Between the normal drudgery of following baseball in November and the annoying lack of non-Josh Hamilton rumors, the last few weeks have been a pretty dull time to be a Brewers fan. However, according to the folks at The Brewer Nation, that might change soon. The always-insightful Brewers blog reported today that the Brewers have been in talks with the agent of free agent reliever LaTroy Hawkins. The 40-year old Hawkins spent last year with the Los Angeles Angels, where he posted a 3.49 ERA in 42 innings.
It would be great to see Hawkins in a Milwaukee uniform again, and the Brewers need all the bullpen help they can get, but I’m skeptical about bringing him back as a free agent. Hawkins probably can still prove serviceable in the right situation, but carries with him a fair amount of risk, and just doesn’t have the upside of other arms on the market that could justify the kind of contract he will likely command.
I’ll start by saying that I wouldn’t completely be opposed to signing Hawkins. The Brewers have a lot of holes in their bullpen that need to be filled, including at least one middle reliever, and there’s still a good chance that Hawkins could provide decent innings in that kind of role. In spite of his age, he pitched pretty well last year and is still getting his fastball up around 93-94 mph. However, Hawkins’ numbers and skills are on a slow, yet noticeable decline, to the point that it’s hard to see him being a significantly better proposition than the various minor acquisitions the Brewers have been making over the past month.
Hawkins has certainly had some small-sample-driven ups and downs over the last five years or so, but his underlying performance has been pretty consistent. He doesn’t strike out or walk very many batters, and he generally is as good as the sum of the fielders around him and his own ability to keep the ball in the park. However, his strikeout rate has been trending downward pretty steadily in recent years – from 7.0 per nine innings in 2008 to 6.4 in 2009 to 5.2 in 2011 to 4.9 last year – and his swinging strike percentage reflects the same pattern. To date, Hawkins has been able to get by in spite of this, but, unless he is able to pull off another season like 2011 (where he posted a 2.76 FIP on the strength of a fluky low home run rate of 0.2 per nine innings), his overall performance is likely going to follow this pattern and deteriorate sooner than later.
Another question altogether is Hawkins’ health. As Brewers fans probably know by now, he missed decent chunks of both 2010 and 2011 due to shoulder surgery. Last year, he was out for nearly a month with a fractured finger. The finger injury can’t really be counted against him, but Hawkins hasn’t thrown more than 48 innings in a season since 2009, and it doesn’t make a great deal of sense to spend much money on a relief pitcher who can’t be expected to deliver a somewhat typical amount of innings.
There’s a definite possibility that Hawkins is able to defy a standard aging curve and put together another solid season in 2013, and definitely has value as a veteran presence in what looks to be a young bullpen. However, between his seemingly declining performance and less-than-perfect health history, 50 innings of league-average pitching would be a lot to expect of him. That kind of performance can, with a little luck, be replicated by most of the Brewers’ recent free-talent acquisitions. The leadership and whatever innings he can provide still have value, but it would be foolish to spend more than a year and $2-2.5 million or so on those virtues alone.