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The Low-Cost Bullpen Shotgun

Looking at some of the more marginal arms on the market who might make some bullpen better in 2018.

Colorado Rockies v St. Louis Cardinals
Who remembers Russ Springer? I do.

Yesterday, my colleague Ben Markham wrote a very nice piece, regarding bullpens, the strategic approach to building said, and a sort of 30,000 foot long view of how volatile relief pitching can be from year to year. The point of his piece was not to advocate specific pitchers, or identify traits or trends we should be looking for in individuals, but to reflect the reality that, year over year, relievers are simply hard to predict, can jump up or fall off in an instant, and that, depending on how you’ve constructed the rest of your roster, investing in multiple lower-tier options with upside can be a more useful approach to building a ‘pen than trying to shop at the top of the market.

Well, I already had a piece in mind of the sort you’re reading right now; pretty much every year since I can remember I have, at some point in the offseason, tried to mine the dregs of the pitching market for some low-cost bullpen help. Usually, said attempt comes later in the offseason, after all the interesting stuff has been covered and I have a mid-January article to write and no subject coming to mind.

However, given Ben’s excellent lead-in to bullpen question, I’ve decided to bump my own piece up and delve into the depths of the pitching market early this year. (Admittedly, the extended waiting period for free agency and the offseason to actually start could have something to do with it as well, but it’s mostly the fact marginal relievers were recently brought up.) What I’m going to try and do is identify a handful of pitchers on the free agent market — i.e. no trades, and I’m sticking to major league free agents, at least for now — who, for one reason or another, I think might have some upside as a bullpen pickup. I’m shooting for the low-cost guys only, and both starter-to-reliever conversions and relievers who have fallen on hard times will be considered. I’ll also try to give my reasoning for thinking the pitcher could have the upside to be worth a flyer.

Basically, I’m looking for one-year make-goods and non-roster invites. Because that’s just the sort of quality coverage you come to VEB for.

Derek Holland, LHP

2018 Age: 31

Why he would be cheap:

Because, put simply, Derek Holland was horrible this past season. I’m sure plenty of us remember Holland as the immensely promising young lefty with the Texas Rangers of 2011-2013, when he put up a three-season WAR total close to 9.0, and looked to truly be coming into his prime. Since then, unfortunately, it’s been a litany of injuries for Holland, and when he has been on the field he’s been mostly bad. He was healthy in 2017, making 26 starts for the White Sox (29 appearances total), but he was awful, compiling a 6.20 ERA and 6.45 FIP over 135 innings. His strikeout rate was weak, his walk rate was ugly, and he was absolutely killed by the home run ball. His fWAR total for the year was a negative 0.9. That’s about as bad as it gets.

In other words, Derek Holland is 100% a reclamation project at this point, and almost certainly a minor league deal with a spring training invite. Maybe some team is desperate enough to give him a big league deal and money, but it’s hard to imagine the club so hard up for pitching.

Why he might be worth signing:

Honestly, the biggest issue for me is the bizarre fact that, through all the struggles Holland has endured the past four seasons, as bad as he has been, no one has ever tried him in the ‘pen. You would think, between constant injuries and terrible on-field performance, that at some point a pitching coach would have come to Holland and suggested he move to relief work. It appears, however, that never happened. (Which could potentially mean the idea was brought up and Holland is resistant to the idea, in which case no thanks, but I’m operating under the principal that pitchers want to be successful and paid more than they want to maintain a specific role or some such thing.)

Holland no longer has the kind of heat he did back in that ‘11-’13 era, when he would regularly sit at 94 and pop 96-97 a handful of times per game, but even this season, with an average FB velocity of 91.7, he was still capable of touching 95 a few times. His velocity was way down toward the end of the season, as he looked fatigued, which would also point me toward thinking relief could be an option if he lacks stamina nowadays.

Basically, the bottom line with Holland is that he’s a lefty who still possesses two intriguing pitches in his fastball and curve. The curve isn’t quite the hammer it was a few years ago, but that’s partly due to Holland throwing it as hard as he ever has, when he perhaps doesn’t actually have the arm speed or power anymore to make that work as well. He’s experimented with a cutter, throws a sinker, throws a slider, throws a changeup. What I would be interested in seeing is if abandoning all those other pitches and just going to the hard four-seamer and curve could turn back the clock for Holland in short stints. If the velocity could play up to 94+ consistently, he could work at the top of the zone and complement the fastball with the curve, rather than throwing the kitchen sink full of shitty pitches at the bottom of the zone as he seemed to with the White Sox. Simplify, and see if going to the two pitches that used to be really good could resurrect his career.

