Braves Turn Attention to Rotation, Add Cole Hamels for 2020

Before Wednesday, the Atlanta Braves’ winter had been centered around fortifying their bullpen. That strategy made sense — Atlanta’s reliever WAR was just inside the bottom third of baseball last year, so keeping the most important pieces of that bullpen around and adding extra talent around them had to be a priority. The Braves wasted little time in signing Will Smith, arguably the best reliever on the market, to a three-year, $40-million deal, and retained midseason acquisition Chris Martin and 37-year-old Darren O’Day on short-term deals as well. Their focus on keeping the band together applied to other areas of the roster too, as they quickly re-signed catcher Tyler Flowers and outfielder Nick Markakis before bringing in another catcher in free agency by adding Travis d’Arnaud via a two-year, $16-million deal.

An area that had gone untouched was the starting rotation, but as of Wednesday afternoon, that is no longer the case. The Braves signed 35-year-old left-hander Cole Hamels to a one-year, $18-million contract, according to ESPN’s Jeff Passan.

Right away, the addition of Hamels brings to mind the upgrade the Braves made to their rotation via free agency last offseason — er, sorry, last June. That’s when Atlanta finally became the team to sign Dallas Keuchel after his extended free agency period, bringing him in on a one-year deal worth $13 million. Keuchel, like Hamels, was a low-velocity veteran southpaw, and after a somewhat rocky first couple of starts, settled in quite nicely down the stretch, earning the chance to start Games 1 and 4 of the NLDS.

The Braves will hope for similar poise out of Hamels, who reached free agency for the very first time this winter after 14 years in the majors. Following a long and successful run in Philadelphia from 2006-15, he was traded at the deadline to Texas in a blockbuster that involved eight players, mostly prospects. He was a summer trade target again three years later, when the Cubs acquired him from Texas for three more players in July 2018. He’s been a reliable member of Chicago’s rotation ever since, making 27 starts for the organization in 2019 and holding a 3.81 ERA and 4.09 FIP in 141.2 innings. It was the 12th season of his career in which he was worth at least 2.5 WAR.

From Atlanta’s perspective, there’s enough to like about Hamels that his age can be somewhat overlooked. Though he tied his career high in BB% (9.1) in 2019, he also maintained a healthy 23.2% strikeout rate that kept him in the 62nd percentile of all pitchers who threw at least 100 innings. Even more encouraging was the return to form he experienced with his changeup, as Devan Fink explored just a couple of weeks ago. Throughout his time in Philadelphia, Hamels possessed the greatest changeup on earth, and in 2019, it performed better than it had in years. It wasn’t quite the show-stopper it was early in the decade, but it did hold opposing hitters to a .214 wOBA and 32 wRC+, while once again acting as his best swing-and-miss offering.

But the changeup isn’t the only intriguing aspect of Hamels’ deep arsenal. He threw five different pitches in 2019, with the most-often used being the four-seamer (35.3%) and the least-often used being the sinker (12.3%). He mixes his pitches rather evenly, with the cutter emerging in recent seasons as a sneakily excellent offering. Thrown about four ticks of velocity down from his four-seamer, Hamels used his cutter on 18.7% of pitches in 2019, and it performed better than it ever had, resulting in a .263 wOBA and 67 wRC+, thanks largely to consistently weak contact. The success of the cutter and changeup have been enormous in helping Hamels weather the results of his deteriorating four-seamer, which sat at its lowest average velocity since 2009 and allowed a 158 wRC+ to opposing hitters.

Hamels obviously doesn’t offer the ceiling that the available top-tier free agent pitchers like Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg do, but what he does offer is remarkable consistency. Now entering his 15th season in the majors, he’s never produced a WAR figure under 1.7 and has spent most of his career outperforming FIP marks that keep suggesting he’s more flawed than he appears. In 2017, at age 33, he finished a 24-start season in Texas with a 101 FIP- but an 88 ERA-. The following year, he had a 104 FIP- but an 84 FIP-. He’s proven time and time again that he is able to outperform his peripherals, and the rest of baseball has largely been willing to listen. In our list of the Top 50 Free Agents, Hamels ranked 19th, with Kiley McDaniel predicting two years and $28 million as the winning offer. Here’s what Eric Longenhagen had to say in his prognosis:

It was still down from the Hamels that somehow sat 92-93 and touched 95 in April and May, but fluctuations in fastball velocity have plagued him for so long that in this instance it’s not a guaranteed sign of aging so much as evidence that this is Cole Hamels. He still has the ability to throw that enticing changeup in any count and to alter his fastball shape (cut, sink, ride) and offset some of what he’s lost in raw heat, and his shapely curveball is fine to dump in situationally. This is a backend starter, but a good one.

The Braves wound up paying a little bit more on the AAV side in order to get half the commitment, but the price tag itself is telling of what Atlanta sees in him. His $18-million salary, after all, isn’t far off from the $23 million they paid to rent Josh Donaldson for a year in 2019, and he was worth nearly five wins. Dan Szymborski’s preliminary ZiPS projection for Hamels also reflects the continued optimism in his ability to prevent runs:

Preliminary ZiPS Projection – Cole Hamels
Year W L ERA G GS IP H HR BB SO ERA+ WAR
2020 9 6 3.62 25 25 141.7 128 15 49 131 119 2.9

Hamels’ signing probably doesn’t spell good things for a possible return by Keuchel, or the signing of someone like Madison Bumgarner, but it’s not enough to rule out the addition of another starter, either. As currently constructed, our RosterResource has Hamels slotting in behind Mike Soroka at the front of the rotation and ahead of Mike Foltynewicz, Max Fried, and Sean Newcomb. The Braves still have lots of promising young arms like Kyle Wright, Touki Toussaint, and Ian Anderson, but none of them are currently beating down the door to grab a rotation spot. If they want to make the rotation a strength, another move via trade or free agency would be wise. But with Hamels in the fold, the Braves at least have enough starters to go challenge for another division title.

