Welcome to TOC's offseason primers! We haven't officially reached the offseason yet, but it's never too early to look at the best players on the free agent market. Today, we take a look at the best free agent left-hander relief pitchers available.
It may not be the sexiest segment of the free agent market, but in this era of bullpen specialization, left-handed relievers will be coveted this off-season. There is a shortage of high-end talent, but a team looking for specialist should have no problem finding someone to sign to fill that role.
1. Javier Lopez. The market lacks a top end southpaw that can handle lefties and righties as well, but there is no shortage of left-hand specialists and Javier Lopez is their king. Although he is headed into his age 36 season, Lopez is coming off his finest season yet by way of a sparkling 1.83 ERA and microscopic .197 wOBA allowed against left-handed batters. You aren't going to do much better than that, especially when you factor in his extreme groundball tendencies that have allowed him to surrender just two homers over the last three seasons.
2. J.P. Howell. If there is a one guy on the market who teams would at least think about pitching against right-handed batters, it is J.P Howell. Thanks in part to his velocity spiking nearly a full mile and a half per hour (granted it was up to a "blazing" 87.4 MPH), Howell has resuscitated his career. Despite Don Mattingly using him liberally against both righties and lefties, Howell logged a 2.18 ERA over 62 innings of work. If there is one warning sign, it is that he cut his HR/9 rate all the way down to 0.29 and his HR/FB ratio to 4.3%. For a guy who was allowing well over a homer per inning coming into the season with a career HR/FB% well into the mid-teens, that seems positively unsustainable even with his rejuvenated heater. Given the likely regression he will face, Howell should probably still be considered strictly a left-hand specialist.
3. Scott Downs. It wasn't that long ago that Downs was one of the best lefty relievers in baseball, but at age 38, his body is starting to betray him. Though he is still highly effective as a LOOGY, he has made multiple trips to the DL the last two seasons with a variety of nagging injuries. He should still be productive in 2014, just know that you'll be lucky to get more than 35 innings out him.
4. Oliver Perez. For the teams that fetishize strikeouts, Perez is the lefty they will want after a 2013 season in which he fanned 12.57 batters per nine innings. Things get a little shaky after that though as Perez continues to issue walks at an alarming rate. He's also an extreme flyball pitcher, so teams need to be careful about how many dingers he might allow once he leaves the spacious surroundings of Safeco.
5. Boone Logan. Logan is the slightly lesser model of Perez. A strikeout machine as a LOOGY, Logan's one big weakness is his struggle with the long ball. He got touched up for 7 homers last season, with 3 of those being hit by left-handed swingers. That's kind of hard to swallow.
6. Matt Thornton. Thornton is quickly nearing the end of the road. As recently as 2011 he was fanning more than a batter per inning, but this season his K/9 rate is down all the way to 6.23. While he isn't a setup man caliber reliever anymore, his .224 batting average against versus lefties shows that he probably still has another year or two of utility in him as a LOOGY.
7. Manny Parra. An argument could be made to move Parra up a few spots on this list. He fanned 46 batters in 56 innings of work in 2013 while posting a solid 3.33 ERA. The problem is that 2013 was the first season he was actually any good. Until he shows he can do it again, Parra will get the free agent interest commensurate with a player with a 4.97 career ERA.
8. Eric O'Flaherty. EOF is an elite left-handed reliever or should I say he was an elite left-handed reliever. O'Flaherty only managed to get in 18 innings in 2013 before his elbow blew up and required him to undergo Tommy John surgery. He should be back at some point in 2013, but he is likely to miss at least the first two months of the season so he is likely to ink an incentive-laden one-year deal with a team willing to roll the dice on his recovery.
9. Michael Gonzalez. Apparently Gonzalez is still in the bigs. Good for him! Good for opposing batters too because Gonzalez got absolutely battered last season, surrenerding 10 homers in just 50 innings on his way to an ugly 4.68 ERA. But, hey, he still has a semi-recognizable name, so someone will probably give him another chance.
10. David Purcey. Honestly, he is only on this list because we needed a top ten list. So this is more about our commitment to the deca system than our appreciation of Purcey. Let's just put it this way, Purcey was outrighted off the White Sox's 40-man roster at the end of the season and nobody claimed him.