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Red Sox Free Agent Target: Rich Hill

A reunion could be an intriguing upside play.

Cincinnati Reds v Minnesota Twins Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The simple part of the Red Sox offseason is determining needs. They need, for example, reinforcements in the rotation. It doesn’t exactly take a baseball genius to determine that as fact. What becomes more complex is exactly how they go about finding said reinforcements. Do they add one, or multiple? Do they focus solely on either free agency or trade, or look into both routes? Do they outlay significant money and/or prospects in the search, or go for more of a buy-low philosophy? Do they look for stability or upside? I think that last question is the one that interests me the most, though admittedly turning it into a binary situation is a bit over-simplistic.

For one thing, they don’t need to only target one type of pitcher. In fact, if they only target one pitcher they would be failing their duties to put a respectable team on the field. So, if they do indeed bring in two pitchers, they can go with an upside play as well as a safer option. Of course, even that is simplifying things because the dichotomy here is not exactly neat and tidy. Trevor Bauer, as an example, has significant upside that we saw in 2020, but also some relative safety in comparison to the other options. This is a two-dimensional spectrum.

But for the purposes of this post, there’s no use in complicating things with a long-winded discussion about spectrums. Let’s just say for simplicity’s sake that the Red Sox do place pitchers into safe and upside play buckets, with some acknowledgement that some safe options are safer than others and some upside plays possess more potential payoff than their counterparts. Let’s also say they plan on signing two pitchers, and one is someone like Rick Porcello or José Quintana or pick your favorite innings-eating “safe” option. That makes sense given all the uncertainty in this rotation, with that uncertainty representing mystery in terms of both performance and innings.

That’s all well and good, but it would leave open the possibility of targeting another pitcher who may not cost much in terms of money but could potentially take the rotation to another level. There are varying levels of this pitcher, with Corey Kluber probably representing the top of the class. Today I want to focus on an older version of this in old friend Rich Hill.

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Hill is a very familiar face to Red Sox fans and to the city of Boston in general. The veteran lefty, who turns 41 before Opening Day, hails from the city originally and was a member of the Red Sox bullpen in the early 2010s, albeit with a very small role. His career has been a wild ride, and the most recent chapter as this high-upside starter actually started in Boston. Hill came back to the Red Sox organization in 2015 and made four starts to end that season. The southpaw was incredible in those four starts, and was able to parlay that short but stellar performance into a multi-year contract with the Athletics. Since then, he’s bounced around a few teams, struggling to put together full campaigns but performing to a high level when he has been able to pitch.

And that’s the upside/downside at play here. On the plus side, as I said, he’s been mostly great in recent years. Going back to that run at the end of 2015, he has pitched only 505 innings (84 innings per season, and 93 if you take out the shortened 2020 season) but has a 140 ERA+ in that time with peripherals that largely match. He has almost 11 strikeouts per nine innings in that stretch while walking fewer than three batters per nine. In terms of that ERA+ mark, which adjusts his ERA for park and league contexts, Hill’s 140 ranks eighth in all of baseball among the 116 who have tossed at least 500 innings in that span. He sits just ahead of guys like Chris Sale and Gerrit Cole with Zack Greinke occupying the spot ahead of him.

It’s fitting that Sale is right there with him, too, because it is in part the Red Sox ace that makes someone like Hill an intriguing option. As mentioned, the biggest issue with Hill is that he doesn’t provide big innings, which is why a signing like his would likely need to be combined with a more stable option in terms of workload. If that is indeed how it goes, though, then you have less pressure on Hill, particularly because of Sale. In a sense, Hill would have some pressure on him to perform for the first couple of months, hopefully forming a strong, upside-filled top three with Eduardo Rodriguez and Nathan Eovaldi. But the pressure for 200 innings won’t be there. It’s not entirely clear what Sale’s timeline is, but the hope is that we see him at some point perhaps as soon as early June, and back to full strength at least by the end of that month. At that point, Hill’s performance becomes less important and anything beyond, say, 90 innings isn’t totally gravy, but it’s something close.

It does need to be mentioned, though, that the downside is not only with regards to innings. While Hill has been consistently good since 2015, including a 3.03 ERA in 2020, there are concerning signs from this past summer. His strikeout rate fell fairly significantly, from almost 30 percent in 2019 to a shade below 20 percent this past season. In addition, his fastball velocity fell to just under 88 mph. He’s never been a high velocity fastball pitcher, but that’s still a tick or two below here he’s been for most of this resurgence. When you add that in with the fact that he’s about to be 41 and has significant durability questions already, the risks are clear.

Now, it goes without saying that in an ideal world, you don’t get a guy from whom you’re only hoping for a couple of months of performance. But the Red Sox operate under a budget, and given the numbers needs for this winter, they are going to need to target some players with smaller price tags, and smaller price tags come with flaws. That’s just how it works. For Hill, the expectation is probably something in the $6-10 million range for a one-year deal. The lower end, to me, is palatable, but if it gets to double digits I probably move on.

For what it’s worth, the Red Sox have been linked to Hill recently, though the extent to that interest is not entirely clear. At the end of the day, speaking for myself, if the Red Sox don’t sign someone like Kluber and instead spend bigger on a safer option and use their cheaper salary option for an upside play, Hill is intriguing. The worst-case scenario is he gets hurt or doesn’t pitch well, which basically leaves the team where they are now. The best-case scenario is he provides a strong bridge to Sale’s return, and helps keep the team afloat in a wildcard race into the summer. For, say, $7 million, it’s hard to find that kind of upside elsewhere, but if the price goes much higher than that, the risks could start to outweigh the upside.