This is a bad time for anyone to hit free agency, but all signs point to this being an especially bad time for Liam Hendriks to go on the market. Hendriks is clearly the best reliever on the market. Over the last two seasons, Hendriks has pitched to a 1.70 FIP over 110 1/3 innings. He’s struck out 38 percent of batters while walking only 5.7 percent of his opponents. Among all relievers with 60 innings pitched over the last two seasons, Hendriks ranks first in fWAR by nearly two wins. Hendriks posted 5.2 while Kirby Yates comes in second at 3.4. Hendriks is second in FIP, second in ERA, fourth in SIERA, and fourth in strikeout-minus-walk percentage. He’s not just the best reliever on the market, he’s one of the best relievers period.
Still, two signs point to Hendriks not getting the sort of deal he deserves. First, until the market proves otherwise, Brad Hand is serving as the canary in coal mine for relievers. In all the categories listed above, Hand’s name isn’t far behind Hendriks’s. Hand was fifth in fWAR, sixth in FIP, and 11th in strikeout-minus-walk percentage and yet Hand’s modest $10 million club option was too expensive for Cleveland who waived him on the hopes of not having to pay his $1 million buyout. Even stranger, no other team wanted to pick him up. Hand went unclaimed despite his low price tag.
Teams not wanting Hand doesn’t bode well for Hendriks, but Hand’s case requires some extra context. Notably, Hand has lost velocity on his fastballs and slider. Teams could be wary of that and view his 2020 success as more of a last gasp than proof that he’s still elite. It could also be that several teams wanted to pick up Hand, but didn’t want to work out a trade to get him off waivers or they wanted to take a shot at getting him on a multi-year deal with lower AAV than $10 million per year. That Hand was cut at all isn’t encouraging, but we won’t know exactly what the market for relievers is until he or another reliever of his caliber signs.
Second, it’s a bit curious that Hendriks wasn’t extended a qualifying offer. The previous three offseasons, qualifying offers were extended to the best relievers on the market who were eligible to receive one. Wade Davis received a qualifying offer in 2017, Craig Kimbrel got one after 2018, and Will Smith got the same in 2019. Each pitcher turned them down and each eventually signed for more guaranteed money. All three have definitely pitched worse since signing new contracts, but none of them pitched as well as Hendriks did in the two seasons leading up to free agency as Hendriks has.
Will Smith’s was able to sign despite costing his new team a draft pick, one would think Liam Hendriks would have the same luck. By not extending a qualifying offer, the A’s are letting Hendriks go for nothing, and the only reason to do that is to worry that he would have accepted it. The A’s are famously cheap, but there are worse fates than having Hendriks for one year, $18.9 million. That the A’s weren’t willing to take on that “risk” when the benefits should have been obvious suggests the market for relievers is going to be down.
On the other hand, Hendriks won’t cost his new team a draft pick, so he won’t be losing money because of that. Without that tying him down, Hendriks could very well blow past the three years, $30 million that MLB Trade Rumors is predicting for him. Hendriks would make any team in the majors better, and all he’ll cost is money. There should be an intense bidding war for him.
However, he likely won’t get the three years and $40 million that Smith got last season and would have served as a jumping off point for negotiations had the season not been shortened. It’ll be a real shame if that proves to be the case because Hendriks is a better pitcher than Smith or Kimbrel or Davis were when they reached free agency. And yet, Hendriks could make less than all of them.
Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.