The most accomplished reliever on the free agent market – by a wide margin – is Jansen, who just completed a five-year, $80 million contract with the Dodgers. He’s not as dominant as he used to be and goes about things a different way these days, but the 34-year-old was still highly effective in 2021.
A 12.9 percent walk rate last season was easily Jansen’s highest since his rookie season, but he still sported a 30.9 percent strikeout rate, 2.22 ERA and 1.04 WHIP while notching 38 saves. The cutter was still Jansen’s most-used pitch, but at 58 percent it’s the least he’s ever thrown it. Jansen’s velocity on the offering was its highest since 2017. He also mixed in a slider more than ever. While he’s coming off arguably his best season in his last four, Jansen would have some risk on a multi-year pact. Will he return to the Dodgers, the only team he’s ever known? Or will L.A. prefer to hand the closer reins off to Blake Treinen?
McHugh dealt with elbow problems in 2019 and again in 2020, ultimately choosing to opt out of the latter season because of his elbow and COVID-19 concerns. The 34-year-old then had a fantastic bounce-back campaign with the Rays in 2021.
In 37 appearances covering 64 innings, McHugh put up a 1.55 ERA, 0.94 WHIP and 74/12 K/BB ratio. He often pitched in the middle of games to soak up some innings (he went more than one inning 25 times, including five three-inning outings) and also was used as an opener seven times in the regular season and once again in the playoffs. While McHugh lacks the typical velocity of a top-shelf reliever, his varied arsenal and versatility should make him a hot commodity post-lockout.
Tepera put up a ho-hum 4.46 ERA from 2019-20 but posted the best season of his career in 2021 while splitting his time between both Chicago teams.
The key to the 34-year-old’s breakout was leaning into his slider usage, as he threw the pitch 44.9 percent of the time, more than any other offering. The pitch had a whopping 50.6 percent whiff rate, and batters hit a meager .132 with a .264 slugging percentage against it. The rest of Tepera’s repertoire is pretty lackluster and he’s had a pretty uneven career overall, but that slider is a truly elite pitch and will get him multi-year offers, likely to serve as a setup man.
Like Tepera, Chafin began last season with the Cubs before being traded to a contender at the deadline. Also like Tepera, Chafin boasts an excellent slider. He didn’t use the pitch as often (26.4 percent), but Chafin’s whiff rate (54.6 percent), average against (.092) and slugging against (.224) were even better than Tepera’s.
All told, Chafin held a 1.83 ERA, 0.93 WHIP and 64/19 K/BB ratio over 68 2/3 frames for the Cubs and Athletics. The 24.1 percent strikeout rate was actually the lowest of his career, but Chafin made up for it with easily his best walk rate at 7.1 percent. Chafin isn’t an extreme groundball pitcher anymore, but he still gets a decent number of them and he doesn’t have platoon splits issues. The biggest worry here is probably whether he can repeat his improved control after he often had walk issues previously in his career.
Kelly might be known for his endearing personality more than anything else, but he should be one of hotter names on the relief market after the lockout ends following arguably his best season in 2021.
After beginning the year on the injured list while still working his way back from surgery to remove cysts from his shoulder, Kelly went on to post a 2.86 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and 50/15 K/BB ratio across 44 innings for the Dodgers. The 33-year-old remains an extreme groundball pitcher with a sinker which can still touch triple digits, and he backs it up with a curveball that buckles knees when it’s on. Kelly’s improved control in 2021 is likely to revert closer to his career norms, but he’ll pitch important innings for someone. He ended the season with a biceps issue but should be healthy now.
Kennedy wound up catching on with the Rangers on a minor league contract last February following a lackluster showing for the Royals during the abbreviated 2020 campaign. He assumed the closer reins for the Rangers right off the bat, putting up a 2.51 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 35/7 K/BB ratio over 32 1/3 innings while notching 16 saves.