Clay Buchholz, RHP

2018 Age: 33

Why he would be cheap:

Buchholz is coming off a pair of lost seasons; the enigmatic right-hander in 2015 put together perhaps the best season of his career, with a 2.68 FIP over eighteen starts and 113.1 innings. The problem? That’s only about two-thirds of a season, even if he was a three-win pitcher in that two-thirds. Following that stellar but injury-interrupted campaign, Buchholz went out in 2016 and made 37 appearances (21 starts), for the Red Sox and was terrible. He put up an ERA near 5.00, an FIP over 5.00, and watched his peripherals all go the wrong way. His K rate fell by seven percentage points, his walk rate nearly doubled from ‘15 to ‘16, and he, like most of baseball, allowed a bunch of home runs. Following that debacle, he was traded to the Phillies last offseason as Boston tried to get its rotation house in order, and ended up missing almost the entire year with a forearm injury.

Between endlessly frustrating performances throughout his career and the now-looming spectre of a forearm/possible elbow injury, Buchholz is absolutely damaged goods.

Why he might be worth signing:

Prior to 2017, when Buchholz made two starts in which he pretty clearly wasn’t healthy, he had always had some of the best stuff in the game, full stop. In fact, the breadth of Buchholz’s repertoire was such that in 2015 he threw seven(!) classifiable pitches, a number which seems absurd to me. No pitcher needs seven pitches, and I would hazard a guess that throwing seven pitches essentially guarantees you’re not maximising your abilities.

If Buchholz is healthy, and his velocity is back up to where it was even in 2016 (~93 avg), a relief conversion would seemingly make a ton of sense to keep him healthy and perhaps allow him to concentrate his stuff. At various points in time, he’s had one of the best changeups and cutters in the game, as well as a very productive curveball. Pick three pitches. Fastball, obviously, and whichever two of the curve/cutter/change are the best now. Probably the cutter and change, I would assume. Throw those three really good pitches for one or two innings, and don’t worry about pacing things out or out-thinking hitters.

Jacob Turner, RHP

2018 Age: 27

Why he would be cheap:

Turner is one of the more famous high draft pick busts of the past decade, having been selected ninth overall by the Detroit Tigers back in 2009 out of a St. Louis-area high school. At the time, he was seen as perhaps the most polished high school arm in the country, with plus velocity, excellent feel for a changeup, and an ability to spin a curve that few other pitchers his age possessed.

Well, things haven’t worked out so well for Turner over the years since. He was probably rushed through the Detroit system too fast — something that seemed systemic to the Tigers at the time, honestly — and made his big league debut in 2011 when he was barely 20 years old. He was then sent to the Marlins as part of the Anibal Sanchez trade, and seemingly stagnated in their player development system. He was bad for the Marlins. Traded to the Cubs and was bad there. Went to the White Sox and was bad there, too. Signed a minor league deal with the Nationals this past offseason and, guess what? Was bad.

Why he might be worth signing:

There are really two good things about Turner at this point. One, that number next to the 2018 age line is only 27, which is extraordinarily young to have bounced around as much as he has. The other thing is also a number: 95.6. That’s the average velocity of Turner’s fastball in 2017, and his hardest fastball of the season was clocked at 99.56 mph. He throws both a two- and four-seam fastball, both of which actually sink and move quite a bit, but I would probably try to get him to drop whichever is the weaker pitch.

Basically, I’m betting on youth and velocity with Turner. He’s never really developed the depth of repertoire his amateur career would have suggested, and at this point is basically just a big fastball. Still, the raw material of a guy who can get it into the high 90s with excellent movement is a pretty good place to start. The Nats signed him last year, so it’s possible Mike Maddux, the new Cards’ pitching coach, could have some interest in him as a project. (He’s also a Boras client, so it could have just been Boras going to Nats ownership and demanding they do something for him, as per usual.)

