Last night, I dug into John Axford as a possible bullpen target for the Chicago Cubs. Conclusion? Although he’s had a couple down years, there are reasons to believe those down years present an opportunity to buy low and enjoy a bounce back (as opposed to presenting a dude who is simply done, and should be left behind).
The short version on the next rumored relief target for the Cubs? Pretty much the same.
The Cubs, among other teams, are suitors for free agent reliever Joba Chamberlain, according to Mark Feinsand. Chamberlain, 28, has had an extremely mixed history in his time with the Yankees, having been a top prospect, a shut-down reliever, and then something of a pariah.
From 2007 to 2011, Chamberlain posted a 121 ERA+ over 382 innings in New York. He struck out 9.1 per 9 innings, walking 3.5 and allowing 0.8 homers (again, per 9 innings). In the last two years, those numbers are just an 87 ERA+ in 62.2 innings, 8.6 K/9, 4.6 BB/9, and 1.6 HR/9. He made $1.875 million last year, and the Yankees have decided to let him walk in free agency.
So, is he really worth a look?
First things first: in 2011, Chamberlain had Tommy John surgery, and in 2012, he dislocated his ankle (on a trampoline with his kids). If you’re looking for a quick and dirty explanation on his last two years of struggles, look no further. That’s obviously not an endorsement, though you can envision how a guy could be more recovered from those issues two years later, as opposed to just one.
When he’s been on the mound, Chamberlain has seen his groundball rate steadily decline over the last three years, from a lofty 59.7% in 2011, to 45.3% in 2012, and 41.5% in 2013.
It should be no surprise, then, given the nature of Yankee Stadium, that Chamberlain has been absolutely blasted at home over the last two years (.878 OPS against in 2013, .985 in 2012) while pitching much better on the road (.756, .686). His elevated walk rate (13.1% in 2013, which is inexcusably high – but much higher than previously in his career) has done him no favors, but it’s entirely possible that Chamberlain would see an uptick in his effectiveness just getting out of Yankee Stadium. (Then again, of the 11 homers he’s given up in the last two years, 6 were at home and 5 were on the road. Not a huge difference.)
As was the case with Axford, there hasn’t been a significant decline in Chamberlain’s fastball velocity, which is a good sign. His strikeout rate fell last year, but just to 19.2% from a career mark of 23.2%. In 2012, he was right there at his career mark. Perhaps 2013 was a blip. Perhaps, with the right pitching coach, Chamberlain can reign in the walks and start producing more groundballs again.
The key to any deal with Chamberlain would be the cost (I guess that’s true more often than not). Unlike Axford, whom you’d be signing on the expectation that he can be a productive member of the bullpen in 2014, Chamberlain would be a flyer. He’s a virtual lock to get a Major League deal from someone, though I doubt he gets two years. One year and a couple million is probably the maximum someone will be willing to guarantee him. If he is willing to take a one-year-plus-team-option type deal, that could be a very nice signing.