In Liam Hendriks, White Sox Get Free Agency’s Best Reliever

While there were plenty of good options in this year’s free-agent reliever class, with Trevor May, Brad Hand, Archie Bradley, and Blake Treinen representing the near-top tier, there was just one ace available: Liam Hendriks. That elite reliever is now off the board, with the White Sox continuing their aggressive offseason by signing the former A’s closer to a four-year deal worth $54 million. Yahoo Sports’ Tim Brown was the first with the news of the signing, and ESPN’s Jeff Passan was the first to report the unusual structure of the deal: Hendriks will be paid $39 million in the first three years, with the remaining $15 million coming either as a fourth-year team option or as a deferred buyout if the option is declined.

The deal is both above expectations and below market value. When we crowdsourced free-agent contracts at the beginning of the offseason, the readers estimated a three-year, $36 million deal, while I predicted just $30 million due to concerns about curtailed spending. Obviously, I was way off, though I did have this to say about Hendriks’ market:

I could see the bidding go considerably higher than my estimate. Hendriks is better than Will Smith and Drew Pomeranz and likely won’t have a qualifying offer attached. Four years and $60 million wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility in a normal year — he’s that good. It’s hard to see who will be hurt most by teams cutting payroll, but relief pitching at the top isn’t the worst guess.

And just in case you didn’t realize just how good Hendriks has been over the last few seasons, Ben Clemens’ write-up has a few notable bits of information on his value over the last half-dozen seasons:

From 2015 (his breakout year) on, he’s been the fourth-best reliever by WAR, with much of that value coming in the last two years, when he’s gone from excellent setup man to sub-2.00 FIP monster.

And on the abbreviated year he just completed:

He set career highs in chase rate, swinging strike rate, and strikeout rate to go along with career lows in walk rate, ERA, FIP, xFIP, SIERA — I mean, you get the idea, he’s great.

All in all, I liked Hendriks enough to rank him 15th in this year’s class (and then wrote about him over at ESPN as a signing you could trust).

I am generally leery on free-agent contracts for relievers given their volatility and potential downside. An above-average position player or starter can be projected for three wins but still be a productive player if he comes in a win shy of that. Relievers don’t have that same luxury, going from stars to nearly unplayable much more easily and quickly. And with the small sample relievers operate in, a few bad outings can loom large over a full season.

All that said, Hendriks is not most relievers. A few years ago, Jeff Sullivan took a look at good relievers and how sustainable their performance is long-term and found that their production held up at a comparable rate to position players. Going back even further, I found that elite relievers like Hendriks with projections in the win and a half range or higher were much more likely to reach those numbers than the merely good relievers. There’s always going to be risk associated with any player, but Hendriks is the type of pitcher worth splurging on.

While the setup of Hendriks’ contract is a bit odd, it essentially takes the annual market value for an elite reliever ($18 million) and spreads it out over four years (or longer in smaller chunks if Hendriks’ play declines). Given his talent and results the last few seasons, paying a small premium over the going rate for last year’s best reliever is a pretty good deal for the White Sox, even if it is above expectations from earlier this winter. Hindsight is 20/20, but it certainly seems elite players are still going to be paid at market rates or something close to it, even if they haven’t signed yet. While Hendriks might not bring the same value as Trevor Bauer, George Springer, or J.T. Realmuto, he’s certainly a top-level player at his position and received a contract in line with that level of play.

The White Sox are having a heck of an offseason so far. They landed a very good, inexpensive starter in Lance Lynn at little player cost, and in Hendriks, they now have the best reliever in the game. The Adam Eaton deal seemed a bit premature given his age, recent performance and other available options, but Lynn and Hendriks by themselves make for a great winter. It helps that the rest of the AL Central isn’t keeping pace. Cleveland has taken several substantial steps back in trading away Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco, and the Twins haven’t yet made any moves of significance. If and when they do, they are likely the slight favorites in the division, but adding Hendriks puts the White Sox at the top for now.

After making significant moves last winter by bringing in Yasmani Grandal and Dallas Keuchel, the White Sox are building off the success of last season with another strong winter. They’ve supplemented their young core with trades and free agency, and they are now one of the best teams in the American League. You could argue last year that they had moved ahead of the Cubs in Chicago. There’s no longer an argument to be made in 2021.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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3 years ago

As a Sox fan this one makes me nervous. I like that they are spending money, but Hendriks is going to be 31 and really relies on high spin high velo 4 seamer. His slider plays extremely well off the fastball which means its value on Fangraphs is high, but if you look at spin/movement on Statcast it is doesn’t profile as an elite pitch (he throws the 4 seamer 70% of the time). So the velo / high spinning fastball really has to hold up here into his mid 30s.

