On Tuesday, the Cleveland Indians and relief pitcher Scott Atchison reached an agreement for an extension into the 2015 season with an option for 2016. The 38 year old is amazingly still in his arbitration years and was set for his final year of arbitration, so rather than go to an arbiter or argue during the off-season, the Indians have agreed now to a $900,000 deal. The option, for his age 40 season in 2016, is good for $1M if accepted with a $100,000 buyout.
While this deal could be compared to the plethora of veteran pre-season signings the Indians make every year, like with Aaron Harang and Jeff Francoeur this year, but it is more like the Ryan Raburn extension last year. Both Atchison this season and Raburn in the last, exceeded expectations to an extreme level and the extensions are essentially a bonus given to the player. This is something that rarely happens in baseball, where a team will make up for a player being underpaid one season by overpaying him for the next. In both cases, the Indians could have taken advantage of the situation by using the players while they were discounted and releasing them at the end of the season, but they didn’t.
There are two possibly negative aspects to this signing with the only positive possibility being if he continues his success from this year into 2015. Much more likely, Atchison could see his age catch up with him or be forced out/keep back the great amount of incredible relief talent currently with the Indians or in the high minor leagues.
The biggest concern with this signing has to be Atchison’s age. As already mentioned, he is 38 going on 70 and while it is unproven whether or not he has a pet dinosaur, 40 year old players can rarely compete at the Major League level with players in their 20’s. One benefit that Atchison has in this is that he didn’t make his Major League debut until he was 28 and threw less than 70 total MLB innings prior to the age of 34. Because of this, he does not have the wear and tear that most pitchers have and even more importantly, Major League hitters haven’t seen very much of him. Generally, right handed relievers have a window of three to four years before hitters realize what they are doing with very few exceptions like Mariano Rivera. This is just Atchison’s fourth full season in the American League (he spent 2010 through 2012 in Boston) and as an early inning reliever, it seems like he could continue his success just considering this aspect.
While these two players should never be compared with talent, Phil Niekro does offer a precedent for a player not just producing into his 40’s, but actually improving. Prior to turning 35, Niekro went 110-94 with a 3.00 ERA and 1,172 strike outs, then added another 154 wins, 1,681 strike outs with a 3.43 over the next decade. Obviously, Atchison is no Niekro, but the Indians don’t need him to pitch until he is 48, just 39 and possibly 40.
The next drawback to the signing is that it could bury a few promising relievers even deeper in an already deep bullpen. Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, Marc Rzepczynski, Kyle Crockett, Nick Hagadone and C.C. Lee make up the current bullpen along with Atchison and all are under control through 2015. This is a pretty solid bullpen and the Indians should be happy with it, but it could possibly be even better. In the upper minors Tyler Sturdevant (1.98 ERA, 54 IP, 53 K’s in AA and AAA in 2014), Shawn Armstrong (2.25 ERA, 52 IP, 71 K’s in AA and AAA), Louis Head (3.04, 50.1 IP, 63 K’s in A+ and AA) and many others have yet to be given a Major League shot and could be kept down even longer by this signing. While the obvious answer may be that they would be promoted if they were deserving, one needs to look back only to earlier this season when John Axford kept Cody Allen out of the closer’s role for two months and Josh Outman kept Kyle Crockett in the minors. It was not until the Indians finally gave up on these players that pitchers like Crockett, Austin Adams and Lee got a chance. Even Hagadone, who had considerable Major League experience was kept down until recently by these older pitchers, but is now one of the Indians most dependable pitchers in any situation.
With all that said, there is a chance that Atchison will be an impressive force for years to come. At $900,000, he only costs about twice the amount of those other young options and he is more of a known quantity. While he is never going to blow anyone away, Atchison doesn’t walk hitters (just 9 in 56 IP this year and 2.3 BB/9 in his career) and doesn’t give up home runs (four allowed this year, 0.8 HR/9 IP in his career) a great combination for a utility reliever. Chances are these rates will increase in 2015 and his K/9 rate of 5.9 will probably drop, but even at that he will be a better reliever than the average righty.