Still Seeking Starters, the Dodgers Sign Cole Hamels for the Stretch Run

You can’t have too much pitching, and despite boasting arguably the majors’ deepest rotation in the spring, the Dodgers are depleted enough to continue hunting for reinforcements even after their big pickups at the trade deadline. Just hours before they took the wraps off marquee acquisition Max Scherzer, they added another well-decorated 37-year-old hurler to their reserve, signing free agent lefty Cole Hamels to an incentive-based one-year deal in hopes that he can help to offset their various injuries, absences, and workload concerns.

Mind you, there are no guarantees with 37-year-old arms, and that’s especially true for Hamels, a four-time All-Star and World Series MVP who is working to put his own recent string of injuries behind him. He’s pitched in just one game since the end of the 2019 season, and the second half of that campaign was a slog. On the strength of an improved changeup, Hamels posted a 2.98 ERA and 3.59 FIP in his first 99.2 innings for the Cubs in 2019, but left his June 28 start with an oblique strain. After missing five weeks, he struggled to regain his velocity and deception, getting hit for a 5.79 ERA and 5.29 FIP in 10 starts upon returning, and he made just one start after September 16 due to shoulder fatigue. Still, he finished with a 3.81 ERA, 4.09 FIP and 2.4 WAR, the last two marks his best since 2016.

After reportedly drawing interest from 13 teams, Hamels signed a one-year, $18 million deal with the Braves in December 2019, but by the time he reported to camp in mid-February, he was already ailing, having irritated his shoulder while doing weighted ball exercises as part of his winter workouts. He was behind schedule before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down spring training. About a week before camps reopened, the Braves reported that Hamels was throwing pain free and expected to be ready to start the shortened season, but by mid-July, he was sidelined by triceps tendinitis, deemed unlikely for Opening Day, and placed on the 45-day Injured List the day before the season began. When he finally made his first appearance, on September 16, he lasted just 3.1 innings and 52 pitches, allowing three runs. Before he could take his next turn, he was placed on the 10-day IL with shoulder fatigue, and that was all she wrote.

A free agent again, Hamels reportedly drew the interest of several teams as of December, but nothing materialized before the season began. As of mid-June, he continued to build up strength throwing off a mound, but it wasn’t until July 16 that he finally threw a showcase. Representatives from 20 teams attended, but with attention focused on the July 30 trade deadline, Hamels didn’t sign anywhere until Wednesday.

His deal with the Dodgers isn’t a bank-breaker, guaranteeing Hamels a $1 million base salary (the prorated share of $3.05 million) plus $200,000 for every start or relief appearance of 3.1 innings or longer (terms updated via this AP report); additionally, he has agreed to accept an optional assignment to the minors, and the Dodgers have agreed to recall him no later than September 2. With the team already nearly $65 million past the $210 million Competitive Balance Tax threshold, and nearly $25 million past the third tier threshold, they’ll pay a surtax on his salary. They won’t get a ton of innings from him, as Hamels is first headed to the team’s spring training facility in Arizona. He’s scheduled to throw a two-inning simulated game on Saturday, and to be built up to a starter’s pitch count. The Dodgers don’t need a fifth starter until August 14 agains the Mets, but Hamels would probably have to dazzle in order to make even an abbreviated start in that game.

It’s too early to know how exactly he’ll fit into the Dodgers’ revamped rotation, which currently includes Scherzer (who dazzled in his debut, a seven-inning, 10-strikeout performance against the Astros, bookended by whiffs of Jose Altuve and Chas McCormick, the latter drawing a curtain call), Walker Buehler, Julio Urías, David Price, and a big ol’ TBD. The team lost Dustin May to Tommy John surgery in May, and in the past week placed Tony Gonsolin to the 10-day IL due to shoulder inflammation and traded top pitching prospect Josiah Gray, who had made two appearances, to the Nationals in the Scherzer deal.

The Dodgers don’t know yet when Clayton Kershaw, who has not pitched in a game since July 3 due to forearm inflammation, will return from the IL, and they have worked to distance themselves from Trevor Bauer, who hasn’t pitched for them since June 28 in the wake of sexual assault allegations. Kershaw
had worked his way back to the point of throwing a three-inning simulated game on July 27. The Dodgers hoped he could be ready as soon as this weekend, but he’s now experiencing what manager Dave Roberts termed “residual soreness,” putting his next sim start on hold. Bauer remains on administrative leave through August 6 in connection with two separate investigations, a criminal one by the Pasadena Police Department, and an MLB one in connection with its joint domestic violence policy. His leave is expected to be extended given that his next hearing concerning a temporary restraining order was postponed from July 23 to August 16. Last week, the Los Angeles Times‘ Mike DiGiovanna reported that “a majority of players do not want Bauer back under any circumstances.”

The Dodgers do have one other potential starter waiting in the wings in lefty Danny Duffy, who was acquired from the Royals on July 29. He hasn’t pitched since July 16 due to a flexor strain, however, and isn’t expected back before September. Whether as a starter or multi-inning reliever, he’s not expected to carry a huge workload, but with Urías having already set a career high for innings (129.2), and Price coming off a season in which he opted out due to the pandemic, anybody who can offer a slice of quality innings is welcome.

Hence the signing of Hamels, who in addition to getting a chance to pitch close to home (he’s a San Diego native) is hoping to prolong an impressive career during which he’s won 163 games, struck out 2,560 hitters, and helped teams to eight playoff appearances highlighted by his winning NLCS and World Series MVP honors for the 2008 Phillies. With his time away, the major round-numbered milestones and an outside shot at the Hall of Fame (he’s 13.4 points short of the JAWS standard for starting pitchers) may be out of reach unless he musters some late-career staying power:

Most Strikeouts by Southpaws 37 & Older Since 2000
Player Years Age IP W bWAR SO
Randy Johnson 2001-2009 37-45 1636.2 124 43.2 1835
Jamie Moyer 2000-2012 37-49 2145.2 151 22.3 1277
David Wells 2000-2007 37-44 1362.0 98 20.4 791
Kenny Rogers 2002-2008 37-43 1253.1 87 18.6 653
Tom Glavine 2003-2008 37-42 1068.2 63 15.1 553
Rich Hill 2017-2021 37-41 471.0 35 6.1 515
Chuck Finley 2000-2002 37-39 522.1 35 6.3 459
Andy Pettitte 2009-2013 37-41 584.1 41 10.4 446
Al Leiter 2003-2005 37-39 496.2 32 7.6 353
Darren Oliver 2008-2013 37-42 363.1 24 9.0 314
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Even without such accomplishments, another championship would probably suffice for Hamels. With the playoff-bound Dodgers, he’ll get a shot at that — if he can stay healthy.

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, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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Ruben Amaro Jr.
2 years ago

THIS is the kind of player who will help you win it all.

2 years ago

I miss Ruben 🙁

The Rockies FO might be worse, but ripping them just doesn’t have the same sparkle

Dick Monfort
2 years ago
Reply to  proiste

Our FO was the worse. That’s why I decided we’d be better off without one.