Inspiration for an article comes at odd times.
Since my kids are terrible sleepers and Alex is a night owl, we had a Twitter DM exchange last week at 3 a.m. We both liked Tommy Hunter, late of the Tampa Rays, but Alex slightly preferred Anthony Swarzak as a target to bolster the Pirates’ bullpen. His piece on Swarzak ran on Tuesday, so consider this a companion piece.
In 2017, Tommy Hunter enjoyed his finest year as a professional while with the Tampa Rays, who he joined prior to the season on a minor league deal. The story of Tommy Hunter is a familiar trope: hotshot former prospect with the Rangers as a supplemental first round pick, injuries and ineffectiveness forced him out of starting, found a second chance with the Orioles for a few seasons as a quality reliever. Hunter had a solid 2016 season until he fractured his back in a freak accident and got caught in an oversupply of relievers in the free agent market.
But this past season, Hunter took his game to a higher level. His fastball velocity jumped from 94.5 mph in 2016 to a career-high 96.3 mph in 2017. But as strong as his fastball was, it was the development of his cutter that led to his success. His 2.61 ERA/3.07 FIP over 58.2 innings resulted in a 1.2 WAR on the season. Hunter isn’t just a blazing fastball (9.8 K/9 IP), as he also possesses excellent control numbers of just 2.15 BB/9 IP.
His cutter had a well above-average spin rate of 2505 rpm in 2017, good for 20th highest for pitchers that threw 100 or more of them (12th if you count only relievers). It doesn’t take too many leaps of logic to remember that Mark Melancon rode a very strong cutter to success as a Pirate. If Hunter could provide the Pirates with even 85% of Melancon’s success, that would be an attractive proposition to acquire him as a setup man in 2018.
MLBTradeRumors estimates Tommy Hunter to be worth 2 years/$12M on the market this offseason. That’s a shade above the 2 years/$11M that the Pirates signed Daniel Hudson for last offseason to ostensibly be their setup man. This doesn’t mean that history is bound to repeat itself. Signing a reliever is a lot like spinning a roulette wheel — just because Daniel Hudson landed on ‘red’ doesn’t mean Tommy Hunter will, too.
The path to the Pirates returning to the playoffs isn’t as fraught as some would have you believe. I’ll concede that the Cubs are still the favorites in the division, even though their starting rotation is predictably looking leaky at this point. Feel free to remind me of that last sentence if they somehow sign Shohei Ohtani. But the rest of the National League, aside from the Dodgers and Nationals, are nothing to be intimidated by. I expect both the Rockies and Brewers to regress a touch after their impressive 2017 seasons. The Brewers just have that classic ‘young team need to take a step back to take a step forward’ feel, while the Rockies got a lot of big performances all at the same time from both pitchers and hitters. In a way, they feel like the 2015 Pirates. The Diamondbacks are going to lose their talisman, J.D. Martinez, in free agency.
If the Pirates can add one ‘big ticket’ (for them) reliever and a smaller out-of-nowhere bullpen guy, that would take a lot of strain off having to rely on the Neverauskases/Sanchezes/Santanas of the world. Fiddle with the bench, get a better backup catcher, and make sure key players make mature decisions in the offseason — boom! They’re back above .500. In today’s baseball landscape, that’s all you need to have a shot at the wild card. And as we’ve seen in recent years with some teams, just get in and you can free roll all the way to the World Series.
Is Tommy Hunter that ticket to glory? Maybe, maybe not. But I’d feel better with him in the 8th inning than some of the current internal options, that’s for sure.