The Biggest Free-Agent Bargain Still Out There

Thanks to the fact that MLB teams have put their wallets away this winter, we’ve seen some surprisingly low prices for remaining free agents of late. Jason Hammel signed for 2/$16M, significantly less than my 2/$24M forecast and well below the crowd’s 3/$36M estimate. Sergio Romo got 1/$3M, when I had him at 3/$18M and the crowd had him down for 2/$14M. Both the crowd and myself had Mike Napoli at 2/$20M; he’s getting 1/$8.5M instead. The February free-agent signings aren’t finding a lot of money, and the rest of the remaining free agents are mostly just hoping to find jobs.

So for teams looking to fill out their roster with flawed-but-maybe-useful role players, there are some bargains to still be found. Joe Blanton will likely be a solid reliever for someone next year, and seems unlikely to get a big contract at this point. Pedro Alvarez could help a number of teams as the left-handed portion of a DH platoon and will probably find work. Chase Utley, Angel Pagan, and Adam Lind all still look like useful bench players, and will probably not cost a lot to fill those roles. But if I had some money left in my budget and was looking for the most value I could get, I wouldn’t sign any of those guys.

I’d sign Jorge de la Rosa.

de la Rosa is going to throw for scouts on Friday in an effort to drum up some interest, because, to this point, there hasn’t been much. The last time MLBTradeRumors linked to a story about him was January 15th, and the story was that the Rockies aren’t interested in re-signing him. The story before that was on December 7th, and just noted that the Pirates had done some “due diligence” background work on him, which most teams do on every player at a position they’re looking to fill. So we’re now at two months and counting without anything resembling a public rumor surrounding de la Rosa.

It’s not too hard to see why interest has been limited. The 2016 season was his worst in a decade, with pretty much every metric by which you want to evaluate a pitcher going the wrong way. He’s a back-end starter who lost a tick and a half on his fastball last year, and given that de la Rosa turns 36-years-old right after Opening Day, you’re not exactly looking at a traditional upside play here. It’s really easy to look at his numbers and his birthdate and decide that time has caught up to the guy.

But I think there are real reasons to be interested in putting de la Rosa on your pitching staff, and perhaps even being excited about that possibility. For one, despite the velocity loss and the poor results, the way hitters reacted to de la Rosa’s pitches weren’t actually all that different from prior seasons.

Plate Discipline Numbers
Season Team O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone%
2007 Royals 24% 66% 44% 71% 90% 85% 48%
2008 Rockies 28% 63% 45% 58% 86% 77% 48%
2009 Rockies 31% 59% 44% 57% 86% 76% 47%
2010 Rockies 31% 62% 46% 55% 87% 75% 47%
2011 Rockies 30% 62% 45% 51% 86% 73% 47%
2012 Rockies 41% 65% 52% 70% 82% 76% 46%
2013 Rockies 30% 64% 46% 65% 87% 79% 46%
2014 Rockies 29% 67% 46% 60% 89% 79% 45%
2015 Rockies 34% 66% 48% 60% 86% 75% 43%
2016 Rockies 31% 63% 45% 59% 88% 77% 43%

That 77% contact rate put him in the same group as Chris Sale, Jake Arrieta, and Stephen Strasburg. Jon Lester and Jacob deGrom are at 78%. Over the last three years, he has the same contact rate as David Price.

The big disturbing trend here is the lack of pitches in the strike zone, but hitters mostly swung at (and made contact with) his pitches at about the same rate as they have for most of his career. The stuff was worse, and the results on contact were much worse — his .410 wOBA allowed on batted balls was the worst mark of his career, and way up from the .365 mark he allowed in 2015 — but he still missed bats at about the same rate as he always has, he still got ground balls, and he was one infield fly away from tying his career high for pop-ups induced. This profile doesn’t look like one belonging to a guy who is just completely incapable of getting big-league hitters out anymore.

Of course, the strike-throwing problem is a legitimate issue, and probably one of the reasons why no one has signed up to put de la Rosa in their rotation yet. Because he is often pitching behind in the count, he runs up his pitch count early, and was only able to average a little over five innings per start last year. Even at his best, he’s a guy who puts a strain on your bullpen, and teams generally prefer their not-great veteran starters to at least be innings-eaters, but de la Rosa’s command doesn’t really let him fit that role.

So instead of signing de la Rosa to serve as a short-stint No. 5 starter, I’d look at adding de la Rosa as an interesting multi-inning reliever instead.

According to a Ken Rosenthal column from December, this is a role he’s willing to embrace.

Free-agent left-hander Jorge De La Rosa has expanded his market by informing clubs that he is willing to work as a multi-inning reliever. De La Rosa, who will pitch next season at 36, is coming off a poor season, but finished his Rockies career with a respectable 4.29 ERA at Coors Field. He has experience pitching in relief — 65 appearances, albeit with a 4.96 ERA — and could be an interesting buy-low proposition for a team seeking bullpen help.

