-time reliever for five years now, Hunter has averaged 60 innings a season, walked fewer than two per nine and posted a 3.12 ERA. With a sinker, cutter and curve, the repertoire matches the performance.

15. (43) Matt Albers, RP: Hey, hey, hey! Albers was among the most unhittable relievers in baseball last season, though the Regression Gods are frothing at the mouth with a .203 BABIP and 92.4 percent strand rate signaling an ERA well above the 1.62 he put up.

16. (44) Brandon Kintzler, RP: Love the 55 percent groundball rate. Just can’t get fully onboard with someone who strikes out fewer than five hitters per nine in this day and age.

17. (45) Tony Watson, RP: Watson’s finest years with Pittsburgh came thanks to elite home run suppression. The last two seasons, as the ball has flown, so has his ERA – and, worse than that, his Fielding Independent Pitching number, which tends to correlate more strongly with future performance.

18. (55) Kazuhisa Makita, RP: If there is anything Major League Baseball could use more of, it’s dudes who throw like this. The 33-year-old Makita doesn’t strike anyone out, but he walked only five in 62 2/3 innings last season.

19. (57) Seung-Hwan Oh, RP: Everything went wrong for Oh last season. The command that defined his breakout first major league season abandoned him. Home runs soared. Strikeouts cratered. The stuff remains, though, and he’s a good one-year gamble as a guy who eventually could pitch high-leverage innings.

20. (59) Yusmeiro Petit, SP/RP: Four of his past five years have ranged from good to excellent, so forgive the low spot. Petit does offer a solid four-pitch mix and can go multiple innings or spot start when needed. The versatility is great. Here’s guessing the deflated home run rate in 2017 simply doesn’t hold.

21. (61) David Hernandez, RP: Could seek multiple years in hopes that teams’ desire for functional relievers filters its way down to the top of the middle tier.

22. (66) Brian Duensing, RP: The Cubs saw something in Duensing few others did and were rewarded with 62 1/3 innings of 2.74 ERA ball. Now 34, he may be looking at a multi-year deal.

23. (67) Koji Uehara, RP: Between the 87-mph fastball and the 25 percent groundball rate, Uehara has among the worst profiles of any pitcher on the market. Though his strong strikeout-to-walk ratio portends well, Uehara isn’t a great bet at 43.

24.(76) Francisco Liriano, SP/RP: The raw stuff is good enough to get him a big league deal, but his deal might as well be signed with nitroglycerin, because he is as capable as any big league pitcher of entirely blowing up.

25. (83) Peter Moylan, RP: A third consecutive season with an ERA in the 3.4s, and this one came amid a major league-best 79 appearances. Moylan has ridden his unorthodox delivery back from a pair of Tommy John surgeries and, if all is right in the world, to a major league deal.

26. (85) Fernando Rodney, RP: There may be nothing more entertaining in baseball than tuning in to a ninth inning where Rodney enters with a three-run lead and watching nerves fray and spirits rollercoaster and emotions flit about like a Geiger counter near the radioactivity, which is appropriate, because the very essence of the Fernando Rodney Experience is pure, nuclear terror generally followed by disproportionate elation.

27. (94) Oliver Perez, RP: Fills out all the criteria necessary for employment. Is he left-handed? Check. Is he a reliever? Check. Does he have a pulse? Check.

28. (95) Bud Norris, RP: The Bud Norris, Ninja Closer Era came to an end in rather ignominious fashion, though like Joe Blanton before him, his bullpen reinvention saved his career.

29. (96) Craig Stammen, RP: All he wants in this world is to find a team that can be his pistil. And we’ve reached the portion of the proceedings where we’re making flower puns.

30. (97) Sergio Romo, RP: His second-half resurgence with the Rays should land him a middle-inning gig somewhere, and it’s going to be fun to see him push the 75 percent threshold on sliders thrown.

31. (98) Luke Gregerson, RP: Just because he matched up poorly with about every Dodgers hitter in the World Series doesn’t make Gregerson’s ability to pitch the sixth or seventh inning during the regular season any less valuable. Though he does need to get a handle on the home runs. Nearly two per nine innings is a mess.

32. (99) Fernando Abad, RP: If teams desperate for left-handed relief even consider going two years here, that would be Abad contract. Sorry. There are only 85 left to go.

33. (101) Jorge De La Rosa, RP: At some point, perhaps he’ll leave the unfriendly confines of Colorado and Arizona for a place where the ball doesn’t fly, and then we can get a better sense of how good De La Rosa might be. For now, he’s a perfectly OK lefty reliever.

34. (104) Matt Belisle, RP: If he’s the seventh man out of the ‘pen, you’re living well. If he’s thrust into any high-leverage situation, that’s a problem.

35. (107) Boone Logan, RP: If ever anyone wants proof that tying a kid’s right arm behind his back is not child abuse but instead pragmatic parenting, drop this bit of knowledge: Boone Logan has made more than $30 million throwing a baseball.

36. (108) Tony Barnette, RP: Had 2.09 ERA in his first major league season and 5.49 his second. Reality is somewhere in between, and with decent-enough strikeouts, control and home run rates, he could be a nice, cheap sign for someone.

37. (110) Zach Duke, RP: Returned from Tommy John surgery in a ridiculous nine months and wasn’t half bad. A perfectly ripe LOOGY.

38. (111) Wade LeBlanc, RP: He has carved out a career as a delightfully OK left-hander reliever, which means he should be employed until he’s at least 63.

39. (113) Jason Motte, RP: The post-Tommy John Motte never did reach his previous fastball velocity levels, and gone was what made him a truly fearsome reliever from 2010-12. Today he’s just a guy – and hoping, at 35, to be the next old guy to take a quantum leap and position himself well for next offseason.

