Most of the Hot Stove attention in recent days and weeks has focused on the starting pitching market, and understandably so: It’s probably the single most important position in the sport right now, and it just so happens that most of the biggest names available this winter — Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Blake Snell, Jordan Montgomery, Aaron Nola, Shota Imanaga and more — are starters.
But what about the bullpen? You know,
The best reliever on the market this offseason, hands down, is former Padres lefty Josh Hader, a five-time All-Star coming off a vintage season. While just about everything else was going wrong for San Diego, Hader was nails, converting 33 of 38 in save chances while pitching to a 1.28 ERA with 85 strikeouts in 56.1 innings. With the exception of a fluky midsummer swoon in 2022, the 30-year-old has been consistently dominant: For his career, he has 648 strikeouts in 388.2 innings — a 15.0 K/9 mark that puts him in a class unto himself, even in an era of ever-increasing K totals.
And yet, despite elite production for the better part of a decade, Hader’s market has been weirdly quiet so far this offseason. That’s partly because the market has been quiet for just about everyone, with Shohei Ohtani, Juan Soto and Yamamoto taking up most of the oxygen over the last couple of months. But it’s also partly due to Hader’s reported demands: All available evidence suggests that he’s looking to reset the reliever market, putting him at odds with teams that would prefer to plow more money into starters — secure in the knowledge that they can fill out a respectable bullpen on the cheap.
The holdup (on Hader’s market) is that, according to multiple other teams who have engaged on Hader, he is seeking the largest-ever contract for a closer in history — more than Edwin Díaz’s five-year, $102 million deal with the Mets. That is a reasonable ask given his historical levels of production, but it doesn’t fit the budget of a team that needs to spend on innings.
Díaz was coming off one of the greatest relief seasons ever when he signed that deal — he struck out more than half of the 235 batters he faced in 2022 — but his overall track record with the Mets had been notoriously up and down. Hader, on the other hand, has really only looked mortal for a single stretch of his entire seven-year career, struggling so badly in the middle of the 2022 season that he was eventually traded away from the Milwaukee Brewers.
Of course, it didn’t take long for him to right the ship — and reestablish just how valuable a weapon he can be. Go revisit the ninth inning of Game 4 of the 2022 NLDS between the Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers, in which Hader — pitching in his third straight game — needed just 10 pitches to sit down Mookie Betts, Trea Turner and Freddie Freeman and close out the series. He didn’t just retire three of the game’s best hitters; he overwhelmed them. There’s not a single competitive swing here:
Watch Hader at his best, and suddenly you can understand why he might consider himself a unique late-inning weapon. Wanting to build a bullpen on the cheap is all well and good, but when push comes to shove, it’s awfully nice to have a pitcher who lets you shorten games by an inning or two — just ask the two teams who made the World Series in 2023.
Two contract records have already been set this offseason: Shohei Ohtani’s $700 million contract is the largest contract in the history of professional sport, while Yoshinobu Yamamoto’s $325 million contract is the largest ever given to a pitcher. Can Hader become the third? Here are three reasons why the answer might be yes.
He’s actually a free agent
Díaz signed his contract despite never becoming a true free agent, instead re-signing with the Mets during the five-day exclusive negotiating period at the outset of the offseason. That’s very rare: Usually when a player gets mere days away from free agency, he tests the market. Díaz, however, fell in love with New York, and the Mets came with an offer he felt compelled to take without ever hearing from other teams. There was no chance for a bidding war.
Hader, on the other hand, is able to negotiate with any team interested in his services. Granted, that hasn’t quite materialized so far, and there are only a few teams willing and able to offer big money to a reliever. But Hader can solicit multiple bids and leverage them against each other; if, say, the Yankees miss out on Snell and Montgomery, and the Phillies decide Hader’s is the missing piece of their postseason puzzle, things could suddenly get very lucrative very quickly.
A thin starting pitching market (especially now)
Despite the names listed above, this market was thin on high-end starters to begin with — and things have only gotten more dire since, with Yamamoto, Nola, Sonny Gray, Aaron Nola and Eduardo Rodriguez having already signed. Snell and Montgomery are available. but after that, you’re looking at guys with serious red flags (Marcus Stroman, James Paxton) or outright reclamation projects.
All of which presents a conundrum for would-be contenders. There simply aren’t enough impact starters left to go around, meaning at least one of the Yankees, Cubs, Giants, Rangers, Red Sox and more will be left scrambling for alternatives when the music stops. And if the starting pitching help isn’t there, they could decide to instead pivot to beefing up their bullpen — if you don’t have the horses to give you five or six quality innings every day, then the next best thing is to shorten games from the back. From The Athletic in December (before Yamamoto signed):
A rotation without Yamamoto would require at least one more starter, and the Yankees, at least internally, have discussed a reunion with free-agent lefty Jordan Montgomery. The team also could seek to build what one source described as a “super-charged” bullpen.
The Yankees did indeed miss out on Yamamoto, and if New York chooses to pivot to a “super-charged” bullpen, Hader would be an obvious target to form an elite one-two punch with incumbent closer Clay Holmes.
If Hader is patient enough to wait for the starter market to sort itself out, eventually it’ll yield at least one or two desperate teams — teams that Hader and his reps can pitch himself to as a viable alternative.
Durability and consistency
The common argument against paying relievers is their inherent volatility: It’s hard to predict production year over year, both due to injury and ineffectiveness. Hader, however, is the exception that proves the rule. Despite throwing very hard — his sinker averaged 96.3 mph and topped out at 98.6 mph in 2023 — and from a delivery that could charitably be described as herky-jerky, Hader has had no trouble staying available during his career. His only injured list trip to date was a 10-day stint after testing positive for COVID-19 in 2021.
Pitchers are durable up until they’re not (see: Sandy Alcantara’s Tommy John surgery), but the best predictor of future injury is past injury, and Hader has nothing to speak of — despite heavy usage from Brewers and Padres teams that often leaned on him two or three days in a row.
- 0 days rest: .616 OPS allowed
- 1 day of rest: .612 OPS allowed
- 2+ days of rest: .504 OPS allowed
Hader is every bit as effective pitching the second straight day as he is coming off one day of rest. He’s built to handle tough workloads, meaning that a team could feel a bit more comfortable handing him the bag and knowing that they’ll have him pitching at an elite level for the long haul — and, hopefully, well into October. He’s only finished with an ERA over three twice in seven seasons, and his career mark is 2.50 (with a tidy 2.73 FIP).
There are two simple reasons Hader may not break Díaz’s contract record: He turns 30 in April, making him a year older now than Díaz was when he (almost) became a free agent last offseason. He’s also attached to draft pick compensation: Unless Hader goes back to the Padres, the club that signs him will have to forfeit a draft pick(s) and international bonus pool money, something they’ve been loath to do in recent years. If I had to guess right now, I’d probably bet slightly against him breaking Díaz’s mark.
But dismissing the idea of ponying up for Hader out of hand is foolish; this is the game’s most elite late-game stopper, a guy whose skill set translates to any park and any situation. We saw this past October the extent to which a bullpen — especially with built-in off days — can mask a deficient rotation, and for teams like the Yankees, Cubs and Giants, paying Hader would be preferable to entering 2024 with nothing at all.