"I think we would not do that," D-backs manager Kirk Gibson said this week about a future role for Hudson. "It probably would be more in the bullpen."
What is Daniel Hudson's Best Value Now?
Though the decision is hardly a surprising one, and is in fact one that many have been speculating on since the word came down that Daniel Hudson was going to need a second Tommy John surgery, it is nonetheless a bit deflating. The number of people looking forward to a day in the not-so-distant future when Daniel Hudson would toe the mound as a power throwing right-handed starter for the beleaguered Diamondback staff is a fairly substantial one.
Before the injury, Hudson appeared to be well on track to establishing himself as a very legitimate #2 type starter in MLB. Some, myself included, even speculated that despite Ian Kennedy's stellar 2011, that the future really belonged to Hudson, and that he was primed to surpass his rotation mate in performance and durability. While many fans and some insiders considered Ian Kennedy to be a prime candidate for trading after both 2011 and 2012, Daniel Hudson looked like the pitcher to offer an extension to. So, the word that his days as a starter are likely over is understandably a bit demoralizing. But, just as importantly, does this also spell an end to his days as a Diamondback?
Hudson's conversion to a bullpen arm raises a slew of new questions in regards to the embattled Arizona bullpen. While the standard rehabilitation time for those recovering from TJ surgery is 12-18 months, the fact that Daniel Hudson re-injured his throwing elbow in his first minor league start after a strong, successful , quick rehab, would likely warrant some extra caution, pushing his recovery time closer to the long end than the short end. Even if Hudson and the team decide to allow him to move at a rapid pace so long as he feels strong and healthy, Hudson would still be looking at about August 1st before he would be ready to throw a pitch for the MLB team. Every day of caution, and every day of extra work to adjust to the new role of bullpen arm will push that date back farther. As such, it is perhaps most reasonable to expect that, if Hudson appears again in 2014 at all, it will be as part of the September roster expansion. But what if he is successful?
The departure of J.J. Putz at the end of the season will open a spot in the Arizona bullpen. Josh Collmenter and Brad Ziegler are both under contract and, quite unlikely to be moved. If they are doing well, there is no reason to move them as they are two of the best at what they do. Likewise, if they are struggling, they will be all but untradeable. In a similar position is left-handed pitcher Oliver Perez who just signed a fairly lucrative 2-year deal with the team, though his handedness could still make him a viable trade target if he is even average. Newly acquired Addison Reed will be entering his first year of arbitration. Though his arbitration cost is likely to be a bit steep for a reliever, it's difficult to imagine the team moving on from Reed if he performs anywhere near expectations. Joe Thatcher will be a free agent at the end of the season, making him a candidate for a mid-season trade if he is performing well, or a candidate to simply let walk at the end of the season if he has a rough 2014 campaign. Lastly, there is Will Harris. His 8th inning meltdown on Thursday notwithstanding, Harris has been a solid right-handed option out of the bullpen since being acquired and promoted in 2013. Furthermore, he is not slated to become arbitration eligible until 2016. This makes an effective Harris exactly the sort of arm the team needs to hold on to in order to control costs and maintain financial flexibility to improve the team.
With Putz and Thatcher leaving at the end of the season (if not sooner), it should seem that there is plenty of room for Hudson to make his way back to MLB. However, fellow Tommy John recipient David Hernandez is likely to return sometime in late April or early May of 2015. Although he'll have to prove he is up to the task, if Hernandez is pitching anything at all like he has since his recall from Reno last September, there is little reason to believe he would not be reinstalled as a high leverage arm in the Diamondbacks' bullpen. Additionally, the Diamondbacks have two standout late-inning relief prospects in Jake Barrett and Matt Stites, both of whom could potentially see MLB action as early as this season. Not far behind is former Oregon closer Jimmie Sherfy, who could find himself promoted all the way to Reno before the season is out if he continues as expected.
While expecting every arm in the pipeline to reach his full potential is somewhat optimistic, expecting at least one of Stites, Barrett, or Sherfy to develop into a major league arm is entirely reasonable. Added to David Hernandez who has already proven himself MLB capable, and the bullpen picture gets just as crowded as ever. So how does Daniel Hudson figure into the picture?
Other than a failure of any pipeline arm to pan out (a very unlikely circumstance given the nature of the three prospects), there are still a few options. 2015 will be the last season of team control for David Hernandez. If he continues to perform anywhere close to how he did in 2011-12 and the end of 2013 up until his injury at the end of Spring Training this season, it's likely that Hernandez will be in line for a substantial payday. While the Diamondbacks will be coming into new television money in 2016 and have shown a willingness to spend on key talent, it's entirely reasonable to think that Hernandez may be traded in 2015 or allowed to walk at the end of the 2015 season. This would open the door for Hudson.
Another potential path back to the majors lies in the possible, and some might even say likely, event that Collmenter or Harris simply implodes and is sent back to Reno. Unfortunately for Hudson, that prospect is far more likely to strike this season than next. That brings us to the last option, and the one that could very well also serve to move Hudson right out of Arizona.
The most expedient way for Daniel Hudson to make his way back onto Arizona's 25-man roster is to simply return to the Daniel Hudson of old and absolutely dominating the minor leagues in the process. If Daniel Hudson can return to pitching in the mid to upper 90s en route to putting up 8 K/9, posting a walk rate under 2 BB/9 all while keeping the ball in the yard, he'll be awfully difficult to ignore. Given the shorter nature of relief outings, Hudson can pitch all-out instead of pacing himself, so seeing an increase of K/9 up to 9 or more will only strengthen his case. That sort of dominant performance will force the issue, leaving the team with few options other than to put Hudson back on the team. That's also where it gets tricky. Those are closer type numbers. Yet, with Reed holding down the role of closer, Hudson is left working as a set-up man, not the worst situation in the world, but neither is it ideal. If Hudson is able to perform at such an exceptional level, the question begging to be asked will be, "Why not let him try starting again?" This also goes back to the issue of financial flexibility, the same issue that all but assures the departures of Thatcher and Hernandez. Daniel Hudson will be in his third and final year of arbitration in 2016, while younger arms Stites, Barrett, and Sherfy will all be pre-arbitration. If Hudson is indeed pitching that well, finding a taker for him on the trade market (especially if traded with that last year of arbitration eligibility intact) should be fairly easy and also net a decent return.
Granted, Hudson's possible return is still at least 4-5 months away, and quite possibly a full year away. A great many things can happen between now and then. But as we look to the future of this currently struggling franchise, one has to wonder if the biggest shot in the arm that Daniel Hudson could provide might not in fact be to perform so well as to force the team into trading him. Not only could it be best for the team, but it might even be best for Daniel Hudson.