The Miami Marlins have had a number of trade targets whom we have discussed this past week. But there are also free agents available on potentially short deals whom Miami can pursue to fill in their short-term goals. We discussed a few free agent targets in our Marlins Offseason Plan at the beginning of the month, and some of the rumors have already begun trickling in about the Marlins' interests.
The most interesting name to have appeared on the Marlins' radar is free agent starter Phil Hughes. Hughes is coming off a poor final season with the New York Yankees, posting a 5.19 ERA and 4.50 FIP in his final campaign in the Bronx. The Yankees let him and his expectations go, and the Marlins have shown interest in the 28-year-old right-hander as a potential fill-in in the back of the rotation.
But with the sort of depth Miami has at starting pitcher, would Hughes be a good fit for the Fish?
Bad Yankee Fit
Hughes has had 780 2/3 innings in the majors to show who he is, so getting excited about his "potential" is a mistake. At this point, he is who he is, and that would be a pitcher with decent strikeout (19.7 percent career rate) and walk (7.4 percent career) rates, but a terrible penchant for home runs. Hughes's strikeouts per nine innings among the 125 starting pitchers with at least 300 innings since 2011 is ranked 62nd, almost right in the median. His walk rate is the 42nd-lowest among that same group, meaning that if he could simply put up an average season in terms of homers, he would be a more than useful starting pitcher.
The problem is that home runs continue to ravage him. On a per-nine-inning basis, Hughes ranked third behind only Bronson Arroyo and Colby Lewis in terms of highest homer rates since 2011. A good deal of that is due to his natural repertoire. His fastball-curveball-changeup routine has yielded the lowest ground ball rate in the last three years among those 125 pitchers.
But Hughes's unfortunate string of home runs can also be blamed on his poor fit in Yankee Stadium. The stadium's notoriously short right-field fence has led to terrible nightmares on the part of Hughes. Yankee Stadium allows the third-most home runs in the majors according to FanGraphs' park factors. and that is especially true for the left-handed batters. Hughes's fly ball style simply did not fit in New York, and the numbers in the last three seasons bear that out to a degree.
The changes in strikeouts and walks are not explained by park factors, as Yankee Stadium has been neutral in those departments, but Hughes has bore the brunt of punishment in the stadium's small confines. In three years, Hughes has allowed home runs at home 1.9 times more than he did on the road. The full effect is not likely represented there, but the difference is still staggering.
There were also psychological factors possibly involved with Hughes's high expectations in New York. He has a long and checkered injury history, including a disappointing 2011 stint with "arm fatigue" that had Yankee fans scratching their heads. His former top prospect status is long gone, and he may benefit from being away from the fan base that expected that of him once.
Marlins Good Fit
The fit on the Miami side is almost a mirror image of New York, and is thus perfect for Hughes. In Miami, Hughes's fly ball ways would go significantly better. The Marlins have a home run park factor of 89 according to FanGraphs. That translates into a 21 percent drop in expected home runs allowed by Hughes in making the move. In the past three years, he has allowed an average of 30 homers per 180 innings. If that 21 percent figure holds true, we would expect Hughes to allow 24 home runs in 180 innings while playing half of his games in Marlins Park. If we consider the average home run to be worth 1.4 runs below average for a pitcher, that is a savings of eight runs in 180 innings, or 0.4 run per nine inning improvement.
Not all of those benefits will stick in the expansive outfield of Marlins Park. Some of those fly balls will die as outs, while others will turn into doubles or triples. But if the change in those fly balls tends to even out, the benefit could be something along the lines of a third of a run per game. If you will recall, even a third of a run is equivalent to raising Hughes's fastball one mph!
The benefits go beyond the park fit and what should be an effective Marlins outfield defense behind Hughes. The Fish could also provide a worry-free environment for Hughes, who was once a young pitcher with a lot of expectations on him. Playing for a Miami team going nowhere is just the sort of low-pressure environment that could allow Hughes to blossom if the pressure cooker of New York was getting in his way. Perhaps with no expectations of ace-level performance, he may do a little better as well.
The type of deal Hughes is probably looking for is also in favor of Miami. The Marlins have significant pitching depth, both in the majors and minors, and they are looking to use some of it to acquire a long-term option at a position player spot. That may require the Fish to trade one of their young rotation cogs, particularly Henderson Alvarez or Jacob Turner, in order to facilitate a deal for someone like Hank Conger.
For the future, that may be the right move, as Miami has loads of prospects who should be ready by 2015. But for the present, the Fish may have a hole to fill, and rushing a young pitcher not named Brian Flynn (who already did well in Triple-A) may eat a year of service time and mess with the player's development. Instead, signing Hughes as a stopgap for a year or two would not be a bad option and would still allow the future starting pitchers to take over if and when they are ready.
That works best for Hughes as well. Coming off one of his worst seasons, it is unlikely he will sign a long-term deal and sacrifice potential value in the market again. A short-term, one-year contract is more in his favor, as it allows him to audition for other teams. And do not overlook the choice of location. Hughes knows his major problem is in the home run department, and there is no better park to move to than Marlins Park when trying to suppress homers. He can look to the example of Josh Johnson, who cleverly signed a one-year contract with the San Diego Padres to rebuild value after a lost 2013 season. Petco Park tends to make any pitcher look much better heading into a free agent year.
What kind of contract would both parties be interested in? Given Hughes' injury history, you have to factor in some down time. I would be willing to project 160 innings for Hughes in 2014, and Steamer expects a 3.84 ERA and 4.01 FIP off of a home run rate that looks similar to the one I mentioned in his move to Miami. The Marlins could get a 1.8-win pitcher for next season, meaning he could earn $9.4 million on a one-year deal. But one-year deals are often notoriously cheap to free agents, so a salary of $6 million or $7 million for one year seems a lot more likely.
What do you Fish Stripers think? Good potential move at that price, or bad one? Do you think Hughes would be a good fit in Miami?