When the Baltimore Orioles signed lefthander Wei-Yin Chen out of the Japanese Pacific Coast League in 2012, no one knew what to expect. Signed to a four-year contract worth $15.47 million, Chen came to America with a lot less fanfare than fellow NPB veteran Yu Darvish, who debuted with a flourish for the Texas Rangers that season.
Four productive years later, Chen is a free agent again. This time, with over 700 innings worth of film on the 30-year-old lefthander, major league teams are well aware of his strengths and weaknesses. A career 3.72 ERA and 4.14 FIP won't net him a $100 million contract, potentially making him a more attractive rotation option than some of the bigger fish in the MLB free agency pond.
With the Detroit Tigers in need of two starters, Chen could potentially come cheap enough to fill a spot while allowing them to make additions elsewhere.
Who is he?
A native of Taiwan, Chen made his professional debut with the Chunichi Dragons of Japan's Pacific Coast League in 2005. He had Tommy John surgery in late 2006, causing him to miss the entire 2007 season. When he returned in 2008, Chen was a force, posting four consecutive seasons with a sub-3.00 ERA. He led the league with a 1.54 ERA in 2009, and posted a 3.27 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 650 2/3 career NPB innings.
Following the 2011 season, Chen opted out of his contract with Chunichi to sign with the Orioles. FanGraphs' David Golebiewski profiled Chen after he signed, noting a decline in stuff in 2011 as a reason to temper expectations. Chen quickly laid those concerns to rest, allowing a 4.02 ERA in 192 2/3 innings in the rough-and-tumble AL East in 2012. He missed some time with an oblique injury in 2013, but otherwise has been healthy, starting 117 games for the O's over the past four seasons. Chen won 16 games in 2014, but had his best season yet in 2015, holding opponents to a 3.34 ERA in 191 1/3 innings.
Why should we care?
His numbers aren't flashy, but Chen has been a solid major league starter for all four seasons of his MLB career. He has posted an ERA+ of 105 or better in three of his four seasons, and has been at 118 for the past two years. He does not walk many batters, resulting in a 3.80 strikeout-to-walk ratio over the past two seasons. He did up his strikeout rate to a career-best 19.3 percent in 2015, but it was not reflected in his FIP thanks to an elevated home run rate. Still, Chen has been a two-win pitcher in each of his four seasons, and has been worth 5.3 WAR over the past two years. He has stayed healthy enough to pitch at least 185 innings in three of four seasons, another plus.
A relatively extreme fly ball pitcher, Chen's repertoire is tailor-made for Comerica Park's spacious confines. Chen allowed just 1.03 ground balls for every fly ball last season, the 14th-lowest ratio among qualified MLB pitchers. His 39.4 percent fly ball rate was the 12th-highest in baseball while his 14.0 percent pop-up rate was baseball's best. While this does lend itself to giving up a lot of home runs -- Chen has given up 97 dingers in 117 MLB starts -- keep in mind that he was pitching in the hitter-friendly American League East. With more room to work with in Detroit (and the Central), those numbers could go down.
Why should we stay away?
While Chen may not command the mega millions that pitchers like David Price and Johnny Cueto will, he does have agent Scott Boras in his corner. Boras loves to wait out the market in order to extract top dollar for his clients. While this has backfired at times -- Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales in 2013 are prime examples -- he is usually very successful. Don't expect Chen to sign until early 2016, and when he does, the price tag may surprise you.
Money won't be the only thing that Chen costs, either. The Orioles are expected to extend Chen a qualifying offer, which he will almost certainly decline. This means that the team to sign Chen will be forced to hand over a 2016 draft pick. Luckily, the Tigers' first round selection is protected, but their second round pick will still likely be in (or near) the top 50. A second round pick is a small price to pay for an established free agent pitcher, but it is a price nonetheless.
Will he end up in Detroit?
The Tigers have dealt with Boras several times before, but with two rotation spots in flux, Chen may not be the pitcher that best fits their needs. He is one of the best "second tier" starting pitchers on the free agent market, but teams who miss out on a top guy could wind up overpaying for Chen, who is a mid-rotation arm at best. Their needs can change on a dime with a trade or two, but the Tigers may be better served to go for a top arm and a bargain bin rental rather than overpaying for Chen and another good-but-not-great starter this winter.