When Ruben Amaro has made moves this offseason, he’s done so in a flurry, seemingly using the “high” of completing one transaction to help him push ahead and make another.
After re-signing Joe Blanton and Shane Victorino on Thursday, the Phillies wheeling-and-dealing GM crossed off another line on his to-do list Friday by signing Jose Contreras, a 38 year-old righthander who will likely replace Clay Condrey as the Phillies long-reliever and compete to be the team’s fifth starter. The contract is pending a physical.
Contreras has had an up-and-down career, never fulfilling the potential the Yankees saw in him when they signed the Cuban exile in 2003. He had a promising rookie season in New York, making 18 appearances (9 starts,) and going 7-2 with a 3.30 ERA, a 1.15 WHIP, and 72 strikeouts in 71 innings. But he struggled mightily the following year and was traded to the White Sox for Esteban Loaiza, a journeyman righthander coming off of a career year (21-9, 2.90 ERA, 2nd in AL Cy Young voting in ’03.)
Contreras played an integral role in the White Sox championship season of 2005, finishing 15-7 with a 3.61 ERA and a 1.23 WHIP. Nearly every stat Contreras compiled in 2005 was a full-season career best, and he expanded upon that success by pitching three gems in the playoffs.
Despite an adequate follow-up season in 2006, Contreras fell off completely in 2007, losing 17 games and producing a 5.57 ERA while allowing 11 hits per nine innings and striking out only 5.4/9. He never truly recovered from that horrid ’07 season and was traded from the White Sox to the Rockies on August 31, 2009.
Upon joining the Rockies, Contreras made 7 appearances and two starts. One of the starts lasted a mere three innings; in the other he allowed only one run over 6 2/3 IP. His 1.59 ERA in those 7 appearances (17 IP) was impressive, as were his 17 strikeouts, but his 1.65 WHIP was too high.
Here, he will try to recapture the success he once had as a starting pitcher and make a case for himself in Spring Training, but if things don’t work out, he’ll serve as a middle reliever. Contreras appears to be better suited as a bullpen arm at this point in his career because he hasn’t shown an ability to sustain success throughout the course of a season since the magical ’05 ride he took with the White Sox.
Like Chan Ho Park, Contreras has displayed much more velocity out of the bullpen. His fastball has long hovered in the 91-92 mph average, but shot up to 94 as a reliever in limited time in Colorado. He throws his fastball 66% of the time, but also sports an 84-86 mph slider and a 77-79 mph splitter.
Contreras will fit in well at Citizens Bank Park because he has always displayed the ability to get outs on the ground. He has a career ground ball rate of 46%, compared to a fly ball rate of 36%, 1/3 of which have been infield flies. His groundball/flyball ratios of 1.33, 1.72, and 1.24 over the last three seasons have been impressive, and he’ll need to replicate that success in order to succeed in Philadelphia.
He can be a bit wild, evidenced by the fact that in his career, only 50-51% of pitches thrown have been in the strike zone. Hitters know this and tend to lay off of Contreras’ junk, swinging at only 22% of his pitches outside the zone (league average has been 25% or higher the last three years.)
In split duty between starting and relieving last year, Contreras was worth 24.7 runs above replacement and 2.5 wins above replacement.
This was a low-risk, high-reward signing for the Phillies. It won’t make or break their season and it won’t automatically cost Jamie Moyer or Kyle Kendrick a shot at the fifth starter’s job, but it will create more competition for the spot and give the Phillies more rotation and bullpen depth. Year in and year out, nearly every major league team proves that you can never have enough starting pitching.
If Contreras ends up in the ‘pen, you can be assured the Phillies will be looking for that 94 mph fastball to resurface. If it does, and Contreras can continue to be a ground ball pitcher, he could have plenty of success with the Phillies exceptional defense behind him.
Worst case scenario: Contreras is ineffective and used sparingly out of the pen.
Best case scenario: He cracks the rotation or makes the catcher’s mitt pop out of the bullpen, hopefully becoming the 2010 version of Chan Ho Park.
When looking at those potential outcomes, it’s hard to argue with any one-year deal.