With Burke Badenhop off the market on a one-year deal with the Reds, few arms on the free agent market figure to land big league deals. Many of the remaining names are coming off poor seasons or injuries and will therefore end up signing minor league deals. While Francisco Rodriguez and Rafael Soriano will garner much of the attention and the chatter, in my eyes, Joba Chamberlain could be the best remaining option on the open market.
Entering just his age-29 season, Chamberlain was one of the youngest free agents available even at the beginning of the offseason, and he’s the youngest notable name on the relief market as a whole at this point. Not only that, but Chamberlain is coming off a quietly strong season in his lone year with the Tigers.
In 63 innings, Chamberlain posted a 3.57 ERA with 8.4 K/9, 3.4 BB/9 and a 53.2 percent ground-ball rate. He wilted down the stretch, yielding a 4.97 ERA following the All-Star break, but much of that is attributable to a nearly seven percent dip in his strand rate. Chamberlain stranded runners at a 75.7 percent clip in the first half — which compares favorably to his career mark of 74.6 percent — but that number dropped to 69.1 percent. Should that mark trend back toward Chamberlain’s career level with all else remaining more or less equal, Chamberlain could turn in some excellent results in 2015.
Also worth considering is that the Tigers ranked 28th among 30 Major League teams in both Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating, and they ranked 29th of 30 in in defensive efficiency. By virtually any defensive metric imaginable, Chamberlain was pitching with one of baseball’s least talented groups supporting him — a likely reason for the discrepancy between his 3.57 ERA and his stronger marks in FIP (3.16), xFIP (3.35) and SIERA (3.13).
Chamberlain did lose a bit of life on his fastball, dipping from an average of 94.7 mph to 93.5 mph, but that mark still rates as above average, and he offset the slight drop in velocity by throwing more curveballs — a pitch that graded out as his best, according to Fangraphs’ pitch values.
Some may point to his shaky 2013 season as a reason to shy away from the former top prospect, but it should be remembered that Chamberlain battled an oblique strain that year as he attempted to complete his first full season following Tommy John surgery. Control was his main problem in 2013 (5.6 BB/9), but he’s never battled that issue much in any other season spent pitching in relief.
Last offseason, Chamberlain signed a one-year, $3MM contract with the Tigers in mid-December. He’s undoubtedly coming off a better season this time around, but Chamberlain has reportedly been selective about his destination, rejecting offers from a few teams for which he did not want to play, leaving him afloat on the open market as one of the last remaining candidates for a big league deal. If another one-year deal is in the offing, or even a two-year pact at a reasonable price, Chamberlain could be a significant boost to a contender’s bullpen at a cost that hardly seems prohibitive.