Astros fans should be used to the vampiric ways of GM Jeff Luhnow and the current cadre of front office operatives, since most moves of the past few seasons have been announced with about as much advance warning as spontaneous combustion. While other clubs seem rife with rumors, the Astros' baseball operations department seems determined to make sure that no ships sink on their watch.
And so, it is with glee that we have an actual rumor to discuss ad nauseum, at least until the acquisition of another backup catcher.
Tonight, Evan Drellich of the Houston Chronicle reported that the Astros, among other clubs, are checking in on free agent starting pitcher Jason Hammel.
While pausing to enjoy the fact that an actual Astros rumor leaked to argue about, it's fun to notice that this particular rumor is very "Astros," in the sense that Hammel is an under-the-radar pitcher. He's not Max Scherzer, James Shields, or Jon Lester. Heck, he's not even Ervin Santana, Francisco Liriano, or Brandon McCarthy. He's this year's Scott Feldman - a guy nobody talks about, but who might be a sneaky valuable signing.
Hammel, 32, broke into the big leagues in 2006 with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, but spent most of his career pitching in unfriendly Coors Field for the Rockies. After two seasons with the Orioles and two half-seasons with the Cubs and A's, his career ERA stands at a "meh" 4.60.
Cue the "underrated" part. Did I mention he pitched at Coors field for 25% of his career starts, for a 4.90 ERA, but had a 4.50 ERA elsewhere? Or that his career FIP stands at 4.27 (equivalent to Santana's), and that it was 3.92 last season and 3.43 in 2012?* Or that his HR/FB rate has stood higher than league average for two seasons, and should drop to more sustainable levels, further lowering his expected ERA? Or that he doesn't walk many people? Or that he struck out 22% of the batters he faced last year, only slightly fewer than Collin McHugh?
*full disclosure: Hammel's FIP was 4.93 during an elbow-injury-shortened 2013
Hammel throws from the right side, and boasts four- and two-seam fastballs that average 92 mph each. He compliments those pitches with a slider that was 7th-most valuable among qualified pitchers in the major leagues last season (1.21 runs created per 100 pitches). In the sense that he has one elite pitch, he resembles Dallas Keuchel, whose sinker was 4th-best fastball in the majors last year. If there's one thing we know about the Astros' pitching philosophy, it's that they like to identify what a pitcher does well and then do everything in their power to maximize that skill's effectiveness. Hammel has a devastating slider -- that's something the Astros may be able to work magic with.
Hammel makes sense for the Astros because he won't cost as much as the "big boys" on the Free Agent market but still stands to make a positive contribution at the back end of the Astros' rotation. Astros' 5th starters combined for 0.7 fWAR, and Hammel posted 1.7 by himself, very similar to last year's big FA addition, Scott Feldman.
But one could ask why the Astros think they need Hammel. If he posts 2 fWAR, is that enough of an upgrade over Peacock / Mike Foltynewicz / Alex White / Asher Wojciechowski / Rudy Owens, Jake Buchanan / Whoever that he would be worth a Feldman-sized contract? Certainly, Hammel signing with the Astros would preclude any of those pitchers from getting any sizeable look during the 2015 season, barring injury or trade, since the other four starting spots are locked down by Keuchel, McHugh, Feldman, and Brett Oberholtzer.
On the other hand, if the Astros believe that Peacock won't recover from his injury and is ready to take the next step in his career, or if they don't project Foltynewicz or the others as starters ready for their big break, then perhaps Hammel makes a good addition by giving the Astros five starters who are very clearly above-average.
But maybe they do believe that those guys have a future, and they're just kicking Hammel's tires for "due diligence," to see if they can score a below-market deal on a very good pitcher.
Either way, it's fun to talk about potential off-season moves.