On Friday, major league teams declined to tender contracts to 39 players held on their 40-man rosters. Among them was as least one solid option for the Detroit Tigers this offseason. Starting pitcher Matt Shoemaker fits every criteria the club is looking for in an acquisition this winter. And crucially, there are specific reasons why Shoemaker may be open to a deal as well.
The 32-year-old righthander was never supposed to be a major league success story. He went undrafted out of Eastern Michigan University back in 2008. The Los Angeles Angels picked him up as a free agent, and Shoemaker spent five long years in their farm system trying to stand out beyond his modest pedigree. He was up to the task, debuting in Anaheim in 2013, and for six seasons has been a very effective starting pitcher when healthy.
The last bit is the sticking point, and presumably the reason the Angels declined to tender him a contract heading into 2019, his final year of arbitration. Overall cost wasn’t the major issue, and the Angels are desperately trying to contend with a threadbare pitching staff. MLB Trade Rumors projected Shoemaker to earn $4.3 million in 2019. That’s inexpensive for a veteran starter with a matching career ERA and FIP of 3.93. Unfortunately, Shoemaker’s injury history and the Angels’ need for reliable starting pitching made him expendable, and provides enterprising teams with an opportunity.
Shoemaker’s is a career in two acts
Shoemaker’s tenure in the major leagues can roughly be split in two parts, with the dividing line set at September 4, 2016. Prior to that date, Shoemaker had amassed 436 1⁄3 innings pitched in about three calendar years worth of work. He held a career ERA of 3.75 with a 4:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 3.76 FIP. In the two years since, his ERA is 4.64 and he has only been able to give the Angels 108 2⁄3 innings of work.
On the date in question, Shoemaker suffered one of the more horrific injuries in baseball history when he was struck in the head by a 105 mph line drive off the bat of Seattle Mariners third baseman Kyle Seager. Shoemaker suffered a concussion and a fractured skull, requiring emergency surgery to relieve bleeding on his brain. In the days and weeks following, concern centered around his long-term health rather than his future on the pitcher’s mound. Fortunately, Shoemaker was able to make a full recovery and was ready to go when the 2017 season began.
Unfortunately, his luck didn’t improve. He was decent early in the season, but developed forearm issues that led the Angels to shut him down in June. He had surgery to relieve pressure on his ulnar nerve, and missed the rest of the season.
With that issue corrected, Shoemaker was expected to bounce back in 2018. It didn’t happen. The forearm issues continued to plague him in the spring, and he made just one start before hitting the disabled list. It was discovered that the initial diagnosis had missed a split tendon in the forearm which had to be repaired. Shoemaker had surgery to repair the tendon, and didn’t pitch again until September.
None of this history is particularly promising, but when Shoemaker did finally return on September 3, he looked like he hadn’t lost a step. The Angels kept him on strict pitch counts, but he made six starts with a solid strikeout-to-walk ratio and home run rate, both better than his career averages. His sinker looked good as new in terms of velocity and movement. His success depends on command, sink, and deception — the velocity isn’t the key to his game to begin with — and it’s a good sign that his abilities appeared undiminished.
This is a very short sample of just 25 1⁄3 innings, but assuming the second surgery finally corrected his arm issues, it’s promising. Shoemaker has been snakebitten over the past few years and therein lies the risk. However it’s one of the few reasons a pitcher who has been a quality starter whenever healthy is even within the Tigers’ apparent price range.
Does the Shoe fit? (Yes, I went there)
It’s pretty clear that Shoemaker would make a good addition to the Tigers. He has always posted fine walk rates, and his strikeout rate has actually ticked up over the years. He’s not overpowering, but he isn’t a guy who lives on weak contact and good defense either. Comerica Park is a good park to hit in, but it also has dimensions a smart pitcher with good command can take advantage of. Nor would it hurt Shoemaker to move into the worst division in the game.
Meanwhile, the Tigers can’t really be hurt should the injury woes continue for him. The Los Angeles Dodgers, among others, have made hay in recent years by stockpiling injury prone arms on the cheap, and the Tigers have much less to lose by doing the same. They have a few solid young pitchers in the minor leagues that they won’t mind putting in the mix, and their expectations to win are currently non-existent. The upside is that if Shoemaker is healthy and back to form, he would arguably be the Tigers’ best starting pitcher, as Mike Fiers was in 2018.
Like it or not [Ed.: We don’t like it], the Tigers have strongly signaled that they aren’t going to be adding much to their payroll this offseason. Ironically, they have also signaled that they have numerous positions they would like to fill in free agency. They seem set on picking from the bargain bins, making risks like Shoemaker’s arm a necessity to have hope of landing a legitimate starting pitcher. Shoemaker has ties to the area, fits the division and the park well, and probably isn’t going to be much sought after either.
From both a baseball and a financial standpoint, Shoemaker and the Tigers feel like a match. He may ultimately choose another option, but the Tigers probably aren’t going to find a better starting pitcher for the price anywhere else.