Felix Hernandez would be the first to admit that he didn’t perform as well as he wanted to in 2016. To varying degrees, the Seattle Mariners likely had similar thoughts about two of the other four spots of their rotation, James Paxton and Hisashi Iwakuma aside. So as Felix spends the winter working to regain his crown, the Mariners have worked to shore up their rotation.
Without a lot of help available via free agency, the trade route figured to be the most likely source of rotation upgrades. As seen in his first year at the helm of baseball operations, general manager Jerry Dipoto prefers the trade route for patching holes anyway. However, there was one free agent starter who reportedly caught his eye: Jason Hammel.
The 34-year-old starter was cut by the Chicago Cubs after their World Series victory and remains a free agent as we move into February. It was a curious move as the Cubs didn’t appear to have an heir for the No. 5 spot and haven’t done much to secure one since.
The season-ending elbow injury leaves a damper on what was otherwise a reasonably good season for Hammel and has likely impacted his free agency. In 166 and 2/3 innings the right-hander posted a 3.83 ERA and a 4.48 FIP. His strikeout rate was a notch above his career average and his walk rate was right on par, but he did see an uptick in his home run rate, which could cause some concern.
The bigger concern though, has to be the impact of Hammel’s September collapse, injury-related or not. Over four starts he allowed 21 runs and 20 earned while giving up six home runs. That stretch inflated his ERA from 3.14 at the start of the month to the 3.83 he finished with. Hammel’s FIP didn’t see quite as dramatic a rise, moving from 4.26 to 4.48.
Several outlets had Hammel connected to the Mariners throughout the winter. The fit was obvious as Seattle needed rotation help and the 34-year-old has a recent track record of being a reliable back-end starter. Given the nature of his departure with Chicago, he lost some leverage in an otherwise paper-thin free agent market.
Having a change in agency over the winter didn’t help the right-hander either. It was reported talks broke down with the M’s around this time. Since then, Seattle went out and filled the empty spots in the rotation by acquiring Drew Smyly and Yovani Gallardo.
Smyly, 27, spent the last two-plus years in the rotation for the Tampa Bay Rays and dealt with some health issues in 2015. Acquired as a key piece in the trade that sent David Price to Detroit, the left-hander is coming off a career high 175 and 1/3 innings pitched. His 4.88 ERA and 4.49 FIP are uninspiring, but his strikeout and walk rates were fine and he should benefit from the move to Safeco and an improved outfield defense.
Gallardo, 31 in February, is coming off a rocky year in Baltimore where a decline in velocity factored into a diminished strikeout rate and an inflated walk rate. He posted a 5.42 ERA and a 5.04 FIP over 118 innings The brief period where he was a top arm for the Milwaukee Brewers is gone, but he’s only one year removed from a seven-year stretch as an average or better starter. He’s a prime bounce-back candidate and should also benefit from the park and outfield defense.
Here’s a look at how the three starters project to perform in 2017 via Steamer.
|2017 Steamer Projections|
Of the three, Smyly is the obvious exception, so the analysis really comes down to Gallardo and Hammel, who have some similarities. The first stat that stands out is the fWAR column where Hammel projects to be nearly one win better than Gallardo. We can attribute some of that to a better projected strikeout and walk rates over a slightly larger innings total. Hammel is projected to give up more home runs, but both have fly-ball tendencies.
Projection systems tend to favor recent performance and Hammel is the one coming off a better year. However, looking at the previous three years, we can see that their overall production has been similar. Gallardo has the virtue of being younger and holds a more consistent track record prior to last year, though.
Perhaps the most important question is what carries more risk: Gallardo’s diminished velocity or Hammel’s presumed diminished health? Seattle seemed more willing to gamble on the former regaining a step than the latter being healthy for Opening Day.
At this point., anything relating to Hammel’s health is speculation beyond his status at the end of the season and through the playoffs. Not many seem to buy the Cubs acknowledgement of his full health when he was released.
Also to be considered when looking at the two starters is the accompanying financial commitments. We don’t know for sure what Hammel wanted, or hoped for, in free agency. A one-year deal with incentives and maybe an option year would make sense. We do know that the M’s will pay Gallardo $11 million in 2017 and a $2 million buyout in 2018 if they decline a $13 million team option.
The status of Seth Smith and his $7 million contract seemed to play a role in all this. It’s been suggested that the ideal situation for Seattle would have been to deal Smith and the money owed for a minor leaguer and use the freed up cash for Hammel.
If the club saw similar potential in Gallardo and Hammel with the primary goal of dealing Smith’s contract, then it makes a lot of sense to take the route they did. Presuming full health, Hammel should be the better pitcher in 2017. But after viewing his medical records, the potential for a bounce-back season may have made Gallardo look just a little more appealing.
Without more information on Hammel’s health, it’s tough to really determine if the Mariners made the right call. Given the fact he’s still a free agent suggest it’s obvious Seattle isn’t the only team to have shied away.
Regardless, the deals made have helped bolster the starting staff. FanGraphs projects the rotation to land in the middle of the pack while ESPN’s Buster Olney has the M’s rotation cracking his top ten for 2017.
A lot of things still need to go right, but Seattle certainly made the right call in bolstering their starting pitching. That much we do know.