Rosenthal notes that de la Rosa has pitched in relief before, but didn’t mention that he actually served this role for three games last year, and that they were his three best outings of the season.

On May 25th, Walt Weiss announced that de la Rosa was being moved out of the rotation, since he wasn’t performing like the team had expected to that point. Here’s what he did in the three games immediately after the team moved him to relief work.

de la Rosa in Relief
5/28/16 2 7 2 0 0 0 0 1
6/1/16 2 7 1 1 1 1 0 4
6/9/16 4 12 0 0 0 0 0 5
Total 8 26 3 1 1 1 0 10

For three outings, de la Rosa was spectacular; he faced 26 batters and got 24 outs. More interestingly, hitters made contact on just 63% of their swings, so even though he still didn’t throw strikes — his Zone% in those three outings was that same 43% — he didn’t walk anyone, since he was more regularly pitching ahead in the count. In those eight innings as a multi-inning reliever, he generated 10 strikeouts, a 38.5% strikeout rate that would have ranked sixth best in baseball if it came in a full-season sample.

Of course, this is all from an absurdly small sample size, because the Rockies promptly put de la Rosa right back in the rotation instead of seeing if his recent dominance could make him a dynamite reliever the rest of the year, even as the Rockies ran out one of baseball’s worst bullpens. And once back in the rotation, de la Rosa went right back to being lousy, striking out just one of the 20 batters he faced in his first game back as a starter.

It’s pretty unlikely that de la Rosa was going to keep pitching like a left-handed Craig Kimbrel had the Rockies left him in the bullpen, but the early returns on his move to relief work couldn’t have been more positive. And given that he’s apparently interested in pitching in that role again, I’d be quite interested in seeing what he can do given the opportunity. The idea is especially interesting for a team that might handle their staff differently.

There are a number of teams with poor rotations who can’t realistically expect to get depth from even their best starters, but could experiment with a different model of pitching changes to improve their overall results from a weak group of arms. As mentioned in that piece about the Marlins, having a bridge arm to go multiple innings two or three times per week could allow weak starters to be removed before they let a game get out of control without burning through the one-inning relievers from overuse.

In that article, I referenced David Phelps as a bridge option for the Marlins, and Phelps wasn’t any better than de la Rosa has been as a starter before the move to the bullpen made him one of the game’s best relievers last year. Brad Hand, who Jeff discussed on Tuesday, also made a similar conversion from mediocre starter to really good reliever. The aforementioned Joe Blanton had a career revival after washing out as a back-end starter. Oliver Perez also made the transformation from starter who doesn’t throw enough strikes to very good reliever, though he’s been a bit more of a lefty specialist.

The nice thing about de la Rosa is he wouldn’t have to serve as a left-on-left guy. His best pitch has always been his splitter, which historically is a pitch with a minimal platoon split, and if de la Rosa does get a velocity boost from pitching in shorter stints, his fastball would likely play up against right-handers, as well. And since he’s already said he’s open to the role, this isn’t something with which you’d have to force him to be comfortable.

An aging veteran at the end of his career is the perfect kind of guy with whom to experiment, since you’re not pigeonholing a promising prospect in a relief role, or potentially messing with a young arm’s development. And if de la Rosa takes to the role and pitches well in it, his value could skyrocket at the trade deadline, as there is always demand for contenders looking to add quality left-handed relievers, and adding in a guy who could pitch multiple innings would only enhance his value.

If the experiment doesn’t work, well, de la Rosa still projects as not-terrible rotation depth. Steamer has him producing +1.3 WAR if given 150 innings as a starter next year, while ZIPS is even more optimistic, putting him at +1.8 WAR in 130 innings, thinking he still might be a league-average starter even despite his poor 2016 season. These are better forecasts for his work in the rotation than Jason Hammel got, for instance, and everyone thought Hammel was a bargain at $16 million in guaranteed money. de la Rosa probably doesn’t even get a third of that, and combined with the chance to see what he might be in relief work, he could be an even better gamble.

If you’re a Major League GM sitting on a few million dollars at this point, you might not have a better way to invest it than by putting de la Rosa in your bullpen and letting him take a shot at the Andrew Miller-in-October role. If it doesn’t work, you’re out a few million dollars, but you still have a not-terrible sixth or seventh starter who can pitch long relief and make some spot starts as necessary.

At best, though, there are reasons to think de la Rosa could be a very interesting option out of the bullpen, especially if he takes to a role that lets him throw something closer to 80 or 90 innings, like Hand and Phelps did last year. If the conversion works, de la Rosa could end up being a very important part of some contender’s October bullpen.

Jorge de la Rosa, Relief Ace. It’s worth a shot.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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7 years ago

As a Nats fan, I’d rather take a shot on him than Enny Romero…