We hoped you liked reading Braves Turn Attention to Rotation, Add Cole Hamels for 2020 by Tony Wolfe!

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Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

While this is more or less a reasonable signing, there are a couple of thoughts that temper my enthusiasm a bit.

First, I think there are some front offices that might be a little too enamored with this “flexibility” thing that we’ve been hearing about a lot. There is some benefit to limiting your exposure to risk, but how much more valuable is putting Hamels on the books for $18M instead of signing one of the other younger lefties (Bumgarner, Keuchel) to more years at a lower AAV? Because while there’s also more risk for the longer-term deals, there’s also more possible upside. I think that’s something worth investigating.

Second, that ZiPs projection is extremely optimistic, because it puts him in line for his best year since 2016. It must like something about him under the hood but if that thing didn’t consistently show up from 2017-2019 it’s probably not a great bet that he’ll rediscover it in 2020. For this reason, I think he’s probably not anything more than the 4th starter if the rest of the rotation performs to expectations, and 3rd if either Fried turns back into a pumpkin or Folty stays one.

When you start looking at those two together, the AAV starts looking pretty rich. They could have probably paid Tanner Roark half that and gotten 3/4ths the production. If I’m the Braves, I’m doing this because I’m not sure that Bumgarner will ever move into the range where they feel comfortable shelling out money, but I’m sure hoping that he does because they could really use a pitcher they feel comfortable with in the playoffs.

TKDC
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Member
TKDC

There just isn’t much value in additional years for a 35-year-old pitcher. Plus, if Hamels pitches well, the Braves basically have a team option in the form of a qualifying offer for 2021.

sadtrombone
Member
sadtrombone

There is for a 30-year old pitcher though. That’s not the comparison that’s relevant.

TKDC
Member
Member
TKDC

I mean, while I did mention his age, it barely makes a difference. I’d so much rather have Wheeler for $24 million for one year than what he got (the QO complicates this a bit). Any upside in the later parts of any free agent contract are so rarely realized. For every Scherzer, there are 20 guys teams would basically give away or worse after half the deal is done.

sadtrombone
Member
sadtrombone

Gonna also post this here, since it seems relevant. Looks like the possible deal on Bumgarner could be approaching crazytown ($100M) and Hamels is them wanting to walk out with someone.

https://twitter.com/Ken_Rosenthal/status/1202281979154255872

fjtorres
Member
fjtorres

Note that by going one year, they leave the spot open for the one or more of the kids to step up.
It also leaves them in a position to sign another pitcher to a backloaded deal.

sadtrombone
Member
sadtrombone

I think this may be how the Braves are thinking, but I would argue that it’s virtually impossible to block a pitcher like you can a position player. I’m sure they like some set of Wright, Anderson, and Wilson but I’d be anxious about them making a huge leap forward next year.

fjtorres
Member
fjtorres

Numbers improve the odds.
They may not be betting on any single player but rather that one guy will.
And if not, well, there will be other options because of the much maligned fiscal flexibility.

HarryLives
Member
HarryLives

Why would you ever give a free agent, especially a pitcher, more than one year unless you had to? Teams give players multiple years because there’s a competitive market for their services, not because there’s upside in making long-term commitments to players. That’s not to say long-term deals never work out well for teams, only that tacking on those extra years is done to benefit and entice the player, not the other way around. No team has ever in the history of ever insisted a free agent willing to sign with them on a shorter-term deal sign a longer-term one instead.

fjtorres
Member
fjtorres

It’s the opposite of the scenario with young players.
Long deals are about teams betting on the player longer than they are willing to bet on themselves.

sadtrombone
Member
sadtrombone

Are you arguing that it is worth signing a lesser player to a short-term deal than a better player to a long-term one? How about a lesser player for more money on a year-to-year basis than a long-term one? It certainly depends on the specifics, but unless you are misreading my argument, you seem to be making the argument that it is always better to sign a lesser player for more money in a single year (on a year to year basis) than a better player for longer.

fjtorres
Member
fjtorres

That wasn’t how I read it.
I read it as teams preferring to sign older players to the shortest contract they will agree to, regardless of talent level.

Conversely, they should (and do) prefer to sign young players to the longest contracts they can get them to accept. Aging curves and injuries know no distinction by talent.

It’s not about comparing one player to another but about each specific player’s negotiation.

HarryLives
Member
HarryLives

“Because while there’s also more risk for the longer-term deals, there’s also more possible upside. ”

There’s not more upside for the *teams*. The extra years are just the price of signing the younger and/or superior player in free agency. That’s the point I’m making. A longer deal, a larger salary commitment always means more downside risk for the team, and that downside risk isn’t counterbalanced by the upside. Teams do it because that’s what it takes to sign a guy they want, not because they’re trying to add upside. You sign Bryce Harper to a 13-year deal because that what it takes to sign him, not because there’s more upside in signing him to a 13-year deal instead of a 5-year deal.

Lanidrac
Member
Lanidrac

A 5-year deal is still long term. If someone had the choice of signing Harper for 5 years or 1 year at the same AAV, they’d choose the 5-year deal. It’s more about the player’s age than anything.

It’s also not usually about fishing for upside but ensuring that the player remains on your team for as many of his prime years as possible, rather than risk losing a bunch of his prime performance to another team if he jumps ship in free agency after just one year.