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MLB free agent predictions: Where will Rich Hill go?

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Rich Hill is the best starting pitcher on the free agent market. This is not a drill. Who will pay him?

NLCS - Chicago Cubs v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Three Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

There were 12 starting pitchers last offseason who secured a free agent contract worth $30 million or more. There were aces and second starters, third starters and fourth starters. There wasn’t a fifth starter who got $30 million, but there was Yasiel Sierra, so there was a wild card, at least. If you wanted a pitcher, young or old, last season was for you.

This season, there’s Rich Hill. I suppose you could pretend to get excited about Jason Hammel, or maybe you could trick yourself into believing Shohei Otani has a chance to be posted by the good folks at Nippon Ham, which would buy you a couple weeks. But it’s entirely possible that Hill is the only pitcher this year who will get $30 million or more.

It would be easy to focus on the part where Hill doesn’t have any company, but don’t forget to take a few minutes to appreciate how special it is that he’s here at all. If only every hard-working starting pitcher could have this kind of second act in their late 30s. For too long, I used Hill’s story as evidence that the universe didn’t make sense. Now I’m convinced it’s tricking me into thinking the universe makes perfect sense. Work hard, stick around, persevere, get your shot, and get paid. That’s how it works for everyone, because we’re all living through a real-life Horatio Alger story, right?

You’re the general manager of a major league team. I’d say congratulations, but it looks like you haven’t slept in three days because you haven’t. And you’re looking for a starting pitcher. Before you get too excited about that, complete the following sentence with every pitcher on the free agent market:

Looks like we’re going to start __________ in Game 3, and that’s excellent news.

Probably wouldn’t make sense with Bartolo Colon. Jason Hammel doesn’t exactly fit there. Hisashi Iwakuma, maybe? Only if he reclaims his previous form. But the point stands: If this expensive free agent pitcher is the third-best starting pitcher on his team, his team probably missed the postseason by a dozen games anyway.

The only exception is Hill, who made a very logical complement to Clayton Kershaw last year, and it was a gambit that almost got the Dodgers to the World Series. If you’re starting Hill, it’s not by accident. It’s not because you underestimated how thin your rotation is, or because three other starting pitchers were eaten by a shark. Hill is the only starting pitcher on the open market who could be a substantial part of a reasonable offseason plan.

Just how reasonable would that offseason plan be, though? Remember that Hill ...

  • Has still never thrown more than 200 innings in a season
  • Has thrown more than 100 innings in a season just twice
  • Enjoyed his second-best season in terms of innings pitched with 110⅓ last year
  • Still missed a bunch of time last year with blisters, making just nine starts with the Dodgers (including the postseason) and just 23 starts total

That is not a pitcher who should fill a team with confidence, not if they’re looking for a one-stop-shop for their postseason-anchor needs. And that would all be the case if those bullet points applied to a 27-year-old pitcher, not a 37-year-old like Hill.

Which team makes the most sense? Which team is the likeliest destination?

The ideal

That is, the team that you would put Hill on if you wanted to simulate the season 10,000 times, just to see what happens. That means looking for the team that’s just one starter away from getting over the hump, a team that might not have $100 million socked away for the free agent bonanza of next offseason, regardless of what they do this year.

So look for a team that has a) been competitively lately, even though b) they haven’t had a whole lot of starting pitchers worth a dang, and c) haven’t spent their money in the most efficient way when they’ve decided to address this issue. Is there a team that checks all of those boxes?

Hello, Orioles. If there’s a team that knows what to do with dead-money starting pitchers, this is it. I’d write that they’ll be paying $25 million to watch Yovani Gallardo and Ubaldo Jimenez pitch, except I’m not sure if they’ll actually be watching. They’ll have their feathered hands covering their eyes, hoping everything will work out.

Hill would give them a solid veteran behind the trio of under-30 pitchers who have enough talent to lead a rotation. The problem would be that Hill would be a big-money acquisition to push one of the other big-money acquisitions out of the rotation. If that’s a problem. Seems like getting a talented pitcher to force Ubaldo into a swingman/emergency role would be the very definition of “feature, not a bug.”

It could be that the Orioles aren’t keen on spending that kind of money on any starting pitcher until they get out from one of those two contracts, at least. But if they are, they might want a short-term risk like Hill. It’s not the 100 innings he doesn’t pitch; it’s the timing of the 100 innings he does.

The likely

It’s the Dodgers, right? They got a tub of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Greinke at the last second, started eating it with a spoon, straight from the tub, and it worked. To the extent that Hill wasn’t the reason they didn’t win the pennant, at least, and was one of the reasons they got so close.

More than that, Hill seems to follow the Dodgers’ archetype. They’re not looking to spend $200 million for seven years, which is why they let Greinke leave for a division rival. It’s why they didn’t sign David Price or Johnny Cueto. They’re looking for slightly dinged cans of stew on the clearance table, confident that Kershaw and the young players already on hand will provide the real star power. There isn’t a better short-term solution who doesn’t affect the long-term plans of the franchise.

On the other hand, this might be the offseason where the Dodgers finally make the big whopper trade they’ve danced around for years. Now that teams know better than to hold out for Corey Seager, Julio Urias, and Joc Pederson, maybe a trade can actually get done. Justin Verlander is a pitcher with a no-trade clause who spends an awful lot of time in Beverly Hills, and he probably won’t be that much more expensive than Hill, at least as far as contract. Which is a very weird sentence to type.

If they do that, though, it wouldn’t have to be something that eliminated Hill as a possibility. They could get Verlander and Hill, for example. It’s hard to see a better fit than that.

Prediction

Dodgers, but now we get into the part where we have to figure out what a weirdo like Hill will get on the open market. Two years? Three years? $15 million per season? More? Longer? Less? Shorter? I have no idea what kind of contract he’ll demand, much less the kind of contract he’ll actually get.

MLB Trade Rumors is guessing three years and $50 million. That’s exactly what Jon Heyman is predicting, too. I’ll take the under on that, just because while Hill is the only pitcher on the market worth an investment, that’s meant a lot of teams have already decided to avoid the market with extreme prejudice. The competition might not be as fierce as we think for any of these starting pitchers, if only because baseball started exploring their contingency plans back in June.

So I’ll go with Dodgers, three years, $45 million, with a whole bunch of bonuses related to innings pitched. It’s not spit-take money, but it’s the kind that will set Hill up for life while still representing a risk for the Dodgers, who do have limitations. This deal would give the Dodgers a very expensive sixth starter to be named later, but I’m pretty sure that’s the way they like it.