Last week, former Kansas City Royals closer Greg Holland held a showcase for prospective new teams, including the Detroit Tigers. The 2017 season will mark Holland’s return from Tommy John surgery, and the showcase was as much to show Holland’s return to health as it was to demonstrate his pitching skill. With questions about his ability to perform put to rest after not pitching in 2016, the focus now becomes where precisely Holland might find a home for himself during the upcoming season.
As a player accustomed to the closer role, he seems like a logical fit for teams like the Chicago Cubs or Miami Marlins who are seeking out a new ninth inning man for their bullpens. But Holland’s agent, Scott Boras, made it clear during the showcase that Holland could take on a different role than he previously did for the Royals. Boras referred to Holland as a “HeLP” pitcher: a “High-Leverage Premium.” This is a sign that the postseason performances of Kenley Jansen, Andrew Miller, and Aroldis Chapman are clearly shaping the way players are selling themselves to teams.
The question becomes: can Holland handle the pressure of those high leverage innings?
Who is he?
Holland is a 30-year-old right handed pitcher who was drafted by Kansas City in 2007. He went on to play six seasons in their bullpen, amassing 145 saves and a career 2.42 ERA. He’s a two-time All-Star and was absolutely dominant as a closer through 2013 and 2014. During the 2014 postseason, he was awarded the inaugural Mariano Rivera Award for outstanding performance by a closer. Right before the start of the 2015 postseason, in which the Royals went on to win the World Series, Holland was diagnosed with a significant tear in his right UCL and underwent Tommy John surgery. Subsequently, his season was over before he could join his team on their victorious run to the championship.
Why should we care?
If he remains healthy, Holland could either be a great closer, or flip to a late-inning reliever much like the Indians used Andrew Miller through the 2016 postseason. Before leaving for surgery, Holland’s fastball was averaging 96 miles per hour. He also tossed a high-80s splitter, and his slider was on its way to becoming the kind of pitch whispered about in dugouts like a 108-stitch boogeyman. If he were to regain his 2013-14 abilities, he could very well be one of the best relief pitchers available in the 2017 season.
Bullpen depth is a long-standing concern with the Tigers, with Detroit’s relievers ranking 24th out of 30 for the regular season, with a collective 4.22 ERA and allowing 251 runs to score. In spite of Francisco Rodriguez leading the league in saves and promising work by Justin Wilson, the bullpen failed to achieve its potential. Mark Lowe was regularly unreliable. Bruce Rondon has yet to perform at the level the Tigers have hoped for a full season, though improvements are being made. Adding a player who could work beyond the closer role and regularly take on two innings in high-pressure games would be a great find for the team. Especially if he can stay consistent and healthy throughout the season
Why should we stay away?
For starters, there’s Holland’s declining velocity to worry about. During the showcase, his fastball topped out in the low 90s, considerably below his former average. This isn’t necessarily cause for concern. He is coming off a recovery year and all indications suggest he should be able to rebuild his former power. That said, any team who takes him on is going to run the risk of him not having that velocity back in time for the season to start. The Tigers can ill-afford to add another uncertain bullpen arm who doesn’t have a commanding fastball.
Another concern, of course, is Holland’s price tag. With super-agent Scott Boras negotiating the deal, it seems unlikely that Holland will settle for any small-time offers. All signs point to Boras wanting a multi-year deal, so it seems likely any team who takes on Holland will be signing up for at least a two year commitment. A two-year deal is all well and fine if Holland is the next Andrew Miller or Koji Uehara, but Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo made a good point following the showcase. As reported by Jorge Castillo of the Washington Post, Rizzo said of a Holland deal:
“Those are usually deals that are heavily incentivized because if he pitches like Holland, he should be compensated for it. But you also have to balance it off with the risk that the guy’s coming off Tommy John, didn’t pitch at all last year, and we’ve never seen him throw a pitch in anger since he’s come back. So you’re really going on track record, medical reports and what the doctor said. It’s a risky proposition.”
Will he end up in Detroit?
It’s hard to say. With a price tag that could go north of $10 million per year based on previous deals with similar quality pitchers, Holland isn’t exactly a bargain. But the Tigers need high leverage arms in their bullpen, and guys who can go two innings or more with strong stuff in tight situations. If Holland’s health were a sure thing — it never is, especially after a year off — and his returning velocity were a guarantee (which, again, it isn’t) then signing him would be a coup. However, if the team is genuinely aiming to cut costs and focus on a young, new franchise, Holland is a risk. There are no guarantees in baseball, but the uncertainty of signing a player who is just coming off a year of rehab might be more than the Tigers can afford right now.
On the other hand, if Holland does turn out to be the next Andrew Miller, the Tigers might be kicking themselves hard in 2017 for missing out on the opportunity.