Tom Wilhelmsen, RHP

2018 Age: 34

Why he would be cheap:

Once upon a time, back in the magical year of 2012, Tom Wilhelmsen was one of the best relievers in baseball. He was closing games for the Seattle Mariners at the time, and that season struck out over a quarter of the batters he faced (back when that was still a bigger deal than it is now), and posted a 2.50 ERA for the season. He basically came out of almost nowhere to become a dominant closer, like so many other remarkable surprises.

Since then, things have not gone well for Wilhelmsen, as he’s become a cautionary tale about the volatility of relievers (Andrew Bailey, anyone?), rather than an inspiring tale about the volatility of relievers. He pitched a couple more years with the Mariners, was traded to the Rangers for Leonys Martin (good deal for the M’s, which I feel I have to point out because there just aren’t that many chances to type that phrase), went to the Diamondbacks, got released, signed a minor league deal with the Brewers, and got released again. He’s pretty much the definition of ‘major league fringe’ right now.

Why he might be worth signing:

Wilhelmsen, for all that has gone wrong for him, still throws hard. His fastball velocity in 2017 was a still-robust 95.4, and still has that interesting cut to it that made him so hard to square up earlier in his career.

For me, though, the thing about Wilhelmsen is that his profile suggests a pitcher in need of a change in approach. Over the years, he’s actually moved away from his four-seam fastball, throwing more and more sinkers even as the bottom of the strike zone has become more and more dangerous a region in which to live over the past couple years. He’s also incorporated a slider more and more, in spite of it being a really kind of terrible pitch.

I don’t know what’s left in Wilhelmsen’s gas tank, but the velocity suggests his arm is still in full bloom. If it were me, I would bring him in on an NRI and try to get him to eliminate everything from his repertoire but his four-seamer and curveball (which used to be his go-to swing and miss offering). Pitch up at the top of the zone, from the belt to the letters, and try to take advantage of the new swingpath being employed by so many hitters, which makes them dangerous at the knees but more vulnerable up high. He has the velocity still to blow it by hitters up in the zone, so do so. Work at the navel with the fastball and then complement it with the big overhand curve that starts out high and ends up down below the zone.

Ian Krol, LHP

2018 Age: 27

Why he will be cheap:

Actually, of all the pitchers on this list, Krol is probably the one least likely to come on a scrap-heap type contract. He hasn’t been good, necessarily, and won’t likely get a big contract from anyone, but he also hasn’t been so bad as to necessitate taking a minor league deal or a true pillow contract.

That being said, he was outrighted off the Atlanta Braves’ roster at the end of the season, and decided to become a free agent. When a team as bad as the Braves is letting you go, you aren’t exactly in high demand. Thus, Krol, who has struggled with his command/control at various points in his short career, should be available for a reasonable sum for a club looking for upside in a reliever.

Why he could be worth signing:

Because I just said a club looking for upside, and Krol has legitimate upside to a degree not a lot of other guys on this list possess. As recently as 2016 he was striking out 26% of the batters he faced for the Braves, and even though his velocity overall this season was down a tick he still averaged close to 94 mph on his fastball.

The issue for Krol has been a lack of consistent command, both in terms of occasionally losing the strike zone and making too many mistakes over the plate. His groundball rate dropped off a cliff this past season, going from 56% in 2016 to just over 41%. How much of that was an issue with his pitching and how much could be attributed to the adjustments hitters have made is an open question, as I didn’t personally watch Krol pitch a whole lot.

Krol is one of the younger pitchers on the list here, has always had top-notch stuff, and so far as I know is healthy, although the decline in velocity this season is a slight red flag. What he really needs isn’t a major overhaul of his approach, or a change in role, or anything so dramatic. He simply needs some tweaking to hopefully improve his command. He isn’t nearly such a barrel-scraper as a lot of scrap heap signings, but could be seen as a bargain just one or two tweaks away from blossoming.

There are a couple other pitchers I had planned on profiling here (Jeff Locke, Drew Hutchison, and the endlessly weird Christian Bergman are all on my radar here as well), but as always I had too much to say about each individual pitcher to get everyone in as I had hoped.

Obviously, these are not the sorts of big names you’re hoping to hear your team looking at, but every year there are a handful of these types of guys who turn into really valuable relievers for basically free. Particularly if the Cardinals end up moving some of their upper-minors pitching depth this offseason in a big move or two, these are the kind of backfill signings from which we might be drawing our bullpen depth.

And that might not be a bad thing.