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Free Agent Reliever Target — Tommy Hunter

Tommy Hunter and his high-end cutter would be a welcome addition to the 8th inning for the Pirates.

Inspiration for an article comes at odd times.

Since my kids are terrible sleepers and Alex is a night owl, we had a Twitter DM exchange last week at 3 a.m. We both liked Tommy Hunter, late of the Tampa Rays, but Alex slightly preferred Anthony Swarzak as a target to bolster the Pirates’ bullpen. His piece on Swarzak ran on Tuesday, so consider this a companion piece.

In 2017, Tommy Hunter enjoyed his finest year as a professional while with the Tampa Rays, who he joined prior to the season on a minor league deal. The story of Tommy Hunter is a familiar trope: hotshot former prospect with the Rangers as a supplemental first round pick, injuries and ineffectiveness forced him out of starting, found a second chance with the Orioles for a few seasons as a quality reliever. Hunter had a solid 2016 season until he fractured his back in a freak accident and got caught in an oversupply of relievers in the free agent market.

But this past season, Hunter took his game to a higher level. His fastball velocity jumped from 94.5 mph in 2016 to a career-high 96.3 mph in 2017. But as strong as his fastball was, it was the development of his cutter that led to his success. His 2.61 ERA/3.07 FIP over 58.2 innings resulted in a 1.2 WAR on the season. Hunter isn’t just a blazing fastball (9.8 K/9 IP), as he also possesses excellent control numbers of just 2.15 BB/9 IP.

His cutter had a well above-average spin rate of 2505 rpm in 2017, good for 20th highest for pitchers that threw 100 or more of them (12th if you count only relievers). It doesn’t take too many leaps of logic to remember that Mark Melancon rode a very strong cutter to success as a Pirate. If Hunter could provide the Pirates with even 85% of Melancon’s success, that would be an attractive proposition to acquire him as a setup man in 2018.

MLBTradeRumors estimates Tommy Hunter to be worth 2 years/$12M on the market this offseason. That’s a shade above the 2 years/$11M that the Pirates signed Daniel Hudson for last offseason to ostensibly be their setup man. This doesn’t mean that history is bound to repeat itself. Signing a reliever is a lot like spinning a roulette wheel — just because Daniel Hudson landed on ‘red’ doesn’t mean Tommy Hunter will, too.

The path to the Pirates returning to the playoffs isn’t as fraught as some would have you believe. I’ll concede that the Cubs are still the favorites in the division, even though their starting rotation is predictably looking leaky at this point. Feel free to remind me of that last sentence if they somehow sign Shohei Ohtani. But the rest of the National League, aside from the Dodgers and Nationals, are nothing to be intimidated by. I expect both the Rockies and Brewers to regress a touch after their impressive 2017 seasons. The Brewers just have that classic ‘young team need to take a step back to take a step forward’ feel, while the Rockies got a lot of big performances all at the same time from both pitchers and hitters. In a way, they feel like the 2015 Pirates. The Diamondbacks are going to lose their talisman, J.D. Martinez, in free agency.

If the Pirates can add one ‘big ticket’ (for them) reliever and a smaller out-of-nowhere bullpen guy, that would take a lot of strain off having to rely on the Neverauskases/Sanchezes/Santanas of the world. Fiddle with the bench, get a better backup catcher, and make sure key players make mature decisions in the offseason — boom! They’re back above .500. In today’s baseball landscape, that’s all you need to have a shot at the wild card. And as we’ve seen in recent years with some teams, just get in and you can free roll all the way to the World Series.

Is Tommy Hunter that ticket to glory ? Maybe, maybe not. But I’d feel better with him in the 8th inning than some of the current internal options, that’s for sure.


Nerd engineer by day, nerd writer at night. Kevin is the co-founder of The Point of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Creating Christ, a sci-fi novel available on Amazon.

13 Comments on Free Agent Reliever Target — Tommy Hunter

  1. Bob Smizik // November 24, 2017 at 9:51 AM //

    The Pirates need help in the bullpen and Hunter would be a nice addition. My question: Will the Pirates pay that price?