He’s not Craig Kimbrel where he was showing obvious signs of decline before landing a contract (the opposite in fact). But I worry what happens when that inevitable decline comes.

I hope it works out and that they aren’t done going after Bauer now.

3 years ago
Reply to  Mike

Legitimate concerns, but at $13.5M AAV, Hendriks is a better deal than Keuchel and Abreu were last year at $18M AAV (those both worked better than I expected), and I think very reasonably worth a $5-$6M annual premium over May or Treinen. He’s the best closer in the game. Diaz and Hader are younger, but most closers have a limited repertoire but are the best in the game in the one or two pitches they have.

Roster Resource has the White Sox payroll at $131M now, a bit lower than the $142M they had in 2020. Rick Hahn said that the Machado “money will be spent” when they whiffed on Manny 2 years ago. So far, they’ve spent $73M on Grandal, $55M on Keuchel, $54M on incumbent Abreu, $8M on Lynn, and now $54M on Hendriks. If I add in Keuchel’s vestment 4th year of $18M (which is about the incremental cost of what they probably wanted to spend on Abreu at $12M/year) and then take out Abreu, I come up with ~$210M spent. (I hope they’re not including the Moncada, Robert, and Jimenez extensions.) That should leave another $90M or so.

Obviously, the revenue-crushing effects of the pandemic (seen around the league as buyers prioritize trade additions over free agents) may diminish the White Sox’ willingness to spend. Springer has a standing ~$120M offer from the Blue Jays on the table, so maybe he’s outside what the White Sox can do. Still, the White Sox are 5th in projected 2021 WAR, about 4-5 wins behind the superteams in SD and LA. They really should be on one of Bauer or Springer, especially since Covid seems to be diminishing their markets. It only takes one high bidder, I know, but if that team doesn’t step up, I hope the White Sox jump into the sale price on Bauer. (Don’t hear too much about Bauer’s preference for 1-year deals. Funny how peer deals like Gerrit Cole’s and Strasburg’s do that to a person. Bauer can always ask for a 1-year opt-out.) Tanaka or Odorizzi would be helpful cheaper options.

3 years ago
Reply to  Shalesh

Appreciate the comment, and I will be the first to admit I didn’t like the Keuchel deal but he’s been positive surprise thus far.

I don’t think the team is thinking about it in terms of replacing $300m though. $300/10 years is very different than $300m/4. You’d hope they’d be willing to get back into the top 5 in MLB payroll (as they did in the 2006-2008 post World Series window). That would give them probably $60-80m in AAV to play with in theory. More realistically I’d expect them to spend 170-190m which gives them ~$40m in AAV according to roster resource.

3 years ago
Reply to  Mike

Keuchel is one of those guys who always seems to be a bit better than the sum of his parts. With that said, his contract isn’t some done deal yet, as there is still two years left.

Regarding Hendriks, I wouldn’t say he is clearly the best relief pitcher in the game. He is coming off back to back very good seasons, but I’d take Diaz and his 46% k rate and youth over him every single day.

3 years ago
Reply to  carter

I like Diaz a lot too and he’s 27, but Hendriks dwarfs all other relievers in FWAR over the last 2 seasons at 5.4 (Kirby Yates is 2nd at 3.4, Josh Hader *only* at 2.6) and Diaz only had 0.9. No wonder Mets fans are so grumpy about him! Still, Steamer & DepthCharts project Hendriks & Diaz for the same WAR in 2021. (Raisel Iglesias’ projection is somewhat worse, so I don’t think CWS fans should feel like he’s a missed opportunity.)

Just as interesting is some of the relievers who did well in 2020 who I barely recognize: Mike Mayers & Felix Pena of ANA, Jose Cisneros of DET, Tyler Duffey of MIN, Phil Maton of CLE, Jake McGee of LAD (what a comeback!), Jonathan Hernandez of TEX, and Chris Stratton & Richard Rodriguez (wasn’t he supposed to be traded already) of PIT. Maybe fans of these teams can tell us if these guys are the real deal or if they just flashed in a small sample. Maybe Jeff Zimmerman already covered these guys and I just missed it.