Crashburn Roundtable: Free Agent Pitchers, Hellickson’s Injury, and the September Bullpen

In this week’s Crashburn Roundtable, we discuss veteran starting pitchers that are available on the free agent market, the implosion of the Phillies’ bullpen in September, and a minor injury to Jeremy Hellickson in his last start of the year. Contributing today are Crashburn Alley staff writers Timothy Guenther, Ben Harris, and Michael Schickling.

Recent rumors have stated that the Phillies will pursue a veteran starting pitcher in free agency this offseason – if not Jeremy Hellickson or Charlie Morton, who fits the bill in this light free agent class?

Timothy Guenther: Jaime Garcia. In 2016, he posted both the second highest ground ball rate and the highest HR/FB rate among qualified starters. Only one of those is considered a reliable year-to-year metric, and it’s not the latter. It’s a classic bounce back profile, reflected in Garcia’s 3.77 xFIP this year, to go along with a history suggesting he’s even better than that. Garcia is technically not a free agent yet, as St. Louis holds a $12 million team option they can exercise for 2017, but the feeling is the Cardinals may be looking to part ways and allocate that money elsewhere. The Phillies could wait on that decision, or they could get a jump on the uninspiring starting pitching market by working out a deal with the Cardinals, similar to the way they acquired Hellickson last year.

Michael Schickling: This year’s free agent class feels like navigating a mine field. There are no pitchers worth committing big money or multiple years to, and it feels like the Phillies should avoid getting into any kind of bidding war for someone on the wrong side of 30. One name I’m intrigued by, however, is Brett Anderson. You may remember him from his constant trips to the DL. Since his rookie year, in which he pitched 175.1 innings, he’s thrown only 510.1 innings over 7 seasons, or less than 75 innings per year. That’s why he should be cheap. He’s worth getting because when he can actually take the field, he’s been a solid mid-rotation starter, averaging 2.3 fWAR/150 IP. He accepted a qualifying offer last offseason, then only pitched in 4 games this season, so he should be available for very little. If he’s good, we could trade him midseason. If he’s not, it’s no biggie. Another name I would consider is Doug Fister. Fister has always flown under the radar due to his teammates with flashier names (Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer (twice), Stephen Strasburg, Dallas Keuchel), and his unassuming peripherals (career 6.02 K/9), but he’s been a steadily good player for most of his career. The past two years, he’s been victimized too often by home runs (1.20 HR/9 vs 0.85 for his career), which may be an irreversible product of age. However, he’s been very durable, pitching 150 innings or more in six of the past seven seasons, and if he could get back to limiting walks and home runs, he could resume being a quietly effective pitcher for a small guarantee.

Ben Harris: The ideal veteran to nab, in my mind, is Bartolo Colon. He’s made it clear he’d like to return to the Mets, but he could play a very nice Jamie Moyer role here with the young staff. More realistically, I think Doug Fister fits the bill. Yes, his FIP has risen each of his last four seasons, up to 4.75 in 2016, but hear me out. Fister has spent his entire career surrounded by brilliance, and I think has fed off of it. From 2009-2011, he pitched alongside Felix Hernandez while the King posted the two highest ERA+ seasons in his career. He then spent parts of three seasons in Detroit with Justin Verlander (who made the all-star game all three seasons) and Max Scherzer who won the Cy Young in Fister’s final season with Motown. He found success in the National League East in two seasons with Washington (124 ERA+), although his 2015 was nowhere near as dominant as his eighth-place Cy Young finish in 2014. Being fortunate to pitch alongside generational talent doesn’t necessarily make Fister better on paper, but teamed with fairly recent success, it makes him an enticing candidate to be the club’s innings-eating, youngin-tutoring veteran.

Last week, we talked about Jeanmar Gomez‘s weak September. Since then, every single reliever on the team has imploded. Which relievers currently on the active roster, if any, have a greater than 50 percent chance of appearing on the opening day roster of the 2017 Philadelphia Phillies?

Guenther: Hector Neris and Edubray Ramos are locks for next year’s bullpen, and Jeanmar Gomez isn’t far behind. Joely Rodriguez has an in as the only lefty to have not failed at the major league level…yet. And then there’s Severino Gonzalez, he of the almost three run differential between his terrible results and solid peripherals. Gonzalez has the stuff to back up those peripherals, and the Phillies would do well to see if they can translate that into better on field results next year.

Schickling: Assuming the Phillies keep 7 relievers next year, the current Phillies relievers fall into three basic categories.

Roster Locks – These guys have pitched well enough to earn a look in 2017.

  • Jeanmar Gomez – Jeanmar sputtered down the stretch, but he also saved 37 games.
  • Edubray Ramos – Struck out a batter per inning in his first taste of the Majors this year. He stays.

Guys on the Bubble – These players haven’t done enough to lock down a roster spot, but they’ve been good enough that they may be worth another look.

  • Severino Gonzalez – Despite his ugly ERA (5.60), he’s got the second-lowest FIP among Phillies relievers (min. 20 innings) at 3.37. That’s not bad, but that ERA is still pretty ugly. I’ll put him on the bubble.
  • David Hernandez – Despite his not-hideous ERA (3.84), he walked way too many batters and stranded baserunners at the highest clip among Phillies relievers. That’s not sustainable.
  • Joely Rodriguez – Joely hasn’t yet pitched in 10 Major League innings, but he’s pitched to a 3.25 FIP and hasn’t let up a home run.

The Rest – I know that a bullpen isn’t the most important thing to a non-contending team, but if these guys make the 2017 roster, something went wrong.

