With less than three weeks to go until pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training, most of the top free agents have already signed with clubs for the upcoming season. One segment of the market that’s been strangely quiet, however, is left-handed relief. Andrew Chaffin, Matt Moore and Zack Britton are some of the noteworthy southpaws still unattached, but Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reports that the Rangers, Angels, Astros, Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Brewers, Cardinals, Cubs and Mets are interested in their services.
Those three relievers bring varying levels of appeal to the interested clubs. Britton, 35, was arguably the best reliever in the league for an extended stretch, although he entered free agency on a down note after a couple of seasons lost to injury. Moore, 34 in June, is in effectively the opposite position of Britton, as he has a long track record of disappointing results but hit the open market on the upswing. Chafin, 33 in June, has been fairly consistent in recent years, apart from a small-sample blip in the shortened 2020 season.
Britton posted an incredible 1.84 ERA over a seven-year stretch from 2014 to 2020, thanks to a bowling ball sinker that bordered on unhittable. He got grounders on a ludicrous 76.2% of balls in play over that time, almost double a typical league average of about 43%. He was limited to just 18 1/3 innings in 2021 before requiring surgery to remove bone chips in his elbow. During that procedure, it was determined that he would also need Tommy John surgery, which put him out of action until late in 2022. He did make it back to the hill last year but his velocity was down and his control was all over the place . He finished the season on the injured list for shoulder fatigue. He would be a risky acquisition at this point given his uncertain health, but he recently held a showcase for clubs and will surely entice one of them to take a gamble based on his previous excellence.
Moore was once one of the top prospects in the game and seemed like a rotation building block for the Rays a decade ago. However, Tommy John surgery in 2014 put him out of action for an extended stretch and he struggled once back on the mound. He bounced around to various different clubs for years, including a stint in Japan, but never really got things back on track. But a full-time move to the bullpen last year has seemingly given him a second act, as he posted a 1.95 ERA over 74 innings for the Rangers. His 12.5% walk rate was certainly concerning, but he also struck out 27.3% of batters faced and got grounders at a healthy 43.9% clip.
Chafin has posted a 3.05 ERA from 2017 to the present, even with his rough 2020 campaign. He’s been even better recently, with a 2.29 ERA over the past couple of seasons, striking out 25.7% of batters faced, walking just 7.5% of them and keeping the ball on the ground at a 47.9% clip.
All three pitchers will certainly interest clubs to some degree, but Rosenthal hears from one executive that the Matt Strahm signing has slowed things down. The Phillies signed him to a two-year, $15MM deal back in December, despite a somewhat shaky track record. He got some good results in his first few seasons, working mostly in relief but with the occasional start. He had an unusual season with the Padres in 2019 as he attempted to become a starter. He made 16 starts that year but posted a 5.29 ERA in that role against a 3.27 mark in 30 relief appearances. Back in the bullpen in 2020, he registered a 2.61 ERA in the shortened season but only got into six games in 2021 due to various injuries. He bounced back with the Red Sox in 2022 with a 3.83 ERA, 26.9% strikeout rate, 8.8% walk rate and 36.8% ground ball rate. Each of Moore and Chafin are coming off a stronger 2022 season than Strahm while Britton has a more impressive career overall. Strahm is younger than the rest of them but not by too much, having recently turned 31. Perhaps the free agents are trying to match or top the $15MM guarantee that Strahm secured and has yet to convince a team to pull the trigger on that.
Despite lingering on the market, it doesn’t seem like there’s any shortage of interest. Just about any team with designs on contending could fit another arm into their bullpen and it seems like they’re all keeping tabs here. The Rangers’ southpaw contingent took a blow recently Brett Martin required shoulder surgery and will likely miss most of the upcoming campaign. They still have Brock Burke, Taylor Hearn and John King in the mix but it wouldn’t hurt to bolster that group. The Angels have Aaron Loup and José Quijada lined up as their primary southpaw relievers but Loup is now 35 and Quijada has control issues. The Astros are a fairly logical fit since their only lefty relievers on the 40-man are Blake Taylor and Parker Mushinskiboth of whom have fairly limited track records.
The Red Sox have Joely Rodríguez as their only obvious southpaw reliever, though Chris Sale or James Paxton could move from the rotation at some point since they have each pitched hard in the past three years. Their various injuries have severely limited their innings recently and they might struggle to handle a starter’s workload for a full season. The Jays have Tim Mayza and Matt Gage as left-handed options in their relief corps, though Yusei Kikuchi spent some time there last year after getting bumped from the rotation, a situation that could play out again this year.
The Brewers have Hoby Milner as their most straightforward lefty reliever, though Wade Miley and Aason Ashby could spend some time there if they get nudged out of a crowded rotation. The Cardinals have Genesis Cabrera slated to be the go-to guy but their other choices are optional and have limited experience, including Packy Naughton, JoJo Romero and Zack Thompson. The Cubs make a lot of sense for adding a lefty reliever, as they currently only have Brandon Hughes on the 40, who could be in line for a closer’s role as opposed to a situational lefty job.
The Yankees recently let Lucas Luetge go, designating him for assignment and flipping him to Atlanta. That has left Wandy Peralta as the club’s only option from the left side in their bullpen. Adding even a modest contract to their books might be an issue, however, as they are reportedly concerned about crossing the final tier of the competitive balance tax. Roster Resource currently pegs their CBT figure at $292.3MM, just a hair under the final line of $293MM. Making any external addition without making up that difference will be a challenge. Trading the contract of someone like Josh Donaldson or Aaron Hicks would give them some more breathing room but the Yanks haven’t been able to find a deal so far.
The interest of the Mets might be complicated as well, as Rosenthal reports that they are hesitant to add another out-of-options pitcher to the mix and reduce their roster flexibility. All players with more than five years of service time cannot be optioned without their consent, meaning that all of these veterans are in that category. None of Edwin Diaz, Adam Ottavino, David Robertson or Brooks Raley can be optional to the minors either.