Monday, November 16, 2009

Scanning the Trade Market for Starting Pitching

In previous entries, we have looked at how the Twins may address perceived holes at second base and third base through either the free agent or trade markets. Now, we continue to examine another area of concern for the Twins this off-season.

Starting Pitching (Trade Targets)

The Twins broke camp last season with their starting rotation set, presumably for the future. Youngsters Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Francisco Liriano, Nick Blackburn, and Glen Perkins were to hold down a rotation which was long on promise and short on age, with Baker being the oldest at the tender age of 27. Instead, things went haywire right away. Baker started the season on the DL and Liriano just couldn't get it going in 2009. Perkins had some miserable starts in May and infuriated the coaching staff by complaining of an injury AFTER getting pounded in his start (he did this twice in 2009). Slowey pitched very well before the All-Star break, but hurt his wrist in July and missed the rest of the season.

The Twins were forced to play patchwork with their starting rotation the rest of the way, and inexperienced starters like Brian Duensing, Armando Gabino, and Jeff Manship were forced to start meaningful games down the stretch. Duensing was a revelation for the Twins (nine starts, 5-1 record, 2.93 ERA in 52.2 innings) and deserves serious consideration for next season's rotation. Manship pitched his best game of the season in the opening game of the final series of the season with Kansas City and figures to be in the mix next spring. However, one move made seemingly out of desperation paid great dividends for the Twins in stabilizing the rotation down the stretch.

The Twins sent a PTBNL to the Cleveland Indians in early August for pitcher Carl Pavano. The oft-injured righty was solid for the Twins in his 12 starts, posting a 5-4 record with a 4.64 ERA in 73.2 innings and won some crucial games for the team, especially against divisional opponents.

With Baker, Blackburn, and Slowey locks to return to the rotation next season, the Twins have two spots open and a wealth of internal candidates (Duensing, Perkins, Liriano, Manship, Anthony Swarzak, etc.) to consider. However, there are several intriguing candidates from outside the organization should the Twins decide to go in that direction. The following players could be potential trade targets by the Twins. Again, I used the excellent TwinsCentric GM Handbook as a reference guide for these potentially-available starting pitchers.

Javier Vazquez: After three largely lackluster seasons with the Chicago White Sox, Vazquez was traded to the Atlanta Braves prior to the 2009 season and thoroughly enjoyed his return to the National League, where he had also made prior stops in Montreal and Arizona. The results were spectacular, as Vazquez posted a 15-10 mark in 32 start and fashioned a 2.87 ERA in 219.1 innings. He also struck out 238 hitters in that span. His 15 wins ranked fourth in the NL, and his 238 punchouts were second in the league. His 9.77 strikeouts per nine innings were a career high, as was his 0.82 homers allowed per nine innings. Most impressively, Vazquez sported a fielder-independent pitching (FIP) mark of 2.77 last season, which is also a career-best. At age 34, Vazquez is coming off a career year and his trade value will be extremely high this off-season. He is signed through the 2010 season for $11.5M and then will test the free agent market. The Twins could try to pry him away from Atlanta, but he will be expensive both in trade value and in a contract beyond next season. Also, his numbers in the American League (with the White Sox and New York Yankees) do not compare well with those posted in the National League, which may also scare the Twins away. He's a nice option if the Twins want a top-of-the-rotation hurler for 2010 but may end up being a one-year fix that costs a lot to obtain.

Jorge De La Rosa: The hard-throwing lefty had somewhat of a renaissance in the unlikeliest of places - Coors Field. De La Rosa washed-out in two seasons with Kansas City and has pitched well since moving on to Colorado. In 2009, he made 32 starts, won 16 games, pitched 185.0 innings, posted a 4.38 ERA, and struck out 193 hitters - all career bests. With the good, one also has to look at the not-so-good, and De La Rosa's struggles with control have posed issues. He walked 83 hitters in his 185 innings, an average of 4.36 per nine innings, and has consistently been in this territory throughout his career. However, he posted an excellent FIP mark of 3.91 and was 3.7 wins above replacement (WAR) in 2009. Also on the positive side, De La Rosa will be 29 on opening day and has one more year of arbitration left before he hits the free agent market. The Rockies missed him down the stretch last season as he missed some time with a groin injury, and he is the type of pitcher some teams will look toward because he is young, inexpensive, and has some control left before he hits free agency. However, his wild streak could prevent the Twins from taking a flier.