Things didn’t go as well for Kennedy following a trade to the Phillies at the deadline, as he blew three saves in 13 chances and served up seven homers over 24 frames. The home run ball has always been an issue for the extreme flyball pitcher, of course, and he’s now 37 years of age. Kennedy has been a perfectly solid closer each of the two years he’s been asked to fill the role, so it’s possible he’ll get a crack at some saves again in 2022. It would surely be on a non-contender, though.
Hand landed a closer job with the Nationals last offseason after years of success in Cleveland. He pitched well enough with the Nats to garner trade interest at the deadline, but the veteran lefty flopped after being dealt to the Blue Jays and wound up pitching for a third team in the Mets.
All told, Hand held a 3.90 ERA, 1.27 WHIP and 61/26 K/BB ratio across 64 2/3 innings of work, picking up 21 saves in 29 chances. The southpaw’s velocity was actually up slightly from what it had been the previous couple years, but his trademark slider lacked its usual bite and his 9.4 percent walk rate was his highest in five seasons. Hand will turn just 32 next month, so he could still have some good years left. It remains to be seen whether a club will entrust him with a closer gig, though.
The Pirates handed Rodriguez their closer job at the outset of the 2021 season and he didn’t give it up, ultimately collecting 14 saves, a 2.82 ERA, 0.84 WHIP and 33/5 K/BB ratio over 38 1/3 innings. He wasn’t nearly as effective following a trade to the Braves, particularly from a bat-missing perspective as he fanned just nine in 26 frames. Rich-Rod didn’t pitch for them in the postseason and was non-tendered this winter, paving his way to free agency.
Rodriguez doesn’t overwhelm with velocity, but he has a high-spin fastball and a slider he can use to get whiffs. The soon-to-be 32-year-old has superb control and struck out 188 over 163 2/3 innings coming into 2021, so he should bounce back to some degree in that regard. He might enter 2022 as more of a middle reliever than a closer, however.
Best of the Rest:
Adam Ottavino – Ottavino pitched well for five months last season, had a dreadful September and then bounced back with a solid postseason showing. Still a weapon versus righties when he finds the strike zone.
Chris Martin – He remained a prolific strike-thrower last season but stopped missing bats and also dealt with numerous arm issues. If healthy, a moderate bounce-back seems likely.
Archie Bradley – Bradley’s strikeouts were down and his walks were up in 2021. He added a lot more grounders, though, and is one of the younger free agent relievers at 29.
Jeurys Familia – Familia got off to a nice start last season, but struggles versus lefties and poor control ultimately led to an uneven year. He can’t be trusted in high-leverage spots at this point.
Mychal Givens – Givens has had even more trouble than normal throwing strikes the last two seasons, but he gets strikeouts and has always been good at inducing weak contact.
Nick Wittgren – Wittgren pitched his way into some save opportunities the last few years in Cleveland, but he’s ultimately best suited for middle relief.
Alex Colome – Colome had an awful April in 2021 but pitched pretty well after that. He doesn’t miss as many bats since really leaning into his cutter usage but has become a big groundball guy.
Hansel Robles – Robles has tallied 38 saves since 2019 and will flash dominance, but he’s mostly been an inconsistent mess the last two years.
Brad Boxberger – Boxberger in 2021 showed his best velocity since 2014 and overall it was his best performance since that year, as well. He’s always skating on thin ice with his control problems, though.
Sergio Romo – Romo pitched really well for the A’s for most of last season before collapsing down the stretch. He’ll turn 39 in a few weeks.
Yusmeiro Petit – Like Romo, the rubber-armed Petit looked good for most of the year before a horrid final month. Elite strike-thrower and has always suppressed hard contact, but his modest strikeout rate bottomed out in 2021.
Jake Diekman – Here’s yet another A’s reliever whose poor September undid much of the good he had done. Diekman is basically the opposite of Petit, usually having to whiff his way out of control problems.
Trevor Rosenthal – Rosenthal never threw a pitch for Oakland after signing to be their closer, needing thoracic outlet surgery and then a hip operation. He looked dominant in 2020 but hasn’t had a full, healthy season in forever.