Earlier this offseason, Tigers fans were hoping the team would sign a right-handed reliever coming off a recent Tommy John surgery to a cheap, incentive-laden contract in hopes of shoring up a bullpen that let them down in the 2013 ALCS. Today, they got their wish when the team signed Joba Chamberlain to a one year deal with a $2.5 million base salary.
Wait... that's not what you wanted?
Okay, so the comparison isn't exactly fair. Brian Wilson has been a more consistent pitcher throughout his career, and his numbers reflect that. However, the contract handed to him by the Los Angeles Dodgers was much higher than what fans were expecting the Tigers to fork over for a reliever coming off the second Tommy John surgery of his career.
Meanwhile, the luster has worn off of the success Joba had early on in his career. He only has one season with a sub-4.00 ERA since 2008 and his walk rate was an abysmal 5.6 batters per nine innings in 2013. In what should have been a bounce back season after having Tommy John surgery in 2011, 2013 was the end of the line for Joba as a member of the New York Yankees. He posted a 4.93 ERA, 5.64 FIP, and 1.74 WHIP in 42 innings.
However, there is reason for optimism surrounding Chamberlain. He is 28 years old and a former first round draft pick. He has the type of arm people dream about in the back of a bullpen. He is no longer pitching in New York, a city with pressures that have ended the careers of many an athlete.
Even the numbers give us something to look forward to. Chamberlain was moved to the Yankees' rotation in 2008 and 2009, and his numbers took a hit. As a reliever, Joba's 3.51 ERA, 3.39 FIP, and 2.96 strikeout-to-walk ratio are all better than his overall career numbers. He strikes out 9.7 batters per nine innings out of the pen, and his 1.29 WHIP isn't too bad either.
In 2011, Joba was having one of his better seasons, putting up a 2.83 ERA and 3.55 FIP in 28 2/3 innings before getting injured and missing the rest of the year. Are his shoddy numbers in 2012 and 2013 because he is still recovering from his surgery? Some say that a pitcher's command -- especially of his breaking pitches -- is one of the last things to come back after Tommy John surgery. Opposing hitters had a .400 wOBA and 164 wRC+ off his slider last year, and he didn't get nearly as many swings on that pitch outside of the strike zone compared to his career norms.
Most of all, this is a good deal for the Tigers because it provides a relatively low risk for a potentially high reward. Chamberlain will only be paid $2.5 million unless he achieves certain performance bonuses. If he flat-out busts, the Tigers are only out roughly 1.67% of their total payroll. Will they part ways with Joba if he struggles? Considering they had no problem handing Jose Valverde his walking papers last season at $2 million, I'm betting they will not hesitate to do the same in 2014.