Just under two weeks ago, when I was writing a piece connecting the unsigned players from among our Top 50 Free Agents list to teams that appeared to have needs, Wade Miley came off the board by signing a one-year deal with the Astros. A similar thing happened in writing that piece’s sequel, covering a handful of the best of the unranked and unsigned free agents, as Brett Anderson pre-empted the publication by re-signing with the A’s on a one-year deal. He’ll cost a pittance, as he’s guaranteed a modest $1.5 million, with another $1 million possible in undisclosed incentives.
Though it feels like he’s been around forever, Anderson just turned 31 on February 1. That said, the 2006 second-round pick by the Diamondbacks (out of high school in Stillwater, Oklahoma) has already spent parts of 10 seasons in the majors. I should emphasize the word parts there because, well, we’ve rarely seen a whole season from him. As a rookie with the A’s in 2009 — a season in which he entered ranked seventh on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list — he made 30 starts and threw 175.1 innings en route to 3.5 WAR. But only once since then has he started 30 times in a major league season. Hell, only once since then has he even reached 20 starts in the bigs: in 2015, he completed a solid 31-start, 180.1-inning campaign for the Dodgers (3.69 ERA, 3.94 FIP, 1.6 WAR).
Indeed, injuries — from the random (blisters, a stress fracture in his foot, a hit-by-pitch-induced fracture in his left hand) to the chronic (elbow woes culminating in 2011 Tommy John surgery, a bulging disc that required surgeries in 2014 and ’16) — have taken a large bite out of Anderson’s career and often overshadowed his talent. Since that big 2015, he’s managed just 33 starts and 147 innings with a 5.76 ERA and 4.43 FIP for the Dodgers, Cubs, Blue Jays, and A’s while missing significant time due to the recurrent bulging disc and blisters (both 2016), a separate lower back strain (2017), and a shoulder strain and ulnar nerve irritation (both 2018). According to the subscription-based Baseball Injury Consultants site, he’s totaled 12 trips to major league disabled lists, essentially equaling his career 12.1 WAR.
One certainly has to admire Anderson’s persistence as well as his wit. “I’m 29 going on 49,” he told SportsNet’s Shi Davidi in 2017. “It’s a gift and curse that I like baseball enough to keep doing this. I’m not super old by any stretch, but I’ve been around for a while, and hopefully I’ve pushed a button and I age in reverse, got all that stuff out of the way before I’m 30, and have some healthy years going forward.”
As noted, 2018 was not quite one of those years. Anderson did make 17 starts and threw 80.1 innings with a 4.48 ERA and 4.17 FIP en route to 0.9 WAR. He was roughed up in four May outings (7.63 ERA, 5.83 FIP) before missing seven weeks due to the shoulder strain, and scuffled similarly in four September turns (6.46 EA, 4.20 FIP) after returning from about a two-week absence due to ulnar nerve irritation. In between those two stretches, he really did find a groove. In nine starts totaling 49.2 innings in July and August, he pitched to a 2.90 ERA and 3.64 FIP, surrendering just four homers and six walks in that span. Overall, he generated his usual onslaught of groundballs (55.6%), set a career best with a 3.9% walk rate, and posted his best strikeout-to-walk differential since 2013 at 10.2%, just 0.6% below his career mark.
So again, there’s quality there, if he’s healthy. For his career, Anderson has averaged 2.2 WAR for every 150 innings pitched — a solidly above-average rate. Even at the modest level of 102 innings for which Steamer initially projected him (pre-signing, before he was added to the A’s depth chart), he was forecast to deliver 1.2 WAR, though that’s been dialed down to 0.7 WAR in 66 innings amid the early spring glut of pitchers whose fates are yet to be determined.
Anderson is just one of, like, 75 A’s starters returning from injury; as noted late last year, Oakland’s rotation came to resemble the dwindling cast of a horror movie, with four pitchers undergoing Tommy John surgery (Jharel Cotton, Kendall Graveman, Daniel Gossett, and A.J. Puk), one undergoing surgery to alleviate thoracic outlet syndrome (Andrew Triggs), and one getting arthroscopic shoulder surgery (staff ace Sean Manaea). The A’s, whose total of 15 starting pitchers used was tied for fourth in the majors, nonetheless won 97 games because they were creative and successful in working around those injuries, doing things like trading for Mike Fiers, bringing back Edwin Jackson from the edge of oblivion, using Liam Hendriks and Lou Trivino as openers, and bolstering an already-strong bullpen by adding Jeurys Familia, Shawn Kelley, and Fernando Rodney down the stretch. Throwing back to 2009 by using both Anderson and his fellow rookie/top prospect/future DL denizen from that season (when he was available) Trevor Cahill, was just another part of the plan.
This winter, the A’s have retained Fiers while adding free agent Marco Estrada (who wasn’t very good last year) to the mix, and they may yet bring back Transaction Jackson (whom Anderson stumped for). They can look forward to the debut of top prospect Jesus Luzardo (no. 27 on our piping hot Top 100 Prospects list) and the mid- to late-season returns of Puk (no. 40 on that list), Cotton, and Manaea, whom they initially feared would miss the entire season. Anderson is just another guy in a scrum that also includes Daniel Mengden, Chris Bassitt, Frankie Montas, Triggs, and Paul Blackburn. Projection-wise, the group ranks an unappealing 28th in our depth charts, though it’s worth remembering that even last year’s patchwork managed to be mid-pack in the AL. If Anderson is healthy, he’ll get his chance to pitch, though with so many options, he’s unlikely to last long if he’s not faring well. Here’s hoping he can take advantage of the opportunity.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.