A 29-year-old, hard throwing, left-handed closer is available in free agency. He is arguably the best reliever in baseball and has been for the past several seasons. Like all relievers, he’s acutely aware that at best he’ll get one big contract, and will use this offseason not just to set a positional record if he can, but set himself up for the rest of his life off one big deal.
We’re talking about Josh Hader, but we might also be talking about Aroldis Chapman. He was one year younger than Hader when he hit the market, coming off a World Series trophy and worth just under one full win more over the previous five seasons, but like Chapman, Hader is the best reliever in a relatively weak free agent pool. As we all remember, Brian Cashman jumped at the opportunity to bring Chappy back, to the tune of a five-year, $86 million deal.
Let’s start with what makes Hader so attractive. Over the last five seasons he leads all relievers in fWAR, and is top 15 in both ERA and FIP while throwing 50 innings more than anyone in the top 30 save Ryan Pressly. Oh, he also leads all of baseball in strikeout rate and is second, by one point, in K-BB%, my personal favorite single pitching stat.
After a very weird 2022, where his BABIP exploded almost 100 points above his previous career high and notching a 5.22 ERA, Hader was back in form in 2023. In 56.1 innings, he led MLB relievers in ERA and cut his home run rate by two-thirds, reminding us all just how good he is at the back end of the game.
Now imagine pairing him with the other dynamite arms in the Yankee bullpen. Gerrit Cole throws six innings, then you give the ball to Jonathan Loáisiga, who passes it off to Clay Holmes to set up for Hader. It’s an intoxicating thought for a random June game in Cleveland, and it’s even more exciting to imagine that being the formula for a series-clinching game in October.
But here’s the thing. Relief pitchers are in high demand every trade deadline, because of the contenders that need just one more weapon for a deep run in the postseason. A closer, like when the Cubs traded for Chapman in 2016, is the capstone piece to a full roster. The Yankees don’t have a full roster, and if they want to spend their way out of fourth place they will need to allocate that money to the lineup first, then the pitching rotation.
It’s not that Josh Hader isn’t a good pitcher, of course he is. If the Dodgers, or the Orioles, or Atlanta wanted just one more arm, he’d fit in perfectly. Such a team would likely be overpaying just a bit, but when we’re talking World Series opportunities, you eat a little bit of surplus value for the chance at a ring.
The Yankees need more than Josh Hader. If he had been a free agent next year, or in 2018, he very well may have been the team’s top target. He’s a great pitcher, and despite Brian Cashman’s love of a deep, deep bullpen, just isn’t what the organization needs right now.