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The Case for Rich Hill

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World Series - Boston Red Sox v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Four Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Reports are that the Dodgers, the most obvious suitor for Bryce Harper, are looking to shed some of their hefty contracts in order to make the Harper price tag less crippling. Although names like Puig and Kemp have dominated the rumors, Rich Hill is a with tremendous appeal, especially for a team like the Astros.

Everybody reading this blog knows that the Astros lost 3/5 of their starting rotation from 2018. The two at the top are still there: fireballing righties named Verlander and Cole. And Luhnow and Hinch have both talked as though Colin McHugh, a rotation stalwart from 2014-2016, will be given every chance to head back to the rotation in 2019. The three year stretch that McHugh put up, as well as the form and poise he showed out of the BP last year, should give Astro fans a great deal of comfort. As should the competition for the 5th starter spot, with Josh James being the most likely candidate.

The one glaring need is a pitcher to slot between the top and the middle/bottom of the rotation (peak McHugh is a #3 starter on a playoff team). The Astros don’t need an innings eater: they have two horses, and McHugh averaged 30 starts/season during his peak. Plus they have guys on the 40 man and in the BP (Valdez, Peacock, Armentreros) who would easily start on at least 20 teams. Given that 3 AL West teams project to be below mediocre, and the entire AL Central seems to be tanking), the Astros should be focused on rounding out a roster with an already strong core so that it’s positioned to take down the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, or Athletics in the playoffs?

Luhnow and co. should think long and hard about Rich Hill. At first glance, this might seem odd. Hill, after all, is famously fragile. The last time he started more than 25 games was in 2007! He’ll be 39 in March, and he’s getting paid 18 million next year according to Spotrac. Here’s the case for Hill: he has elite swing/miss stuff. His K rate over the past three seasons reads as follows: 29.4%/ 30.1% / 27.4%. His K/9 was 17th of 99 pitchers last year with more than 130 IP. That’s elite, that’s higher than McCullers and Walker Buhler. And although Hill hasn’t been a work horse, he has been consistent, keeping ERA/FIP/xFIP under 4 each of the past three seasons, while making between 20 and 25 starts, and throwing between 110 and 140 IP. Steamer is a bit optimistic, projecting 28 starts, 159 IP, and 2.8 WAR.

What matters most, however, is not how many regular season starts Hill makes, but whether he’s ready in the post season. And the Dodges have managed HIll to make sure that’s the case. In 2018 postseason he threw in 4 games, starting 3. Overall he had a 2.16 ERA in 16.2 IP, including a dominant effort for naught against the Red Sox (his one ER came from an inherited walk in the 7th). In 2017 he made 4 starts, and had a 2.55 ERA over 17.2 IP. In 2016 he threw 13 IP over 3 starts, and had a 3.46 ERA. Playoff Rich Hill is both really good and quite healthy. And his body and arm are unquestionably tuned to working in October.

Let’s say if you’re still reading that you’re convinced that Hill is worth the money and that he makes the Astros a more dangerous playoff team. What about the prospect cost? The thing with salary dumps, even of good players, is that they largely offset the prospect cost. Rich Hill has value for only a few teams with flexibility to spend on a one-year rental. He’ll be 40 going into 2020, and the Dodgers know he won’t fetch a comp pick. Given their bullpen status, I imagine they’d be interested in a cheap BP option (Dean Deetz?) and maybe a higher leverage arm further away (Christian Javier). I doubt Hill would fetch C Perez or Bukauskas. I would in any case give up Cionel Perez for one year of Rich Hill. And I’d much rather Hill than Gio Gonzales or Drew Pomeranz.