In recent weeks, the deteriorating health of Rangers’ starters (Feliz, Colby, Holland, and Ogando) has engendered speculation that the team is pursuing the two hot commodities of the trade market, Cole Hamels and Zack Greinke. The speculation has been fueled by the spotting of Rangers and Brewers scouts at each other’s minor league games by Jon Paul Morosi and Ken Rosenthal.
In many ways, Greinke and Hamels are similar pitchers with similar situations. Both play for teams that were strong last season, but have faltered to such a degree in 2012 that they are selling off assets in anticipation of non-playoff seasons. Both players are also in similar contract situations, scheduled to be free agents in 2012 despite aggressive efforts by their current clubs to re-sign them. Perhaps most importantly, both are similarly dominant: since 2007, Hamels’s first full year in the MLB and Greinke’s first post-breakdown season, the pair have produced 20.4 and 25.7 fWAR, respectively, averaging over 4 fWAR per season (which generally is just inside the top-25 for pitchers).
When looking at the stats closely, its my opinion that Greinke outshines his peer, especially when considering the unique confines of Rangers Ballpark. Greinke induces about 25% more groundballs than Hamels, which will cut down the number of home runs, and give Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, and Ian Kinsler, the Rangers’ excellent infielders, an opportunity to limit runs. Moreover, Hamels is the beneficiary of better than usual luck on balls in play, whereas Greinke is getting slightly unlucky. All things being equal, one would expect Greinke to perform better than Hamels, as measured by advanced statistics.
However, there are a couple considerations worth keeping in mind when thinking about who would make a better acquisition. First, Hamels, apart from 2009 and his rookie year, has consistently and significantly outperformed his advanced stats and posted lower ERAs than FIPs, whereas Greinke has been the exact opposite in most of his seasons. It isn’t abundantly clearly why this is so, apart from Hamels consistently posting getting relatively lucky on balls in place, and consistently stranding more baserunners than Greinke. For whatever reason, Hamels has gotten the results when it counts. On a related note, Hamels has got a tremendous amount of playoff experience: 13 games, with an excellent 3.20 ERA whereas Greinke’s 3 playoff starts have resulted in a less-than stellar 6.48 ERA. Moreover, although he appears to have put those issues behind him, Greinke does have a history of anxiety issues, whereas Hamels has been so commended for his ability under pressure than he has won a World Series MVP award.
Ultimately, the real decision point may be based more around the logistics of acquiring either of the two, rather than the player’s characteristics themselves. For instance, according to ESPN’s Jayson Stark, the Phillies are preparing a huge offer to Hamels to keep him on board long term, which would obviously preclude a deal. The Brewers seem significantly less likely to sign Greinke: their GM, Doug Melvin, stated that he believes it is unlikely they can keep him from free agency. On the other hand, the Brewers are still in contention for a playoff spot, sort of, while the Phillies are ten games out of the wildcard and trending downwards.
The main obstacle I see here is the lack of a defined role for Hamels or Greinke in the Rangers pitching staff. Not only is it unclear whether Hamels or Greinke would be uncomfortable unless they were the “ace” of the staff (Colby Lewis, Darvish, and Harrison have all pitched on their level this season), but it is uncertain who they would replace in the rotation. The three Rangers starters I just cited are untouchable rotation stalwarts, whereas Roy Oswalt said several times before signing that he was uncomfortable out of the bullpen, and he and Nolan Ryan have the kind of relationship that would preclude slighting Oswalt. Even though Oswalt has not performed well at all in his first few starts with the Rangers, there is hope that he can regain his form and return to dominance. His ERA is around 6.00, but his FIP is under 4.00, and he’s been pitching through a .451 batting average on balls in play, enough to destabilize even the best pitcher. That leaves Derek Holland. Holland hasn’t been himself this season; he’s allowed more home runs, generated fewer groundballs, and stranded fewer runners than he has in the past. He is, without a doubt the weakest Rangers starter at present. However, the Rangers management committed to Holland over the long term last offseason. It might not make any sense to humilitate him by booting him out of the rotation in favor of a half-season rental, especially if that rental is only really providing at most an extra two wins over the rest of the season.
Without a clear opening in the rotation, I would prefer the Rangers stick with what they have, and focus on using their prospects to upgrade a different area that would simultaneously address a long-term need: the outfield. In my next article, I will discuss the Rangers’ alleged interest in Justin Upton, the Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder, and why he interests me more than Hamels or Greinke.