If Matt Silverman turns into one of the most renowned executives in baseball, this will be a good trivia answer to know: the first player he ever signed was Michael Kohn. Friedman signed Kohn to a major league contract for an undisclosed amount (presumably not far above the league minimum) on October 15, 2014.
The move was very strange because according to the MLB.com transaction page, it was the only instance of a team signing a player to a major league contract between August 23rd (Rusney Castillo) and November 5th (Jake Elmore). While everyone else was making a few procedural moves and watching the postseason, Silverman was signing a potential impact reliever just one day after taking over as the Tampa Bay Rays’ President of Baseball Operations.
Kohn was available at such a strange time because the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim had designated him for assignment on September 2nd and he had elected free agency on September 8th. In 2014 for the Angels, Kohn actually managed a strong 3.04 ERA, but only with a poor 26-20 strikeout to walk ratio in 23.2 innings pitched. His strikeout to walk ratio in the big leagues was also much more indicative of his performance at Triple-A as he put up a 4.76 ERA and a 33-27 strikeout to walk ratio in 34 innings for Triple-A Salt Lake.
One look at the statistics tells you that walks were Kohn’s problem, and that was not anything new. He entered 2014 with 5.5 walks per 9 innings in his 86.2 major league frames, and he currently has a 4.4 BB/9 in the minors that goes up to 5.0 at Triple-A. Why were the Rays giving a major league contract to a player with such terrible control? There are two explanations: Kohn’s stuff, and his previous performance despite his wildness.
Control issues are the reason why so many talented pitchers never pan out. However, in many cases, you would rather have a pitcher with poor control and an electric arsenal than one with unimpressive stuff and a decent idea of where the ball is going. The Rays have proven time and again that they can fix relief pitchers that everyone else has given up on, and they saw in Kohn a chance to get an effective bullpen arm if they could just make a few tweaks.
Kohn’s fastball averaged 95.38 MPH in 2014, and his slider has shown promise in the past as well. He had the type of stuff to be a late-inning arm if the Rays could turn his control around entirely and a useful middle reliever if the Rays could help him throw just a passable amount of strikes. For slightly over the league minimum, that type of pitcher was a worthwhile signing.
Beyond the theoretical aspect, the hard evidence that Michael Kohn could be a solid big league reliever stemmed from his 2013 season for the Angels. Kohn’s control was poor then as well as he walked 4.8 batters per 9 innings, but even that was enough for him to post a 3.74 ERA across 63 appearances and 53 innings pitched. Granted, his FIP was 4.56, not exactly inspiring hope for the future, but Kohn has proven that he can achieve some measure of success even if he’s walking too many hitters.
Kohn now has logged three seasons with over 20 big league innings and has managed an ERA under 3.75 in each one despite walking at least 4.8 batters per 9 innings. He was wild, but effectively wild, and you could do worse do have a guy like that in your bullpen. The most important thing to remember, though, is that these were Kohn’s numbers as the Angels’ efforts to fix him proved unfruitful. If the Rays could achieve even a minor breakthrough with Kohn’s control, his upside was significant.
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However, now we are up to the harder part of the story to explain: why did the Rays go through all the effort of signing Kohn only to designate him assignment on November 20th? The first thing to note is that contracts for players with such little service time are non-guaranteed, so it is not as though the Rays threw $550,000 or $600,000 down the drain by letting Kohn go. However, if Kohn was a promising enough reclamation project that the Rays gave him a major league deal, why did they DFA him while keeping others like Brandon Gomes and Steve Geltz?
What changed between October 16th and November 20th was that the Rays acquired Jose Dominguez from the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Joel Peralta trade. Dominguez was an even higher-upside pitcher than Kohn with a fastball reaching 100 MPH.
By November 26th, they had also signed Ernesto Frieri, a move they presumably had some idea they would do when they let Kohn leave. The Rays had two more talented options for their bullpen mix, reducing the value of having a pitcher like Kohn around. Given that he was also making more money than pitchers like Gomes and Geltz, and made sense to designate him for assignment.
Silverman and the Rays would have loved for Michael Kohn to elect free agency and then re-sign with the team on a minor league deal. When we think about the situation for a second, though, it certainly makes sense that the accumulation of arms that allowed the Rays to DFA Kohn was also a reason for him to sign elsewhere.
The fact that Kohn will head to spring training in 2015 with the Atlanta Braves instead of the Tampa Bay has little to do with what the Rays think of his abilities. They believed that he was a worthwhile risk, but they changed their minds about signing him because they found better alternatives and had no reason to spend extra money on an unnecessary player. All the Rays can do now is wish him the best of luck in Atlanta and see whether they made the right choice as they let him depart.