We saw first-hand the difference a lights-out bullpen can make in October, from the Phillies’ NLDS upset of the Braves to the Diamondbacks’ magical run to the World Series. But the free-agent market this winter is awfully thin on high-leverage relievers — which means we could see an intense bidding war for the one star closer available, former Brewer and Padre Josh Hader.
Outside of two very weird months upon arriving in San Diego in 2022 — in which he allowed 25 runs over 15 innings — Hader has been among the most dominant relievers in the sport; remove that stretch from his resume, and the lefty owns a 1.96 ERA over the past six seasons. Under the hood, there are some reasons to be concerned: Hader’s strikeout rate is down from “utterly ridiculous” in 2018 and 2019 to “merely among the best in the sport,” his walk rate in 2023 was a new career worst and he’s about to turn 30. Plus, relievers are notoriously fickle. Still, Hader enters this offseason fresh off an incredible season, and he’s one of the four or five most trusted bullpen options in the sport. Just about any contender would kill to land him.
But who will? Let’s run down the five most likely landing spots.
Josh Hader free agent landing spots
5. Arizona Diamondbacks
Arizona has money to spend, a sneaky track record of free-agent success and an NL pennant to use as a recruiting tool. It would be unwise to don’t count them out this winter, and if they can’t quite land the top starter they desperately need, they could try to beef up this year’s postseason formula and acquire Hader to pitch alongside other high-leverage options like Paul Sewald and Kevin Ginkel.
4. Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers will never be counted out of any offseason, and while their bullpen was a strength in 2023, it’s not so deep that the team couldn’t look to add to it if they don’t manage to acquire the multiple starting pitchers they need given injuries to Tony Gonsolin and Dustin May and uncertainty surrounding Clayton Kershaw’s shoulder (assuming the lefty resigns in L.A. at all).
3. Philadelphia Phillies
After consecutive postseason heartbreaks and with a ton of talent up and down the roster, the Phillies are all-in — and we know how aggressive GM Dave Dombrowski can be when he’s all-in. Philly also just so happens to have a need at the back-end of their bullpen, with free agent Craig Kimbrel unlikely to return following October’s meltdown and Jose Alvarado battling injury issues. Starting pitching is the primary focus for Dombrowski this winter, but this team knows as well as anyone how valuable a great bullpen is come playoff time.
2. St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals need to rework essentially their entire pitching staff, from top to bottom. While the rotation gets all the headlines, Giovanny Gallegos’ implosion and Ryan Helsley’s injury-marred season also create a need at the back-end of the bullpen, where Hader would fit very nicely as a left-handed option with a bunch of swing-and-miss — two things St. Louis pitching sorely lacked in 2023. GM John Mozeliak needs to be aggressive if he wants to reopen the team’s competitive window, and while multiple starting pitcher acquisitions are likely, that won’t be enough to complete this wholesale renovation.
1. Texas Rangers
The reigning world champs also find themselves with some pitching needs — both in the rotation and in the bullpen, where Aroldis Chapman departs a unit that was 24th in the Majors in ERA before getting its act together (for the most part) in the postseason. This ‘pen needs a lefty, and it needs another high-leverage option, and it has every reason to be aggressive after winning it all.