The Cubs inking Kendall Graveman to a two-year, $3.575 million contract ($1.785M AAV) prompted comparisons to Drew Smyly’s two-year, $10 million contract ($5M AAV) from last season. I totally get the connections — both pitchers had Tommy John Surgery and the deals were signed with an outlook towards the future — but the Graveman deal is more risk-averse and has a higher likelihood of returning value.
The main reason to be more excited about Graveman’s contract is that it’s a fraction of the price. Smyly’s cost ultimately proved too risky for the Cubs front office, forcing them to ship the lefty to Texas in order to clear luxury tax space for Cole Hamels’ $20 million option. No one imagined Smyly’s $5 million AAV hindering the Cubs from making other moves at the time he signed, but baseball is gonna baseball, and the lack of pitching development in 2018 plus an injury to Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood’s implosion forced Theo Epstein’s hand.
Because he’s only due 35 percent of Smyly’s salary, Graveman should give the Cubs a little more flexibility. Even more exciting is Graveman’s team control. Unlike Smyly, who will be a free agent after the 2019 season, Graveman is under control through the 2021 season. If he pitches well in 2020, he’ll enter his third year of arbitration and likely will be awarded a contract. So this deal is more like a two-year bet, not the one-year gamble made on Smyly.
And believe it or not, I actually like Graveman more than Smyly when it comes to potential on the mound. I sort of have a thing for high-grounder pitches with wicked changeups. Maybe it’s because I’ve grown to rely on Kyle Hendricks throwing gems every fifth day, I don’t know. But I do know that propensity to induce grounders could be incredibly valuable in front of a defense that has proven adept at gobbling them up over the past few seasons.
Consider that Graveman’s changeup drops more than roughly 90 percent of righty starters and that he owns a career 51.7 percent grounder rate. The only qualified starting pitchers in 2018 with grounder rates better than Graveman’s career mark were Dallas Keuchel and the legendary Jake Arrieta. Nothing against Smyly’s high-whiff/fly ball splits, but I just feel a bit more comfortable knowing Javy Baez will vacuum up Gravemen’s grounders.
But the really cool aspect of Graveman’s game is his unique release point. The guy has a lower and wider release point than 90 percent of starters. So, for example, when Lorenzo Cain steps up to the dish, it’s possible Graveman will be one of the “wackiest” pitchers he sees all year. And because of that unorthodox release point, he might actually be a viable reliever if starting doesn’t work out.
One negative aspect of Graveman’s portfolio, however, is that he might still be seeking complementary pitches to his sinker and cutter. Outside of the changeup, he doesn’t really have that nasty secondary pitch. He does throw a curve (or slider) at a frequency slightly lower than his changeup, but it generates below average grounders and whiffs. As such, it’s possible he could struggle a little as he sees the same hitters the second and third time through the order.
Nevertheless, Graveman proved that he can be successful with his current pitch portfolio. The former Athletic finished the 2016 season with 1.6 fWAR in 186 innings (essentially league average). He followed up with 1.1 fWAR in 105 innings during the 2017 season (again, essentially league average). So if he heals from elbow reconstruction and performs in accordance with past seasons, the next two years of salary and his 2021 arbitration will be an incredible bargain.
But what if new pitching coach Tommy Hottovy and the rest of the Cubs coaching staff unearths a legit complementary pitch? That’s a big if, but even just a small tweak could push Graveman past the league-average mark. It’s a low bar to set, but the potential reward is well worth the minimal risk involved.