Savvy Amaro Signs Contreras

And now for something completely out of left field… the Phillies reportedly have signed Jose Contreras. The 38-year-old right-hander is expected to pitch out of the bullpen and provide depth in the starting rotation in the event of poor performance or injury.

Contreras himself has had to deal with some health problems. He made 19 starts in 2008 but landed on the disabled list after a July 13 start that irritated his right elbow. He then ruptured his left Achilles tendon in his first start back off the D.L. on August 9. Last season, he missed a month between May 8 and June 8 when his right leg wasn’t right. But wait, there’s more! Contreras would miss two more weeks in September when he strained his right quadriceps.

Yeah, it’s not exactly a no-risk signing by the Phillies, but Contreras will likely earn much less than the $10 million he received last season between the Chicago White Sox and Colorado Rockies.

Despite his age and a bill of health that requires some serious finger-crossing, Contreras proved as recently as last season’s NLDS that he still has above-average stuff to compete against Major League hitters. During Games 2 and 3, his fastball consistently sat in the mid-90’s, reaching as high as 96 MPH. Contreras struck out seven batters in just over seven innings of work at the end of the regular season with the Rockies as well.

Over the past three seasons, Contreras has been worth 2.1-2.6 WAR with almost all of his innings coming as a starter. For the Phillies, a more reasonable expectation is at about 1.0 WAR since his innings total will likely end up half of what it has been.

His ERA of late may worry you, but ERA predictors are a bit kinder to him:

In each of the past four seasons, FIP has estimated Contreras’ ERA to be better than what it turned out to be. The biggest gaps come in ’07 and ’09 and it’s no coincidence that in those years he had a .334 and .325 BABIP respectively. As we know, pitchers can’t control their BABIP so we can credit most of that to a poor distribution of batted balls and poor play by his fielders.

Contreras, who induces ground balls about 45-50% of the time a ball is put in play, should fare better in Philadelphia given that he will have one of baseball’s best infield defenses behind him. Also inspiring confidence is his strikeout rate which at 7.25 per nine innings last season was his highest since 2004. However, that did come with a corresponding rise in his walk rate which at 3.62 per nine innings was his highest since ’03.

Overall, it’s a savvy signing by GM Ruben Amaro. Contreras has the potential to be a valuable member of the Phillies’ bullpen or provide a high level of production as a #5 starter in the event that Jamie Moyer cannot regain full health and/or Kyle Kendrick cannot capture his magic from 2007. This is the type of signing that winning organizations make. And to think it was only four years ago that the Phillies relied on Aaron Fultz and Adam Bernero to make starts.