The rumors at once seemed both too good to be true and too true to be good. The Colorado Rockies were pursuing a former All-Star closer, just not one of the big three. They eventually got their man, signing right hander Greg Holland to a one year deal worth $7 million with a complicated option for 2018.
In an offseason where top relievers like Aroldis Chapman ($86 million), Kenley Jansen ($80 million), and Mark Melancon ($62 million) got big money, the Rockies instead went shopping in the cast off bin. Depending on your perspective they either came away with a player rehabbing from Tommy John surgery who hasn’t thrown a major league pitch in over a year, or they just signed one of the most dominating relievers of the past half decade. The fact is, Holland is both.
Greg Holland rose to prominence in the Kansas City Royals bullpen starting in 2011, when he threw 60 innings with a 1.80 ERA and a 0.93 WHIP. The following year was more of the same, and after closer Jonathan Broxton was sent to the Cincinnati Reds at the trade deadline Holland was given the chance to close. He finished the year with a 2.96 ERA, a 1.37 WHIP, a 12.2 K/9, and 16 saves in 67 innings. From then on, it was all Greg Holland in the ninth inning for the Royals. In 2013 and 2014 he combined for a 1.32 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 13.4 K/9, and 94 saves in 129 1⁄3 innings, good for two All-Star appearances and two ninth place finishes in the AL Cy Young race. In that same time frame, Chapman, widely considered then and now to be the best reliever in baseball, had a 2.29 ERA, a 0.94 WHIP, 16.7 K/9, and 74 saves in 117 2⁄3 innings.
It all went wrong in 2015, though. His electric four-seam fastball, which usually averaged around 97-98 mph, was now down to 93-94 mph. He was more hittable (7.9 H/9, compared to 5.4 from 2012-2013), he was allowing twice as many walks (5.2 BB/9, compared to 2.6), and his strikeout rate plummeted (from 13.4 K/9 to 9.9). He was finally removed from the closer role in September and the team announced he had a “significant” tear in his UCL two days later (and he was likely injured long before that, which would explain a lot). He received Tommy John surgery and, entering his last year before free agency, was non-tendered by the Royals in December. He spent all of 2016 rehabbing from surgery.
Holland was apparently seeking a multi-year deal this offseason, even though teams didn’t know what to expect. During a showcase at the GM meetings in Arizona in November, he was reported to be throwing 75 percent and hitting 88-91 mph on his fastball, a far cry from his dominant mid-to-high 90s fastball of two years ago.
Apparently the Rockies felt comfortable enough with what they saw to offer Holland a deal and, frankly, why shouldn’t they? Take another look at his Baseball-Reference page and tell me there’s not a dominant reliever in there. Obviously there’s a risk that the fastball won’t have the same life or the command doesn’t come back. In that scenario, the Rockies get a Greg Holland who looks more like his 2015 vintage (or worse) than the best-in-baseball relief ace from 2012-2014.
This is where the contract comes in. Just so we’re clear, this is not a normal deal. The terms are one year for $7 million, which, when you consider what even mediocre relievers are receiving in this market and the team is paying someone to come pitch in Coors Field (which is like hiring children to clean a witch’s stove) is pretty decent. Holland can also earn up to $8 million in incentives in 2017 based on games pitched and games finished benchmarks; in short, if he ends up good and ends up closing, he makes a lot more money. If he hits certain benchmarks—50 games pitched and/or 30 games finished, whichever comes first—it triggers a player option for $15 million in 2018. If it doesn’t trigger, it becomes a mutual option for $10 million.
It’s hard to see this as being bad for the Rockies. They pay a (slightly) inflated price on a rehabbing reliever because he happens to be one of the most dominant relievers of the last half decade. Worst case scenario, the Rockies are out $7 million and Greg Holland tries to convince a different team to give him a shot because #Coors.
Best case scenario, Holland is good enough to hit either of his benchmarks, and the Rockies get an elite reliever for one year at about market rates (see Melancon’s four-year, $62 million deal with the Giants). In that scenario, the Rockies are likely at least competitive enough to stay in the Wild Card race most of the season due to his contributions. It would then be up to Holland to decide to take the $15 million option for 2018 and play for a contending Rockies team, or to see if he’ll get more money on the open market.
You could make the argument that if the Rockies were going to pay so much money for a reliever, they should have just pony up the money to bet on a sure thing like Melancon. The problem is that giving contracts to relievers is like buying bananas blindfolded: you have no idea when they are going to expire. Giving a one-year deal to Holland and making him prove that he’s still one of the dominant relievers in the game in order to be paid like it is a much more effective way to manage your risk.
In case you don’t remember (and, if you were watching, how could you forget?), the Rockies bullpen was horrendous last year, putting up a league worst 5.13 ERA with 28 blown saves. There is plenty of reason to think that the bullpen would improve in 2017 just by simple regression to the mean, but that hasn’t stopped general manager Jeff Bridich from seeking to bolster the ‘pen in free agency. With Greg Holland now on the roster, players like Chad Qualls (5.23 ERA in 44 games) will be seen less and less coming out in relief. If Holland returns to his pre-2015 form, he very well could challenge Adam Ottavino for the ninth inning role, creating a Royals-esque string of hard-throwing fastball/slider arms parading out of the bullpen, especially if Carlos Estevez and Jake McGee can also find some positive regression to the mean.
It’s long been established that the Rockies have to overpay for pitching. This year, to repair an ailing bullpen, they decided to instead overpay for a low-risk, high-reward rehabbing former All-Star. Time will tell if he is more “injury reclamation” than “All-Star,” but either way, it is the type of move a team that hopes to be competitive in the near future needs to be making.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated with information about the timing of Holland's injury.