Signed RHP Jason Hammel to a two-year, $16 million contract. [2/8]
Signed LHP Travis Wood to a two-year, $12 million contract. [2/15]
Even before the unfortunate, untimely death of Yordano Ventura, the Royals were not exactly awash in starting pitching depth. Picking two pitchers off the reigning World Series champions gives the previous champs depth that they sorely needed, but do the additions of Hammel and Wood give the Royals the boost they need to push past the dross of the middle-of-the-pack AL contenders and into the playoffs? I’d guess from their PECOTA projection and the overall state of the roster ... probably not. Still, these are savvy pickups for a mid-market team looking to make upgrades, and these middle-of-the-pack players come into Kansas City on very manageable contracts.
Hammel is the bigger get of the two and probably deserved more praise (and cash) than he ended up getting. He fits into a category of pitcher that the Royals have dipped into before with Ian Kennedy and Edinson Volquez and others—a relatively high variance in talent level but a steady stream of innings. Hammel had his worst season since 2013 in his second full year with the Cubbies, but he still managed to log about 170 innings and make 30 starts. Given the gap between his DRA and ERA you may want to apply a little credit for that 3.83 ERA to all the other talent on the Cubs, from Miguel Montero’s framing to the team’s stellar defense; all of his peripherals went in the wrong direction this past season and didn’t help his cause.
Hammel leaned a bit harder on his breaking pitches last season, but his year-over-year velocity stayed about the same and there were no dramatic changes in his swinging strike rate. For that reason, I’m a little perplexed with PECOTA’s pessimism: the mid-line projection for Hammel next year is a DRA around 5.00. That seems to lean more heavily on his 2016 performance than the two previous years, which is understandable and yet somehow a bit counterintuitive. I’d put money on the under, but he has a history of rough going in the second half, so if he starts out ugly the Royals may want to cut bait early.
Wood may get a crack at the rotation as well, but as David Cameron has documented he has too much trouble with right-handed hitters to likely succeed in a starting role. Cameron suggests giving his scrapped changeup another go, while PECOTA suggests the equivalent of a string of skin-shivering curse words—that Wood would be slightly below replacement level as a semi-regular starter. Part of that is likely because DRA was unkind to Wood’s 2016 relief work, coming in two runs higher than his 2.95 ERA. Then again, Wood’s velocity ticked up in his first solely-relief season, and I’d feel more comfortable projecting something closer to the middle ground between his solid 2015 and his .215 BABIP-fueled 2016. Remember, Wood faced almost as many righties as lefties last season, so if the Royals can protect him a little better perhaps he can get more weak contact and prevent some runs as a seventh-inning dude. Still, expectations should be tempered—last year’s ERA was another Windy City miracle, unlikely to repeat in Missouri.
Is it possible to make a bargain-basement free agent signing like Hammel and still have it be the wrong move? Sure, compared to trading for an established starter with higher upside a la Jose Quintana or even Drew Smyly. If the Royals are really going to make one last ride of it in 2017, they’ll need to do more than pickup Hammel and Wood on two-year deals to squeak into the Wild Card. But if they’re looking to tear it down at midseason, these are two assets they can slide onto another team for a tidy profit as the team pivots toward 2019 and beyond.
Signed RHP Sergio Romo to a one-year, $3 million contract. [2/15]
Signed OF-R Franklin Gutierrez to a one-year, $2.6 million contract. [2/10]
Over the last few weeks, the Dodgers have been stocking up. Logan Forsythe, Chase Utley, and now Romo and Gutierrez. None of the names pop the eye, but the total package is good enough to push Los Angeles to the top of BP’s projected standings. At 99 projected wins, the Dodgers are considerably higher than the field and six games above the second-highest projected team. Most recently, they made two small, short-term moves that look to improve the team at the margins without costing much or requiring a long-term commitment. For under $6 million, the acquisitions of Romo and Gutierrez are projected to add an additional win (according to WARP) to a team that sincerely hopes that extra win will make all the difference leading into—or better yet, during—the playoffs.
Romo is riding the Brian Wilson Special, moving to the rival Dodgers after years of success in the Giants' bullpen. But unlike Wilson, there’s reason to think that the former ace reliever might have something left in the tank before he calls it a career. For years, the man with the sweeping slider has been anathema to right-handed hitters, but last year not only did he miss time, he was less effective against righties than ever before. His velocity is falling—more precipitously than ever before, down to 86 mph on this fastball—but he can still get same-handed hitters to swing and miss at that big slider. His strikeout rate is still high on both sides of the plate, but lefties tend to make titanic contact in the small sample they’ve faced him. As a closer you’d want something better in the profile, but as a ROOGY behind Kenley Jansen, and for only $3 million? The Dodgers’ comparatively weak bullpen could use someone with that profile.
Gutierrez is an interesting pickup, as he’s transformed into an entirely different player than he was during his “glory days” as the Mariners’ defensive superstar center fielder. Today, he’s one of those tough pieces to fit, the S-block Tetromino. Best deployed as the soft-side of a corner outfield platoon, Guti can hit left-handed pitching well, but he’s limited in the field, constantly battling health issues, and dreadful against right-handers. Exactly a quarter of his 2016 plate appearances came versus northpaws, and his slash line against them was an arid .145/.182/.274. When you compare that to a nifty .280/.373/.511 mark against left-handers, there’s no mistaking his big-cuts-and-patience approach only works on one side. He’ll make a nice sidekick for Andrew Toles, or the guy southpaws don’t want to see pinch-hitting late.
Once again, the Dodgers chose to go deep. Between Romo, Gutierrez, and Utley, they've once again emphasized having good players at the back of the bench and bullpen. These are the types of players that would be cast as second-division starters or see greater use on different franchises at this point in their careers; with Los Angeles they are the backup plans and likely to see either limited use (in the case of Gutierrez and Utley) or limited leverage (in the case of Romo), unless something goes wrong. This is a strategy that has paid off for the Dodgers, who can shoulder the vagaries of a long season better than any other team.
The comparison between the Cubs and the Dodgers atop the National League is an interesting one, as both teams are projected to be excellent. The big difference? As deep as the Cubs are, their biggest strength last year was excellent health, Kyle Schwarber notwithstanding. Meanwhile, the Dodgers were felled by injury after injury (especially in the starting rotation), but still rebounded to be excellent. If the injury bug rears its head this year, the Cubs—a deep and talented team in their own right—may struggle to keep up, forced to lean on the young and unproven. The Dodgers, on the other hand, have a cast of veterans by the handful ready to step up when the ugly inevitable comes around.