Through the first few weeks of the offseason, the free agent market has been very kind to relievers and no so kind to everyone else. Teams are stocking up on bullpen help and not so much on anything else right now. In fact, the only free agent position players to sign guaranteed major-league contracts this offseason are two catchers (Welington Castillo, Chris Iannetta) and one outfielder (Leonys Martin). All other signings have been pitchers.
So then, it is not surprising the Winter Meetings came to an end Thursday with another flurry of reliever signings. It seems teams are building their rosters from the ninth inning forward. Beef up the bullpen first, figure out everything else later. Here is our MLB Free Agent Tracker and here are the latest bullpen signings:
Chicago Cubs sign Steve Cishek
Former Marlins closer Steve Cishek was a popular second tier free agent target for many teams this winter after throwing 44 2/3 innings with a 2.01 ERA for the Mariners and Rays in 2017. The Cubs landed him with a two-year contract.
The side-winding Cishek continued to post strong strikeout (8.4 K/9) and ground ball (56.1 percent) rates this past season, and it should be noted he absolutely crushes right-handed batters. He held righties to a .147/.218/.194 batting line in 2017 and it is .200/.267/.286 for his career.
It is worth noting the Cardinals, possibly Chicago’s biggest NL Central challenger in 2018, have a predominantly right-handed lineup. Matt Carpenter and Kolten Wong are lefties, and Dexter Fowler is a switch-hitter, and that’s it. Everyone else is a righty, including new pickup Marcell Ozuna. Cishek could gave St. Louis some matchup headaches next year.
Houston Astros sign Joe Smith
The Astros bullpen was truly a mess in the postseason — their best relievers were starters in October (Lance McCullers, Brad Peacock, Charlie Morton) — after being one of the top relief units in baseball during the regular season. Seeing room for improvement, the club has signed veteran righty Joe Smith to a two-year deal.
Smith was one of my top bargain free agents this winter because this past season he added strikeouts to his usual ground ball heavy approach. He added those strikeouts by elevating his fastball up in the zone — that is not easy to do from the sidearm slot Smith uses — to get more swings and misses. Smith posted an 11.8 K/9 in 2017. He had a career 7.5 K/9 prior to last season.
For all intents and purposes, Smith takes the place of the departed Luke Gregerson, who signed a two-year contract of his own with the Cardinals a week ago. Ken Giles figures to remain at closer, postseason struggles notwithstanding, which puts Smith in the setup mix alongside Will Harris and Chris Devenski.
Minnesota Twins sign Fernando Rodney
As you may remember, the Twins traded closer Brandon Kintzler to the Nationals at the trade deadline this year because they were falling out of the race, but a strong August and September allowed them to reach the postseason as the second wild-card team.
The Twins needed a closer this offseason — veteran Matt Belisle handled the ninth inning after the Kintzler trade — and the club has inked Fernando Rodney to assume ninth inning duty. It’s a one-year contract.
Rodney, who turns 41 in March, went 39 for 45 in save chances with the Diamondbacks last season, and finished with a 4.23 ERA and 65 strikeouts in 55 1/3 innings. He still walks too many batters (4.2 BB/9) and will make things interesting more often than not, but it should be noted Rodney was dominant after April this year, throwing 45 1/3 innings with a 2.38 ERA. He held opponents to a .154/.250/.192 batting line in those 45 1/3 innings.
Given his age, it’s no surprise Rodney received a one-year contract. It’s also not a surprise the Twins limited their reliever search to a one-year contract. They’ve never signed a free agent reliever to a contract longer than one year. Seriously.
It remains to be seen whether the Twins will look to add more bullpen help throughout the offseason, or hand the setup reins over to youngsters like Trevor Hildenberger and Alan Busenitz.
Washington Nationals sign Brandon Kintzler
Although other clubs likely would’ve given him a chance to close, Kintzler opted to return to the Nationals, where he’ll presumably be behind Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson in the bullpen pecking order. His one-year contract comes with a unique set of options for 2019.
That’s an interesting little contract. If the Twins want Kintzler back in 2019, they’ll have to pay him a hefty $10 million to pick up the option. If they pass, Kintzler still has a nice little $5 million safety net in there in case things go wrong.
This season the 33-year-old Kintzler went 28 for 34 in save opportunities, with 27 of those 28 saves coming with the Twins, before he was traded to Washington at the deadline. He had a 3.03 ERA in 71 1/3 innings overall in 2017, and what he lacked in strikeouts (4.9 K/9) he made up for with ground balls (54.9 percent). Given some of the other reliever contracts handed out this winter, getting Kintzler at that price seems like a real nice move for the Nationals.