MLB free agency: Many veteran relievers remain unsigned; here are the teams best positioned to land them

Pitchers and catchers will begin reporting to camps in Arizona and Florida next week to kick of 2021 MLB spring training. The end of the offseason is near, then, meaning that it’s time for free-agent stragglers to find a home.

With a few notable exceptions (Justin Turner, Jackie Bradley Jr., James Paxton), most of the unsigned players who ranked on our top 60 are relievers. Take a look:

In theory, it should be easier for relievers than any other type of player to find gainful employment. Most teams carry seven or eight of them at all times, and these specific players are unlikely to be in a position where they can haggle over their role. Add in how contenders are always seeking one more reliable bullpen arm, and you would think agreements would be a fait accompli.

In practice, there is one other thing to consider: roster construction, and specifically optionality — or, the ability to send down a player without requiring waivers. 

Having some optionable relievers in the bullpen is always a plus, as it allows teams to swap out pitchers as performance and circumstances deem necessary. Have a rough stretch where your relievers have had to rack up a lot of innings? You can sub in a fresh arm or two easy enough. That luxury isn’t afforded to teams with inflexible option situations. Further, it limits the ability to upgrade through free agency, trades, waivers, or promotions since teams are always reluctant to shed depth. 

That means clubs who have bullpens staffed with out-of-option players are less likely to make a move than those who can send down a reliever to make room. Which contenders are which? Let’s break it down, using the forecasted rosters hosted at FanGraphs. (Note that we used a liberal definition of “contender,” and if your team isn’t listed here, it’s because they’re in the cozy middle.)

The math is tough 

The Reds are the perfect example of what we’re talking about when it comes to inflexible bullpen situations. With the Sean Doolittle signing, the Reds have seven relievers who cannot be optioned to the minors without being exposed to waivers: Doolittle, Amir Garrett, Lucas Sims, Noe Ramirez, Jeff Hoffman, Sal Romano, and Jose De Leon. Even if the Reds are willing to shed Romano or De Leon, they’re going to be stuck with a rigid bullpen situation for the foreseeable future.

The Mets are another team with a largely inflexible situation, as they could enter the spring with six unoptionable pitchers: Trevor May, Miguel Castro, Dellin Betances, Jeurys Familia, Aaron Loup, and Brad Brach. Closer Edwin Diaz and utility arm Seth Lugo each have options, but neither is likely to get sent down anytime soon. That means the Mets might have to cut bait with Brach to make room at some point.

The Yankees, Braves, Padres, and Nationals are the contenders with five immovable relievers each. Your mileage may vary on how attached those teams are to some of the pitchers (e.g. the Yankees and Albert Abreu; the Nationals and Austin Voth). The Marlins technically have only three pitchers who cannot be optioned, but that’s without including their two Rule 5 picks (Zach Pop and Paul Campbell). 

Open for business, maybe

In an amusing twist, the teams best positioned to welcome a veteran reliever into the fold are the teams who appear least likely to make it happen for other reasons.

The Brewers (Ray Black) and Cleveland’ (Adam Plutko) have only one reliever apiece who is immovable. Both are working under tight, self-imposed budget restraints, however. Besides, they’re of the progressive, iconoclastic cloth that could see them value their flexibility more whatever (if any) performance uptick they would receive from slotting in a veteran instead.

Elsewhere, the Rays and White Sox each have two relievers without options. The Rays have continued to sniff around free-agent and trade targets, per league sources, suggesting they will be taking advantage of their situation. The White Sox, meanwhile, might prefer to stand pat given their plethora of talented, unheralded arms and the money they’ve already spent this winter in adding Liam Hendriks.

It stands to reason at least one of those teams will join the likes of the Blue Jays and the Giants, each of whom has signed a veteran reliever (Jake McGee, David Phelps) in the past few days.

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