Over the past few years, the Chicago Cubs have been signing pitchers with injury issues to low-cost deals with team options, hoping to strike it rich and hit on a future rotation member for cheap: names inked by the Cubs have included Drew Smyly, former Mariners first-rounder Danny Hultzen, and now the newest member of the Mariners organization, Kendall Graveman.
Graveman is familiar to Mariners fans as a member of the Oakland Athletics starting in 2015, when he came to the A’s as part of the widely-panned Josh Donaldson trade. As an A, Graveman posted a workmanlike but consistent ERA of around 4 each of his first three years before coming down with a case of the sogs in 2018. At that time, however, the A’s had optioned Graveman and his 7.6 ERA down to the minors, so he went on the minor-league injury list. Graveman declared free agency before the 2019 season and was picked up by the Cubs for $575K and a team option in 2020. Earlier this month the team declined the $2.5M option on Graveman, who made two starts in the Cubs’ minors system at the tail end of 2019, making him available for the Mariners to pick up:
Free-agent RHP Kendall Graveman has signed a one-year, $1.5M contract with the #Mariners, a source tells The Athletic. The deal includes a $3.5M club option or $500,000 buyout for 2021.— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) November 26, 2019
It’s a little curious that the Cubs, after investing a year in Graveman’s rehab, didn’t opt to pick up his fairly low-cost option; that might be a signal they’re planning to chase bigger fish in free agency, or perhaps the team just wasn’t satisfied with the pace of Graveman’s rehab and didn’t see him helping the club in their win-now window. Instead, Graveman now gets a flip-flopped deal with the Mariners that will pay him $1.5M this year and give the Mariners the option of picking up his contract in 2021.
Graveman, whose listed MLB nickname is “Digger,” which took me a second but has now registered as fully metal, is a groundball specialist who’s posted GB% of 50% or better in each of his three full seasons. He pitches primarily off his sinker (91-93 mph), but will also mix in a cutter (88-90), and less frequently a changeup (85-86) and curveball (79-81). Back in 2017, Jeff Sullivan noted in an optimistic early-season post on Graveman that his sinker velocity was well up in an Opening Day start, sitting at what had previously been his max velocity, and his overall velocity was trending upwards.
Kendall Graveman 3 pitch K to Mazara (95mph, 95mph and 96mph, all 2 seamers). pic.twitter.com/iOQxNMUiff— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) April 9, 2017
Even in his brief 2018 campaign, Graveman was still holding that upward trend in velocity before he caught a case of the barking elbow. However, despite this uptick in velocity and after that promising Opening Day start, things fell apart quickly for Graveman, who attempted to adjust both his pitch mix and his delivery on the fly to correct the problem before being optioned to Triple-A.
Graveman has an appealing arsenal of pitches, and if the balls remain juiced, a groundball specialist will be a valuable asset. He seems open to tinkering with both his delivery and pitch mix, making him an excellent match for biomechanics expert Brian DeLunas. The uptick in velocity is also intriguing, although the Mariners pitching philosophy emphasizes control, so don’t be surprised to see him back off that some in order to focus on what Graveman does best: throw his plus sinker to get all the groundballs, all of them. Or who knows, maybe throwing 95+ is just what Graveman does now, TJ or not, and he’ll transform into a K machine, but that seems like a big ask for someone who’s hovered around a 15% K rate in his admittedly brief MLB career.
Graveman is also only 29, meaning if the Mariners could help get him on-track they could have a stalwart rotation member for years to come. For Graveman, coming to Seattle is a fresh start where he can get away from being the disappointing return for a superstar and maybe also stick it to the club that optioned him down to the minors right before he went on a lengthy rehab (rehabbing while in the minors means no big-league paycheck, although he still gets the salary bump for being on the 40-man, and no big-league service time accrual). If Graveman is successful, it will come with additional financial bonuses:
Kendall Graveman also can earn $1.5M in incentives in each year of his new deal with #Mariners, per source. One year, $1.5M guarantee for 2020, $3.5M club option for ‘21.— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) November 26, 2019
Oh, and he’s also pretty good at fielding his position. So no matter what else happens, at least there will be that.