Oakland Athletics Are Taking a Big Risk With LHP Rich Hill Deal

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Chris Cotillo of MLB Daily Dish reported early Tuesday night that the Oakland Athletics were “one of the favorites” in the bidding for free agent left-hander Rich Hill. Later, Yahoo Sports columnist Jeff Passan confirmed the deal was a one-year, $6 million contract. Passan also said that Hill picked the A’s over teams offering more money because of the “guaranteed rotation spot” on the table.

Signing Hill is a big risk – not in terms of money, because while $6 million is a lot, it’s only for one year. The risk is that someone will have to go in order to make room for him both on the roster and in the rotation. If the A’s deal a pitcher to make room for Hill and he doesn’t work out, it could have major consequences on the rotation. The left-hander will be 36 years old next season, and he’s had a mixed bag of results. His 2016 season will be the 12th of his career, and he’s played for six teams during that time. He started 13 games in 2009, but from 2010-2014, he only made relief appearances at the major league level.

Last season, Hill made four starts for the Boston Red Sox, including a complete game. He pitched a total of 29 innings, posting a 1.55 ERA, with a 2.27 FIP. He also struck out 36 batters and walked just five. Those numbers are certainly impressive, but enough to warrant a guaranteed rotation spot? Hill also spent a portion of the year in independent league and has never signed a big contract, so it’s shocking that he got the amount of money that he did.

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This move likely means that another A’s starter is on their way out. The A’s did not really upgrade by adding Hill, but they did add a left-hander to the rotation, which will give them some variety. Passan also tweeted that other teams have inquired about the availability of Athletics’ pitcher Jesse Chavez, but it seems like replacing Chavez with Hill would be a very neutral move overall. If that’s the game plan, it’s an unusual one.

It calls into question what the front office’s strategy really is. David Forst mentioned that the A’s were seeking starting pitching help, but it seems hard to believe that what he meant by that comment was that they were seeking a 36-year-old reliever/starter with a career 4.30 FIP and 4.54 ERA. The A’s have had success with reclamation projects in the past, but this seems like an odd one.

Hill is not the talented pitcher that Scott Kazmir was before his injury and subsequent time in independent league baseball, and Hill has hardly been the model of consistency during his career. Yes, he had a 1.55 ERA in 2015 – but in 2014, he made 16 relief appearances and finished with a 3.38 ERA. The prior year in Cleveland, he made 63 appearances and posted a 6.28 ERA. Those results don’t add up. His 2015 season was incredible – but it’s hardly a big enough sample size to prove anything has changed.

His inconsistent results as a reliever don’t even take into account that he was even more mediocre as a starter. With the Chicago Cubs, he averaged a 4.37 ERA in 64 games and 57 starts over four years. In his year with the Baltimore Orioles, he had a 7.80 ERA over 13 starts in 14 games. The only good year he’s had as a major league starter came last season, in his four games with the Red Sox.

Given the A’s track record with this type of free agent pitcher, it makes sense that they’d want to give him a chance. However, if the A’s are serious about contending next season, there were probably better free agents in that price range that they could have targeted.

Next: What Could Josh Reddick's Contract Extension Look Like?

Unless the front office has a Part Two of this deal that has yet to be announced, it seems like a very strange move. Sure, Hill would have been a great depth signing – but a guaranteed rotation spot seems like an odd thing to give someone with his history. At any rate, expect the A’s to make a corresponding roster move before the signing becomes official – they’ll need to clear a 40-man roster spot for their acquisition. Hopefully, it will be the first of many moves this winter.

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