Before Wednesday, the Atlanta Braves’ winter had been centered around fortifying their bullpen. That strategy made sense — Atlanta’s reliever WAR was just inside the bottom third of baseball last year, so keeping the most important pieces of that bullpen around and adding extra talent around them had to be a priority. The Braves wasted little time in signing Will Smith, arguably the best reliever on the market, to a three-year, $40-million deal, and retained midseason acquisition Chris Martin and 37-year-old Darren O’Day on short-term deals as well. Their focus on keeping the band together applied to other areas of the roster too, as they quickly re-signed catcher Tyler Flowers and outfielder Nick Markakis before bringing in another catcher in free agency by adding Travis d’Arnaud via a two-year, $16-million deal.
An area that had gone untouched was the starting rotation, but as of Wednesday afternoon, that is no longer the case. The Braves signed 35-year-old left-hander Cole Hamels to a one-year, $18-million contract, according to ESPN’s Jeff Passan.
Left-hander Cole Hamels and the Atlanta Braves are in agreement on a one-year, $18 million deal, sources tell ESPN.
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) December 4, 2019
Right away, the addition of Hamels brings to mind the upgrade the Braves made to their rotation via free agency last offseason — er, sorry, last June. That’s when Atlanta finally became the team to sign Dallas Keuchel after his extended free agency period, bringing him in on a one-year deal worth $13 million. Keuchel, like Hamels, was a low-velocity veteran southpaw, and after a somewhat rocky first couple of starts, settled in quite nicely down the stretch, earning the chance to start Games 1 and 4 of the NLDS.
The Braves will hope for similar poise out of Hamels, who reached free agency for the very first time this winter after 14 years in the majors. Following a long and successful run in Philadelphia from 2006-15, he was traded at the deadline to Texas in a blockbuster that involved eight players, mostly prospects. He was a summer trade target again three years later, when the Cubs acquired him from Texas for three more players in July 2018. He’s been a reliable member of Chicago’s rotation ever since, making 27 starts for the organization in 2019 and holding a 3.81 ERA and 4.09 FIP in 141.2 innings. It was the 12th season of his career in which he was worth at least 2.5 WAR.
From Atlanta’s perspective, there’s enough to like about Hamels that his age can be somewhat overlooked. Though he tied his career high in BB% (9.1) in 2019, he also maintained a healthy 23.2% strikeout rate that kept him in the 62nd percentile of all pitchers who threw at least 100 innings. Even more encouraging was the return to form he experienced with his changeup, as Devan Fink explored just a couple of weeks ago. Throughout his time in Philadelphia, Hamels possessed the greatest changeup on earth, and in 2019, it performed better than it had in years. It wasn’t quite the show-stopper it was early in the decade, but it did hold opposing hitters to a .214 wOBA and 32 wRC+, while once again acting as his best swing-and-miss offering.
But the changeup isn’t the only intriguing aspect of Hamels’ deep arsenal. He threw five different pitches in 2019, with the most-often used being the four-seamer (35.3%) and the least-often used being the sinker (12.3%). He mixes his pitches rather evenly, with the cutter emerging in recent seasons as a sneakily excellent offering. Thrown about four ticks of velocity down from his four-seamer, Hamels used his cutter on 18.7% of pitches in 2019, and it performed better than it ever had, resulting in a .263 wOBA and 67 wRC+, thanks largely to consistently weak contact. The success of the cutter and changeup have been enormous in helping Hamels weather the results of his deteriorating four-seamer, which sat at its lowest average velocity since 2009 and allowed a 158 wRC+ to opposing hitters.
Hamels obviously doesn’t offer the ceiling that the available top-tier free agent pitchers like Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg do, but what he does offer is remarkable consistency. Now entering his 15th season in the majors, he’s never produced a WAR figure under 1.7 and has spent most of his career outperforming FIP marks that keep suggesting he’s more flawed than he appears. In 2017, at age 33, he finished a 24-start season in Texas with a 101 FIP- but an 88 ERA-. The following year, he had a 104 FIP- but an 84 FIP-. He’s proven time and time again that he is able to outperform his peripherals, and the rest of baseball has largely been willing to listen. In our list of the Top 50 Free Agents, Hamels ranked 19th, with Kiley McDaniel predicting two years and $28 million as the winning offer. Here’s what Eric Longenhagen had to say in his prognosis:
It was still down from the Hamels that somehow sat 92-93 and touched 95 in April and May, but fluctuations in fastball velocity have plagued him for so long that in this instance it’s not a guaranteed sign of aging so much as evidence that this is Cole Hamels. He still has the ability to throw that enticing changeup in any count and to alter his fastball shape (cut, sink, ride) and offset some of what he’s lost in raw heat, and his shapely curveball is fine to dump in situationally. This is a backend starter, but a good one.
The Braves wound up paying a little bit more on the AAV side in order to get half the commitment, but the price tag itself is telling of what Atlanta sees in him. His $18-million salary, after all, isn’t far off from the $23 million they paid to rent Josh Donaldson for a year in 2019, and he was worth nearly five wins. Dan Szymborski’s preliminary ZiPS projection for Hamels also reflects the continued optimism in his ability to prevent runs:
Hamels’ signing probably doesn’t spell good things for a possible return by Keuchel, or the signing of someone like Madison Bumgarner, but it’s not enough to rule out the addition of another starter, either. As currently constructed, our RosterResource has Hamels slotting in behind Mike Soroka at the front of the rotation and ahead of Mike Foltynewicz, Max Fried, and Sean Newcomb. The Braves still have lots of promising young arms like Kyle Wright, Touki Toussaint, and Ian Anderson, but none of them are currently beating down the door to grab a rotation spot. If they want to make the rotation a strength, another move via trade or free agency would be wise. But with Hamels in the fold, the Braves at least have enough starters to go challenge for another division title.
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