Pitching depth a key to Dodgers re-signing Rich Hill
A Dodgers jersey hung unbuttoned across Rich Hill’s shoulders. A matching cap adorned his head. He had been handed the garments moments before by Andrew Friedman, the team’s president of baseball operations, and Hill allowed himself a moment to consider their significance.
Hill opened his mouth to begin his remarks, only for his voice to catch in his throat. For nine seconds, he collected his thoughts. He chuckled at his own vulnerability, a quality he strives to hide on the mound.
“There is a lot of emotion up here,” Hill said a few minutes later. “I kept telling myself I wouldn’t do this. It’s something that’s been an incredible journey to get here, but never did I think that I would pack it in. I never thought I was done.”
On July 28, 2015, Hill signed a contract with a team with no major league baseball affiliation, the Long Island Ducks of the Atlantic League. He had churned through seven different teams in the previous nine years, undergoing a labrum repair and an elbow reconstruction along the way. Four hundred and ninety-six days after he left affiliated baseball, Hill celebrated the consummation of a life-changing pact with the Dodgers.
After haggling the details over the weekend, the team finalized a three-year, $48-million contract with Hill. The Dodgers were willing to gamble on Hill, a 36-year-old left-hander who has started only 24 major league games since 2010, after watching the heights he touched during a cameo with the club over the summer.
He posted a 2.12 earned-run average in 20 starts for Oakland and the Dodgers last season. He impressed team officials with dedication to his craft and endeared himself to teammates with his passion. The organization believes it possesses the depth to cushion against Hill’s physical uncertainty.
Hill is unlikely to log 200 innings per season. But the club can mitigate his absences with other pitchers, while keeping Hill fresh for 120 to 150 innings of work.
“We feel like with his quality, we’re probably less reliant on the quantity than some other teams might be, because of our upper-level pitching prospects that got some experience last year,” Friedman said. “A few may start the year in [triple-A Oklahoma City] and be depth for us, and provide a very high floor to fill in whatever innings for any of our guys that are missed.”
The return of Hill also increases the likelihood that the Dodgers will seek to trade veteran pitchers such as Scott Kazmir, Brandon McCarthy and Hyun-Jin Ryu. All three come with physical uncertainty: Kazmir finished the season on the disabled list because of neck and back injuries; McCarthy struggled to locate his pitches after he returned from elbow ligament replacement surgery, and Ryu has yet to start throwing this winter as he continues the long road back from shoulder surgery in 2015.
The Dodgers would prefer to shed some of these players in order to save money. But they also understand the value of a useful pitcher in a class devoid of high-end free-agent pitchers.
“Adding Rich today puts us in a position where we can talk about [trading] starting pitching,” Friedman said. “And in this market, that’s a really valuable thing to bring to the market.”
The Dodgers considered Hill the best free-agent pitcher of the winter. He had dazzled opponents with his curveball and earned the appreciation of the staff’s ace, Clayton Kershaw, for his competitiveness.
“He’s so much fun to watch pitch, his competitiveness and his fire,” Kershaw said. “He cares. He wants to win. He wants to pitch well. And that’s awesome to have. You can’t really take that for granted.”
Added Manager Dave Roberts, “You see the competition, you see the consistency and his focus and preparation. There’s a lot of intensity and that huge competitor in him.”
Hill has never viewed his sojourn as a Duck, which was quickly followed by a minor league contract with Boston, as a moment for humility. He considered it part of his journey back to prominence, an outcome he hoped for, even if the rest of the industry considered it unexpected.
After four starts with the Red Sox, Hill impressed Oakland enough to receive a $6-million contract. His performance in 2016 merited a deal worth eight times that much. He flew with his family to this hotel outside Washington, D.C., for Monday, but already his mind was looking forward to a workout on Tuesday.
“As I’ve gotten older, it’s something that you learn that you only have a certain amount of time, and you want to make the most out of your time that you have,” Hill said. “Being here in L.A. gives us that opportunity to bring a World Series to the city. That’s what we wanted.”
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