Other than Cole Hamels, who the Tampa Bay Rays could never afford, there are no quality starting pitchers available on the market. We have been discussing various depth options the last few weeks, but all of them are far closer to temporary fill-ins than permanent options. That may exactly what the Rays are looking for–after all, they are optimistic that Alex Cobb, Drew Smyly, and Alex Colome will all return before April is through.
Finally, though, there is a pitcher who could interest them if they are looking for someone with the ability to be better than that. The Colorado Rockies recently released 27-year-old right-hander Jhoulys Chacin following a 2014 ruined by a shoulder injury and continued problems regaining his velocity. There are certainly red flags that come with Chacin, but he could be a risk worth taking.
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In 2011, Jhoulys Chacin went 11-14 with a 3.62 ERA in 194 innings for the Rockies. Then, in 2013, he went 14-10 with a 3.47 ERA in 197.1 innings. If those numbers don’t impress you, remember that he put up those numbers while pitching his home games in the notoriously hitter-friendly Coors Field. According to ERA+, Chacin’s ERA was 26% better than league average in Coors in 2011 and 29% better in 2013. For some perspective, Alex Cobb’s 2.87 ERA was 30% better than the average in Tropicana Field in 2014.
On the other hand, Chacin has never been as overpowering as those numbers might indicate. He has not struck out 7.0 batters per 9 innings since 2011, winding up at 6.0 or below the last three years. He has always done a good job keeping the ball down with his low-90’s fastball, but he has always been better at that than throwing strikes as he has often walked too many batters.
Even at his best, Chacin usually threw his four-seam fastball in the 90-92 MPH range and his sinker a tick or two below that. His slider has always been his best secondary pitch and that has persisted, but the league has adjusted to his other offerings. Chacin’s whiff rate on his slider has stayed relatively constant, but his swing-and-miss rate on both his changeup and curveball has gone down every single year he has been in the major leagues.
In his limited time in ballparks equipped with Pitch F/X this spring, Jhoulys Chacin averaged just 88.34 MPH with his fastball, with each of his other pitches being 3 to 5 MPH below his career averages. That isn’t as concerning as it would be if Chacin had thrown in the mid-90’s previously, but Chacin also averaged just 89.22 MPH with his four-seamer and 88.32 MPH with his sinker in his ineffective 2014. Is his lost velocity enough to end his career as a major league starter if it doesn’t return?
Chacin has much to prove as he hopes to move past his shoulder injuries, but he still looks like a worthwhile pickup as the Rays deal with their depth issues. If the Rockies were willing to release Chacin, his issues must be pretty serious, and he may be available to say a minor league contract with a base salary of $1.5 million and some amount more in incentives if he makes it to the major leagues. The Rays could also hope that Chacin would prefer them because of their track record of “fixing” pitchers.
If they sign him, Rays could start Chacin in minor league camp and then have him begin 2015 at Triple-A Durham. He was already building up his arm strength with the Rockies, and then the Rays could give him a few more starts to help him complete that process and determine whether he is worthy of a spot in their rotation. The Rays don’t need a fifth starter until April 14th, so that would be the first opportunity for Chacin to be called up if he was ready.
What if Chacin pitches well? What will the Rays do when all of their starters come back? That seems like it should be a concern, but it is almost entirely irrelevant. If Chacin pitches well, then Alex Colome could go to the bullpen when he returns and the Rays could have a rotation of Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, Drew Smyly, Jake Odorizzi, and Chacin.
Matt Moore will eventually return, but by then, it will be June or July and trade season already. Chacin would certainly be easier to trade than Erik Bedard in this dream scenario, and the Rays may keep Chacin because of another injury anyway. May the Rays’ worst problem be “too many talented starting pitchers.”
If someone was willing to offer Jhoulys Chacin a major league deal, that might make things more complicated for the Rays. He is an interesting pitcher, but would they be willing to designate someone for assignment to take a risk on him? Given the nature of Chacin’s release, the answer to that question could easily be no.
Luckily for the Rays, Chacin’s injuries and velocity loss may prevent anyone from giving him a major league deal. A cheap one is certainly not out of the question from someone, but even then, a good minor league offer from the Rays would be competitive given the opportunity they can give Chacin and their reputation for helping pitchers bounce back. If the Rays think that Chacin still has something to give to a major league rotation, they will be among the favorites to sign him.