40. (120) Jesse Chavez, SP/RP: Reliably OK swingman who got got by the juiced ball. Nothing is worse in 2018 than a homer-prone pitcher, and Chavez’s history puts him in something of a precarious position.

41. (121) Joe Blanton, RP: How does a pitcher more than double his ERA from one season to the next? Step 1: Allow home runs 2½ times as frequently. Step 2: See average on balls in play jump almost 90 points. Blanton isn’t as bad as he was last year. He isn’t as good as he was in 2016, either.

42. (123) Dustin McGowan, RP: After struggling to stay healthy for so long, McGowan has logged at least 67 relief innings in three of the past four seasons. He’s a mop-up, early inning type, but nearly every team needs one of those, too.

43. (125) Ubaldo Jimenez, SP/RP: For the $50 million they paid Jimenez over the past four years, the Baltimore Orioles received 594 1/3 innings of 5.22 ERA baseball. Of all the guys to let slide on the physical rigmarole through which Baltimore puts pitchers who sign as free agents. Why’s he this high? As a pitching coach once said about Jimenez: “He’s just a tweak away from being great. Now you just need to figure out what the tweak actually is.”

44. (126) Trevor Cahill, SP/RP: After 11 solid starts in San Diego, imploded in Kansas City. Cahill’s ability to start and relieve gives teams the sort of flexibility they desire.

45. (127) Tyler Clippard, RP: The juiced ball has not been kind to Clippard, an extreme fly ball pitcher. Also worth noting: He’s sneaky young at just 32.

46. (128) Joaquin Benoit, RP: Wants to join the elite club of 186 pitchers who have thrown in the big leagues during their age-40 season.

47. (132) Glen Perkins, RP: May go for one last hurrah. May join a front office. Either way, a great mind to have in the game.

48. (133) Trevor Rosenthal, RP: Chances are he’ll miss the season with Tommy John surgery, unless he pulls a Duke, which doesn’t make a ton of sense for someone who throws as hard as he does. There will be demand for him either way, though his immediate impact is negligible.

49. (135) Huston Street, RP: The Angels signed Street to a two-year extension in the middle of the 2015 season. The deal cost them $683,545.17 per inning. In the past two years, Street suffered from injuries to his oblique area, knee, lat, shoulder and groin. At 34, he is clawing to salvage his career.

50. (144) Fernando Salas, RP: Classic relief enigma. Good one year, not as good the next, no rhyme or reason to it. Reason for hope: Salas added a little cutter last season that one scout said could turn into a regular pitch.

51. (146) Drew Storen, RP: Will miss the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Faces the same decision as Pineda and Rosenthal as to whether he should sign a multiyear deal or rehab and come back like Holland did after his TJ.

52. (147) Jonny Venters, RP: Raise your hand if you knew he was still pitching? Yup. Same here. After three Tommy John surgeries and a fourth UCL tear, he’s still trying to make it back to the big leagues for the first time since 2012. He got to Triple-A last year. And it’s one hell of a story if he can jump that last level.

53. (151) Christian Bethancourt, RP/C: The whole catcher-who-also-can-pitch experiment with San Diego blew up when it became apparent Bethancourt couldn’t throw strikes. He was wild at Triple-A, too. At just 26, though, he’s well worth a flyer and will continue to get bites for years because of his unique skill set.

54. (156) Jason Grilli, RP: It is not easy to give up 12 home runs in 40 innings. And a few years back, Grilli would’ve been one of the least likely suspects, as his home run rates teetered on the lower edge.

55. (157) Edwin Jackson, SP/RP: Wanna feel old? If he pitches in the big leagues next year, it will be Jackson’s 16th season.

56. (158) Jumbo Diaz, RP: The first Jumbo to play in the major leagues since Jumbo Brown in 1941. The proliferation of 1880s Jumbos – Davis, Harting, Latham, McGinnis and Schoeneck – would seem to suggest baseball was suffering from an obesity epidemic long before America. Of course, considering “Jumbo” Latham stood 5-foot-8 and weighed 164 pounds, perhaps that is not true.

57. (160) Dillon Gee, SP/RP: Gee, this list is too freaking long.

58. (164) Blaine Boyer, RP: May he continue to carry the torch for Drake LaRoche.

59. (167) Andrew Bailey, RP: Three April appearances. DL stint. One August appearance. DL stint. The last time Bailey threw more than 50 innings in a season was 2009.

60. (168) Ike Davis, RP/1B: Threw 5 2/3 shutout innings in rookie ball for the Dodgers, whose field-to-mound transition of Kenley Jansen is the standard bearer.

61. (169) Anthony Gose, RP/OF: Hit 99 mph in his first outing as a lefty reliever. Showed promise. Hit the DL with a sore elbow and never returned. At 27, he’ll be back at some point – and if ever he finds a modicum of control could get fast-tracked.

62. 171) Yovani Gallardo, SP/RP: Gallardo found three extra miles per hour on his fastball last season, and even that couldn’t stop the runaway freight train that is his career from careening to an uglier place than before.

63. (173) Craig Breslow, RP: If he doesn’t make a team out of spring, he’ll have a fallback option of joining Dan Haren, Brian Bannister and a cast of others in parlaying his intelligence into a position that bridges the front office and on-field personnel.

64. (178) Jordan Lyles, RP: Went from the mess that is Coors Field to the pitching heaven that is Petco Park and somehow managed to be far worse in San Diego. Ron Burgundy wasn’t even mad. It was amazing.

65. (183) Anibal Sanchez, SP/RP: Among pitchers with at least 300 innings over the past three seasons, Sanchez has the single worst ERA, at 5.67. During that time, Detroit paid him $55.4 million.

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