My best guess is that Neris, Gomez, and Ramos are joined by Severino Gonzalez, who will make the league minimum, and Joely Rodriguez, who would be the only lefty, while Hernandez heads for greener pastures. The other two bullpen spots will either be converted starters, prospects, or free agents.

Harris: Hector Neris acquires the closer role and Jeanmar Gomez likely becomes a serviceable seventh or eighth inning guy. That was easy, wasn’t it. From there, the depth drops off a cliff. Joely Rodriguez and Edubray Ramos are the only arms I’m comfortable penning into the 2017 bullpen if I’m Pete Mackanin. That’s a tall order for a couple of relievers who didn’t crack triple-A until 2015 and 2016 respectively.

After early season struggles and a subsequent demotion to the advanced-A Clearwater Threshers, Rodriguez turned around his 2016 campaign and pitched to a 2.35 ERA before a well-deserved September call-up to the bigs. Rodriguez made an impact with a fastball that can touch 98 and a slider that can get outs. He projects as the lefty specialist next year. Ramos was strong in the pen after his late June call-up and made a name for himself. No Phillies reliever (minimum 36 innings) walked a lower percentage of batters than Ramos, and he did so while striking out one per inning.

Jeremy Hellickson left his final start of the season in the fourth inning with a knee sprain – not an outcome that the team had hoped for. Should the team be any more cautious in pursuing a Qualifying Offer with Hellickson? Does this late knee injury affect his free agent market?

Guenther: If it were an arm injury, I would have serious concerns. A back injury, and I’d definitely be triple checking the medical records. A knee sprain amounts to something that could be treated by a grade school level first aid class, which puts it on par with a blister as far as non-Rich Hill pitching injuries go. Not very concerning, that is.

Schickling: I have a hard time believing that a minor injury with 4+ months of recovery time will materially affect his free agency or his 2017 season. He even said he’s love to re-sign with the Phillies. Give him the damn Qualifying Offer already!

Harris: The Phillies should not be any warier about offering Hellickson a qualifying offer, nor should any teams vying for his service in free agency be dissuaded. By the numbers, 2016 was his best year since 2012 (his second year in the league). Hellickson comes as advertised: he’s an about average starting pitcher any way you slice it up, and a nicked knee shouldn’t scare anyone off, especially in a barren free agency class.

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9 comments

  1. Romus

    October 04, 2016 10:35 AM

    Hellickson:
    The MacPhail/Klentak team ‘s intentions when signing Morton and Hellickson were two-fold.
    One…veteran leadership, for a young staff in its infancy, for a year
    Two….trade chip currency.
    So the QO will more then likely be extended.
    Now, will Scott Boras advise him to accept the QO?
    I think he would not, and instead have him test the FA waters.
    Hopefully he signs with another team and the Phillies get the compensation pick in the late 30s or early 40s of the 2017 draft….and the new CBA does not alter that plan.

  2. JRVJ

    October 04, 2016 12:21 PM

    The Hellickson QO is a no-brainer.

    If Hellickson takes it, fine, as you only commit about $17MM for 2017 (which the Phillies can easily afford, since as most of us know, the Phils have very low 2016 payroll commitments) and if he doesn’t take it, comp pick! (almost certainly).

  3. Augustus Van Dusen

    October 04, 2016 03:07 PM

    This was a good analysis of the Phils needs for 2017. I would note that in the long run, the Phils have a lot of options in the farm system both for starters and relievers. Many of the starters will fail to develop and will become bullpen options. However, there are some high upside arms with great stuff in the lower minors so it may take time for them to develop. In the meantime, there are enough arms available internally to hold down the fort. This a good place to be, as the thought of having to build a staff via free agency turns my stomach (think back to this past off season, how many teams now have buyers remorse).

    The rationale for obtaining a veteran starter or two is the same now as it was last off season: they need someone to eat innings to protect the young arms in the rotation and bullpen. The Morton injury was unfortunate, as getting 180 innings from him would have helped to mitigate the heavy reliance on the bullpen the last two months of the season.

    Bringing back Morton will probably be a priority as the Phils liked him last off season and he needs to prove that he can be healthy for a year to have any shot on the free agent market after the 2017 season.

    Trading for a guy like Jaime Garcia is an excellent idea. As TG mentioned, the Cardinals may want to deploy his salary elsewhere which implies that they would not expect much in a trade. This is exactly how the Phils can use their substantial financial resources and deep farm system.

  4. Grace Louis

    October 04, 2016 10:49 PM

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    • Ryan

      October 04, 2016 11:44 PM

      Got the damned answering machine. What a missed opportunity.

  5. Major Malfunction

    October 05, 2016 12:12 PM

    Brett Anderson? That’s a RAJ maneuver wherein you skim the trash heap to find gems like Delmon Young or Ty Wigginton that just need one more 17th chance to show they still got it. Seriously. Anderson has had 2 complete seasons in 8 years? He’s brittle and most likely going to break down during the year. Then what to do to fill that gap? Just seems like going backwards if the idea is to fill roster slots with high risk low reward fodder.

    Doug Fister. His perepherals suggest that he was helped by the cavernous stadiums of Seattle and Detroit. Once he left, his FIP went up significantly and HR/9 pretty much doubled. His OPS+ at DET and SEA are in the 80s wherein his 2 games at PHL is a 124 OPS+

    • RAJ

      October 06, 2016 05:40 PM

      I remember how Dombroski got fleeced – heehee

  6. Nathan Fisher

    October 13, 2016 06:45 PM

    I am in “Crashburn Alley Withdrawal!” Is this The End?

    • Romus

      October 14, 2016 08:50 AM

      Hibernation until the spring thaw……like a giant sleeping bear, perhaps?.

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