The big news broke over the weekend, when the Cubs finally pulled Yu Darvish off the free-agent market. Not only is that good short-term news for the Cubs; it’s also bad short-term news for the Brewers and the Cardinals. It was, of course, expected for a while that the Cubs would eventually do something significant, but Darvish is about as significant as it was going to get. The division rivals already had needs, but the signing might’ve provoked a little greater urgency.
You can imagine the jokes when Monday morning brought news the Cardinals were signing Bud Norris. You might not actually need to imagine them — you might have authored some of them! It comes off as an uninspired response. Now, teams don’t actually need to make responses to other transactions. That’s just offseason narrative. And the Cardinals have already made an impact move in trading for Marcell Ozuna. It’s not like the Cardinals have been completely silent. But they haven’t made that Josh Donaldson-level move. They haven’t made that Manny Machado-level move. There’s impatience among the fan base, and the Darvish/Norris juxtaposition isn’t making anything feel any better.
I understand, in that Yu Darvish is analytically sexy. I understand, in that Bud Norris isn’t. Norris has never been a household name, nor has he been a particularly remarkable major-league pitcher. Let me put things differently, though. How would it feel if the Cardinals were instead signing Greg Holland? I have some tables to show you.
The Cardinals have actually been linked to Holland for some time, because Holland is a free-agent closer, and the Cardinals’ current closer is apparently Luke Gregerson. The rumors practically construct themselves. Holland is his own human being, with his own unique strengths and weaknesses. The same goes for Norris. If you had a conversation with one, and then you had a conversation with the other, you would presumably feel like you just had two very different conversations. When it comes to making baseball teams, though, front offices care about baseball performance. Behold, 2017 Bud Norris, and 2017 Greg Holland.
Holland was the full-season closer for the Rockies. Norris was a partial-season closer for the Angels. By strikeouts and walks, they were basically the same. Holland wound up with the advantage in ERA, while Norris wound up with the advantage in xFIP. Neither one of those is anything close to perfect. You might not think of Norris as being all that hard a thrower, but, working out of the bullpen, his fastball actually had a little extra, relative to Holland’s. Norris has got some gas in the tank.
From the overall perspective, similarities are evident. But if you followed the Rockies, you know Holland showed signs of wearing down. Norris had his own problems. Both pitchers were much stronger in the first half.
The second halves were…to put it charitably, they were uneven.
In Norris’ case, there’s seemingly a good explanation — he twice wound up on the disabled list with knee inflammation. No structural damage, but enough discomfort to knock his delivery out of order. It’s not too hard to forgive Norris for his stumbles, and he did manage to have an effective final month. In Holland’s case, there might also be a good explanation — it was his first year back after Tommy John surgery, and maybe he just experienced fatigue. It’s not too hard to forgive Holland for his stumbles, and he did also manage to have an effective final month. Neither pitcher was as bad as the second-half ERA, but both guys would like to get back to what they were earlier on.
Depending on your perspective, this post is either complimentary of Norris, or critical of Holland. One fair takeaway would be that I don’t consider Greg Holland elite. Holland, though, does deserve to throw important innings, and I believe Norris has also earned the opportunity. Their most recent seasons were similar, and then you get to thinking about their relative free agencies. Holland is looking for a multi-year commitment, and he already declined the Rockies’ qualifying offer. I don’t know what Holland will find, but he’s aiming pretty high. The Cardinals are giving Norris a one-year deal, presently pending a physical. It won’t be all that expensive, and there’s no additional compensation. Yes, Holland has the better long-term track record. But, how much does that matter? Why not see how Norris does for the first few months? There are always relievers available at the deadline, if necessary. And Norris is no longer the guy that he was.
For the first time in his big-league career, Norris went into 2017 as a reliever. And, for the first time in his big-league career, Norris in 2017 heavily featured a cutter around 90 miles per hour.
Here’s what a standard cutter looked like.
The cutter really started to emerge in 2016, but, this past year, Norris leaned on it even more, even making it his primary pitch. It missed bats and got grounders, and Norris threw his cutter more than he threw his four-seamer, sinker, and slider. Sometimes, when a pitcher introduces a new pitch, he can become a completely new guy, and that’s what’s piqued the Cardinals’ interest. Norris switched to full-time relief, and he switched to being a cutter-heavy pitcher. Based on what healthy Norris did earlier in 2017, moving forward he could have real upside.
Doesn’t mean he’s going to close. Doesn’t mean it’s going to work. Norris could get hurt again, or he could simply become ineffective. He’s a pitcher in his 30s with miles on his arm. But this is a cheap investment, and it’s an investment in a guy who’s turned himself into something brand new. I know the Cardinals are starting to hear it for their thrifty offseason approach. I know some fans would’ve felt better if the front office just made a bigger splash for Greg Holland. But, why sign Holland now, if Norris has a chance of being that kind of pitcher? You can always re-evaluate during the season. The Cardinals are good enough that they’re going to have time.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.