By Jason Wojciechowski on November 2, 2013 at 5:47 PM
Hi! Remember this?
I think Matt Eddy had it first:
#Athletics sign RHP Phil Humber, who had elected free agency from Astros. In 2013: 0-8, 7.90 with 5.9 SO, 3.3 BB & 1.5 HR per nine in 17 G.— Matt Eddy (@MattEddyBA) November 2, 2013
And then, noting the legion of sarcastic and smug responses to Eddy's tweet to the effect of "that was dumb," here's Joe Stiglich:
It's a minor league deal the #Athletics signed RHP Phil Humber to. Figure he'll get a shot to earn roster spot in spring training.— Joe Stiglich (@joestiglich) November 2, 2013
So it's one of those low-downside deals. The worst that can be said for stashing Humber in Triple-A is that roster spots are finite and it's possible that someone better could fill the same role. If the A's season gets to the point where the team needs more than the eight starters ahead of Humber,1 they're probably screwed whether they signed Humber or someone else2 to the same minor-league deal. Which is to say that this move doesn't make a difference at the major-league level.
What it might do is help Sacramento push for another pennant—the team won its division (though the league plays split halves and so winning one's division doesn't actually mean anything per se in the playoff chase) every year from 2007 to 2012 and hasn't finished lower than second place since 2002. Attendance has fallen off since the RiverCats' peak (over 900,000 in the team's second season at Raley Field, 2001, down to 586,000 in 2012), but if you're going to choose between winning and not, you'd probably rather win.
Humber, who's from East Texas (Nacogdoches and Carthage, the latter having a population well under 10,000 despite being the seat of its county), was a prospect once upon a time (no. 3 overall pick in 2004, top-75 rankings by Baseball America in 2005 and 2007), but he hasn't lived up to his potential, failing to miss bats or keep the ball in the park even in the minors. His 2013 PITCHf/x numbers show a five-pitch mix with a low-90s fastball—in his month and a half in the Astros bullpen at the end of 2013, he was averaging 92 with his fastball rather than the 90 he mustered as a starter. That's not much velocity either way. The slider is Humber's whiff pitch, and it actually was pretty effective in 2013: top quarter in whiffs per swing and near the top 10 percent in swing rate.
The major-league stats were just insanely bad in 2013. Even in his 10 games in the bullpen, he allowed at least one run in eight of them, though to be fair he was used as a multi-inning reliever, throwing more than an inning in nine of the 10 games.
So sure, no, he's not going to post a 3.50 ERA as a Triple-A starter or be a valid middle reliever in a major-league bullpen (much less a fifth starter), but if he manages a 4.50 in the PCL, he can be a piece of another winning team and, in the event of disaster, you'd rather be able to call up Humber than have to add a real prospect to the 40-man earlier than you wanted to.