Transaction Roundup: On Pitching Moves Most(ly) Minor

Last week brought with it a flurry of relatively minor pitching deals — the sort that weren’t enough to divert the industry from the apparently never-ending saga of bigger stars left unsigned, and which are fairly typical of this time of year. Here they are:

  • The Orioles signed 31-year-old Nate Karns to a one-year deal worth $800,000, with an additional $200,000 possible in incentives.
  • Cleveland signed 32-year-old Alex Wilson to a minor league deal that could be worth $1.25 million in guaranteed money and an additional $750,000 in incentives should Wilson make the squad out of spring training.
  • The Diamondbacks signed 36-year-old Ricky Nolasco and 33-year-old Marc Rzepczynski to minor league deals and invited both to join big league spring training. Rzepczynski’s deal could be worth $1.5 million guaranteed if he makes the team, with $500,000 in incentives besides. The terms of Nolasco’s deal have not yet been reported.
  • Lastly, the Royals inked 33-year-old Homer Bailey to a minor-league deal with an invite to spring training; they did not disclose the terms of the deal.

Bailey’s probably the best-known of the names on that list, but I also think he’s among the least likely to accomplish much in 2019. You may recall that, earlier this winter, Bailey played the part of “salary offset” in the deal that sent Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig, and Alex Wood to Cincinnati. So underwhelming was his 2018 — in which he allowed 23 home runs in just over 106 innings pitched — that even the Dodgers’ brass, who stash spare pitchers in their overcoats when they’re just going around the corner for a gallon of milk, released Bailey immediately upon his arrival in Los Angeles. He was in blue and white for less than 20 minutes. In Kansas City, he’ll join Brad Keller and Jakob Junis in the Royals’ rotation and work to find a second wind.

Nate Karns — another 30-something with success in his past and a terrible team in his present — has always been a little bit interesting for his ability to keep the ball on the ground with a four-pitch mix that features a two-seamer, a curveball, a change-up, and a heavy sinking fastball. The big question at the moment is how he’ll recover from the thoracic outlet surgery that ended his 2017 season near the end of May of that year, and kept him off the field for the entirety of 2018. Before the injury, Karns was carrying a terrific 50% groundball rate and 27% strikeout rate for the Royals — both improvements on his already-solid 2016 for the Mariners and in line with his 27 and 23% strikeout rates during his heyday with the Rays in 2014-15.

Karns going to Baltimore, which is under new management, is probably good news for everybody involved. Karns, obviously, would like the opportunity to prove that he is healthy and can return to being the quality big-league starter he has already been at various points throughout his career. The Orioles would like that too — Karns has one year of arbitration left, and the Orioles will still need rotation help in 2020. Alternatively, depending on the state of the trade market next summer or the summer thereafter, Karns could be traded to a contender in exchange for some area of need for Baltimore. That, too, would presumably be welcome news for Karns.

I already wrote a little bit about Cleveland’s bullpen situation in my writeup of the Óliver Pérez deal last month, so I won’t say much more about the Wilson deal except what I said then:

Pérez is a good pitcher and Cleveland needs a few of those. He had a terrific season in 2018 and there is reason to believe, despite his 16 seasons in the major leagues, that he has more left in the tank. He’ll be best served if the front office goes out and gets more arms to take some of the strain off of, say, him and Brad Hand, but if he pitches like he did last year, he’ll be useful anyway.

Alex Wilson, apparently, is one of the arms destined to take the strain off of Óliver Pérez and Brad Hand. He was remarkably consistent for the Tigers during his last four years in Detroit, posting a 3.20 ERA and a 2.77 K/BB ratio over 264.2 innings pitched. Importantly, too, he’s demonstrated an ability to throw in different roles: over the course of his career, he’s pitched 50.1 innings in the sixth, 84.1 in the seventh, 97 in the 8th, and 54.1 in the ninth or later. The question, then, is whether the Tigers’ decision to non-tender him this winter was due to some concern about his future not visible to external observers or simply a consequence of the cost-cutting ethos that seems to have overtaken Detroit. I suspect it’s the latter, and like this pickup for Cleveland.

As for Rzepczynski and Nolasco, it’s hard to get too worked up about those deals either way. The Diamondbacks’ bullpen wasn’t outright terrible last year, though it certainly had room for improvement with a 4.08 collective FIP, and Rzepczynski is second bit of the two-part bullpen improvement plan that started with Arizona signing Greg Holland. He got beat up pretty badly between Seattle, Cleveland, and Triple-A last year (an 8.25 ERA in 12 minor-league innings!), so I’m not sure how well that’ll work out, but given his past success against lefties (he’s held them to a .227/.296/.305 career line), it’s worth a shot. Nolasco, too, had some good years for the Twins once upon a dream, but didn’t pitch in the majors last year and will struggle to win a rotation spot this year. These are the kinds of deals you make at the end of the winter, when spring seems close at hand and the snow just days away from melting.

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Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs based in Seattle. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he works with communities around the world to end homelessness.

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Not a FA signing but the Indians also traded for Nick Wittgren last week. Didn’t see it mentioned on this page probably because it was a pretty minor deal. Anyway, the Indians seem to be stockpiling bullpen arms, hoping that a few of them will work out.