In Liam Hendriks, White Sox Get Free Agency’s Best RelieverCraig Edwardson January 12, 2021 at 5:10 pm

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.
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