The Detroit Tigers pitching staff will go one of two ways this offseason. General manager Al Avila will likely try to find a way to move Anibal Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey. If he can’t, the Tigers pitching staff will be bloated with lesser pitchers occupying spots that they would prefer to use Matt Boyd and Daniel Norris in. If he is successful, the Tigers will have a very young staff not yet conditioned to handle a full season’s workload.
In this second scenario, the Tigers will need the strongest bullpen they can muster, without adding much money to the payroll. A reliever like Daniel Hudson might fit the bill. The Tigers bullpen wasn’t a big liability in 2016, but they were in 15th among MLB teams in FIP, and 24th in ERA. The late innings seem in decent hands, with Francisco Rodriguez, Justin Wilson, Shane Greene, and Bruce Rondon. The Tigers could use another piece in middle relief, though. A former starter like Hudson, who has fairly balanced splits as a reliever, could pair well with Alex Wilson in bridging the gap to the late innings.
Who is he?
Hudson is a 6’4 righthander who initially broke into the league as a starting pitcher, and looked to be on his way to an outstanding career. Elbow injuries in both 2012 and 2013 necessitated a move to the bullpen upon his return to action. On the plus side, he retains a starter’s arsenal and has featured a fine swing-and-miss changeup at times. He also has a big fastball, averaging 96.6 miles per hour in 2016. Two years into his new career as a reliever, he has found serious gains in velocity.
He induces a lot of ground balls and weak contact off the heater. Only 25.2 percent of fastballs put in play in 2016 were hit in the air, and nearly 40 percent of those were pop-ups. He does give up a lot of line drives, but the overall exit velocity off his fastball was at 85 mph in 2016, well below the major league average of 90 mph.
In 2016, the slider was the better pitch for Hudson. He limited right-handed hitters to a solid .719 OPS. Meanwhile, the changeup that was his best pitch in 2015 abandoned him a bit. Hudson threw the changeup harder than he ever has in his career, and the pitch hung up and got crushed. This is the kind of thing pitching coach Rich Dubee might be able to work with. If he could get both the slider and changeup going well at the same time, Hudson might yet prove an excellent relief pitcher.
Why should we care?
It wasn’t so long ago that Hudson looked like a future star. Drafted by the Chicago White Sox in 2008, Hudson torched level after level of minor league ball, reaching the majors in relief as a September call-up in 2009. He was dealt to the Arizona Diamondbacks at the 2010 trade deadline for Edwin Jackson. Hudson polished off a sterling rookie campaign that season, finishing with a 2.45 ERA and 3.38 FIP over 95 1⁄3 innings. The Diamondbacks looked to have stolen a future ace in exchange for the fading Jackson. That opinion was solidified in 2011 when Hudson posted a 4.6 fWAR season. While Hudson’s strikeout totals were pedestrian, he limited walks and home runs en route to a 3.49 ERA and 3.28 FIP over 222 innings of work.
Hudson does fit a somewhat Tiger-like profile. In several ways, he’s reminiscent of Shane Greene, though their mechanics are quite different. Both have excellent stuff and a fairly lengthy set of arm issues. Both get ground balls off their fastballs. Both have paired that fastball with a firm breaking ball that belies characterization as either a cutter or a slider, though Greene features a broader palette of velocity and spin. The main difference in terms of stuff is that Hudson has a legitimate changeup that has often been his best out pitch.
Why should we stay away?
We’ve talked about 2010 and 2011, Hudson’s years as a fine young starter. We’ve touched on his work in relief over the past two seasons. The big issue with Hudson is everything that happened in between. From 2012 to 2014, just about everything that could go wrong, did. Hudson struggled early in 2012, missed a little time with a shoulder injury, and was eventually diagnosed with a torn UCL, which required Tommy John surgery in July. After a grueling rehabilitation, Hudson returned in 2013 only to quickly tear the grafted ligament in a Double-A rehab start, sending him back to square one.
Two years on, Hudson has had no setbacks and thrown consecutive full seasons out of the bullpen. Still, while any pitcher could go down at any time, an injury history like Hudson’s is guaranteed to make teams wary. His stuff remains good, but the inconsistent command means there won’t be a host of suitors battering down his door.
Of course, that’s a big part of the reason he’s also an affordable option for the Tigers. Part of the value in finding a potentially undervalued reliever is the ability to move them for a more necessary player down the road. To get that out of Hudson, the Tigers would likely have to commit to a two-year deal. Even at low cost, that’s probably just not in the Tigers plans, particularly while quite a bit of soft money resides on the payroll.
Will he end up in Detroit?
As things stand, the Tigers have Joe Jimenez in waiting and a full slate of relievers on the roster heading toward the 2017 season. In addition, there remains the question of whether Mike Pelfrey and/or Anibal Sanchez can be moved elsewhere this offseason. Unless the new CBA includes the addition of a 26th roster spot, there isn’t much room to add a reliever unless he comes with minor league options. Even then, the Tigers may instead choose to stash a sixth starter like Pelfrey or Sanchez in the bullpen.
Unless the Tigers’ circumstances change radically once the real dealing starts, there just isn’t much of a fit for Hudson. He could probably be had on a cheap two-year deal, but the Tigers may be better served avoiding any more free agent commitments that could limit their flexibility in 2017. Hudson is an interesting option though, in that it wouldn’t take much for him to look like quite a fine relief pitcher. A team like the Padres or Braves might find themselves with a decent trade chip come July. The Tigers, however, are unlikely to be that team.