The Braves remained busy this offseason by signing Cole Hamels to a one-year, $18 million contract. Jeff Passan of ESPN was the first to report the news, and according to Bob Nightengale, the Phillies, White Sox, Giants, and Rangers were all among the teams trying to woo the veteran lefty. Ultimately, the Braves were the highest bidder, and they’ve now found a replacement for the innings they got from Dallas Keuchel.
Hamels missed time with an oblique injury in 2019, but when he was on the field, he was his usual self. He finished the season with a 23.2 strikeout percentage, 3.81 ERA, 4.87 DRA, and 3.0 RA9-WAR over 141 innings. Looking forward to 2020, Steamer projects Hamels for a 21.7 percent strikeout rate, 8.4 percent walk rate, and a 4.52 FIP over 161 innings. That works out to a 2.0 RA9-WAR which would narrowly be his second-worst season. That goes to show just how consistently good Hamels has been through his career.
Though he has lost a tick of velocity, Hamels is still striking out a batter per inning and getting as many swings and misses as he ever has. He hasn’t changed up his pitch selection much in 14 years. The only difference is that he throws the sinker slightly less often now. Hamels has struggled a bit more with walks since leaving the Phillies in 2015. While it will be interesting to see how his walk rate is affected by throwing to Tyler Flowers or even Travis d’Arnaud rather than Willson Contreras, Hamels hasn’t been helping himself by throwing fewer strikes in general.
With Hamels, the Braves currently have a starting rotation of Mike Soroka, Mike Foltynewicz, Cole Hamels, Max Fried, and Sean Newcomb. That group represents a solid-enough starting five depending on whether they get the good Foltynewicz, but another starter wouldn’t hurt. The Braves already figure to eclipse their 2019 payroll after signing Will Smith, Chris Martin, Darren O’Day, Nick Markakis, Tyler Flowers, and Travis d’Arnaud this winter. RosterResource estimates their 2020 payroll to be around $142 million this year, so getting another pitcher from free agency isn’t out of the question. What remains to be seen is if the Braves are willing to commit long-term to upper tier starters. The starters still on the market who project to be as good as Hamels or better will require multi-year deals, but the Braves seem reluctant to guarantee multiple years to players in their 30’s.
After all of their short-term deals this offseason and after they signed Josh Donaldson and Dallas Keuchel to one-year deals last season, the Braves have established that they don’t want to commit themselves to free agents long-term but they are more than willing to spend on the short term. The longest contract they have agreed to this year is Will Smith’s three-year deal. The Braves, then, are onto a new kind of risk aversion. It’s easy to predict what Cole Hamels will do next year. It’s tougher to say what Zack Wheeler, for instance, will look like in four or five years.
It’s hard to find fault with the Hamels signing. Inking Hamels to a one-year deal is less likely to change the direction of the franchise for the better than signing Zack Wheeler to a five-year deal, but it’s also less likely to blow up in their faces. It undoubtedly makes them better in 2020. They’ll worry about 2021 next year.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.