    • That’s always the question with the Pirates, will they spend. The good news is the pen looks much better going into 2018 than it did going into 2017.

      The smartest thing the Pirates could do is not spend more on the pen and go with youth. Take that savings and spend big on a bat. One big bat would go a long way towards shoring up this roster.

      • mark delsignore // November 24, 2017 at 11:04 AM //

        One big bat eh?

        Just asking a question….not trying to start WWIII but…..who?

        ANd for how much?
        I assume 3rd base?

        again…..just asking.

      • Bob Stover // November 28, 2017 at 4:05 PM //

        Agree 100% that a big bat is the biggest priority for this Pirates team.

    • mark delsignore // November 24, 2017 at 11:07 AM //

      Agree Bob

      Can you imagine,,,,just for a moment, if the payroll would somehow get to $125MM?

      2 relievers like this guy and a bat a third?

      Our chances of post season (real post season not one and done) would rise dramatically.

      Excuse me — I have to take my unicorn for a walk.

      • Kevin Schafer // November 24, 2017 at 8:22 PM //

        Can you imagine,,,,just for a moment, if the payroll would somehow get to $125MM?

        Right after I’m done imagining winning the Powerball.

  2. The Pirates went from 98-64 in 2015 to 78-83 in 2016 to 75-87 in 2017. Mccutchen is no longer MVP material and has generally been in decline, Polanco has not blossomed and is one more sub par season away from being considered a dud, Marte was not the same player after coming back from his suspension (will he ever be again?), Kang can’t get out of South Korea, Mercer is the definition of average (in a league of awesome shortstops), we have a back end of the rotation manned by Kuhl and Williams (ready for a regression?),etc…. Question marks anyone?

    But the author thinks we’re so close to competing, so close to bridging the gap with the Cubs and Cards (who will always be competitive), that all we need to do is buy the company line, go cheap, and bet on a relief pitcher or two.

    Yeah, that’ll do it.

    • Vegas has Bucs World Series odds next year at 80/1. Only one team (Tigers) are given worse odds.

      I’m so hopeful that we can grab that relief pitcher Tommy Hunter. And if we can then just bolster the bench.

      Like I said…yeah, that’ll do it.

      • mark delsignore // November 24, 2017 at 1:43 PM //

        “I ?m so hopeful that we can grab that relief pitcher Tommy Hunter.”

        Well Jim K, it is a start.

        Actually, IMHO, if they got two guys like this for ~$5M a piece and a legit 3rd baseman for $15M and dumped/moved Friese or SRod, for a net additional $20MM, i really like their chances next year.

        Alas, it that darned $20MM extra……

        • Mark…I have no doubt the Pirates will bolster the bullpen. It is the cheapest way to try to do something, other than upgrading the bench. Those are the two things we are being told that the Pirates need to once again be competitive. I couldn’t disagree more.

          Now, if you personally are talking about a 15M third base upgrade, then THAT is a start. (SRod isn’t going anywhere though…NH recently indicated that he’s perfectly fine with him on 3B if Kang isn’t back. The audacity!) Add in two 5M relievers (I can see them picking up one, not two…but let’s assume two), and then you’re talking about a team that is an average mlb team that has as much of a chance of surprising in 2018 as any other average mlb team. Even then we wouldn’t be at mlb payroll average.

          Too bad this owner will not spend Indians or Royals money to bring the team up to mlb average. Teams with bottom feeder payrolls just do not win it all in this sport. However, teams in middle payroll positions win quite often.

          • mark delsignore // November 25, 2017 at 9:20 AM //

            Could not agree more Jim K

            I believe, like you, that there is a “floor” of sorts for payroll and it is north of $120MM this day and age but not a lot north.

            ANywho….a blog topic for another day.

  3. betterthanchickwood // November 24, 2017 at 4:02 PM //

    What would make anyone think Nutting wants to raise payroll?

    • Bob Stover // November 28, 2017 at 4:07 PM //

      To leverage and shore up his negotiating position for a new local rights deal that goes into effect in 2019. Declining ratings brought on by tanking payroll will cost him a lot more than the $15 million he could save by cutting payroll or even staying with the status quo.

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