Bronson Arroyo: The veteran right-hander has quietly put together some fine seasons with some bad Cincinnati Reds teams. Arroyo has pitched at least 200 innings in each of his four seasons in the Queen City (plus one more in his final year in Boston) and has been effective. He dropped his ERA by nearly a run from 2008 to 2009 (from 4.77 in 200.0 innings to 3.84 in 220.1 innings) while winning 15 games in consecutive seasons. Arroyo posted a 15-13 mark in 33 starts in 2009 and struck out 127 batters against 65 walks. His FIP mark was higher than his actual ERA last season (4.78 vs. 3.84), but he was still 1.8 wins above replacement level in 2009. Arroyo is signed for $11M next season and has a club option for 2011 with a $2M buyout. The Reds are one of the "Rust Belt" teams who are losing money and getting hit hard by the economy, making it likely that they are looking to move high-priced players like Arroyo. On the flip side, the economic restraints make it far less likely that the Reds would eat part of the salary and/or buyout for Arroyo, making it less likely that the Twins would look to make a deal for the veteran. Still, he is a serviceable right-hander who has pitched well for a lousy club in a pitcher-unfriendly ballpark.

Aaron Harang: Another of the Reds' high-priced pitchers, Harang is scheduled to make $12.5M in 2010 and has a club option for $12.75M in 2011 ($13M if he pitches 210 innings in 2010), along with a $2M buyout. The Reds would love to deal Harang and his contract to another team, but it is a difficult prospect given his decline over the past two seasons. When Harang signed his contract before the 2007 season, he was one of the NL's brightest starting pitching stars, coming off a 16-11 season with a 3.76 ERA in 234.1 innings in 2006. He followed that up with 16 more wins in 2007 in 231.2 innings before bottoming-out in 2008. During the nightmare campaign, Harang went 6-17 with a 4.78 ERA in 184.1 innings. He continued the decline into 2009 in which he made 26 starts, pitched 162.1 innings, went 6-14, but still posted a respectable 4.21 ERA in the process. His FIP was nearly identical last season (4.14), and he still strikes out 7.87 batters per nine innings. His days as a workhorse have likely led to his decline over the past two seasons, and an hard-throwing innings-eater would normally be a desirable trade prospect. However, as is the case with Arroyo, his contract makes him hard to move (even if the Reds would likely agree to package either pitcher for a less-than-market return), especially with the Reds not being in a position to eat some of the salary.

Matt Cain: The young All-Star has "ace" stuff and makeup, and he would add a legitimate #1 starter to a staff which features a lot of #2s and 3s. The Giants are hitting-challenged and would likely look to move some of their surplus young pitching for immediate offensive help. Not to say that Cain is a "surplus-type" pitcher, though, because he is not. He is only 25 years-old, but he has four full big league seasons under his belt and has thrown at least 200 innings in three of those seasons. In 2009, he won a career-high 14 games, pitched a career-high 217.2 innings, and posted a career-best 2.89 ERA. He is a strikeout pitcher (7.52 per nine innings for his career) who walks a bit more than the Twins would like (3.60 per nine innings). Although his K/9 decreased somewhat from 2008 to 2009 (7.69 to 7.07), his walks per nine innings have decreased from 4.11 in 2006 to 3.02 last season. He posted a FIP of 3.89 last season and was 3.6 wins above replacement. With youth comes affordability, and Cain is signed for $4.25M in 2010 and has a club option for $6.25M (with some rather unique vesting criteria). The Twins have some young hitting prospects they could use to obtain Cain, but it would likely also need to include some MLB-type hitters currently in the mix. Still, he has "ace" written all over him and would be a perfect addition to an already strong top-three in the rotation.

Andy Sonnanstine: The Rays have a strong rotation and can afford to dangle Sonnanstine in order to obtain talent to fill other needs. The young righty seems to fit the Twins' profile perfectly. He is not over-powering but finds ways not to walk batters. His career BB/9 mark is 2.06, but he notched a high 3.07 BB/9 figure in a disappointing 2009 campaign. He posted a 6-9 record in 99.2 innings, and his ERA was sky-high at 6.77. He pitched poorly enough to warrant a demotion to AAA one year after starting a game in the World Series. His 2008 mark of 13-9 with a 4.38 ERA in 193.1 innings was impressive, but his disappointing 2009 campaign will seemingly hurt his trade value. Still, he's a Twins-type pitcher who is still young (27 on opening day next season), cheap ($430k salary last season and arbitration-eligible for 2010), and is under team control for three more seasons. His numbers tanked in 2009, but there is evidence he will rebound more toward his 2008 benchmarks next season. 

Roy Halladay: The biggest name out there is Toronto ace Roy Halladay. The 2009 trade deadline was dominated by rumors surrounding where he was potentially headed. A reported deal with the Phillies was nixed and Philadelphia ended up trading for Cliff Lee instead. Still, the big righty is in Toronto and facing free agency after the 2010 season. The Jays aren't going to be able to sign him long-term so they'll be faced with the option of trading him before the deadline or losing him to free agency and receiving draft picks as compensation. Of course, Halladay is a horse and a legitimate top-of-the-line pitcher. He has made at least 30 starts and thrown at least 200 innings in each of the last four seasons. In 2009, Halladay made 32 starts, posted a 17-10 record with an ERA of 2.79 in 239.0 innings. His strikeouts per nine innings were the highest in 2009 than they have been since 2001 (7.83), his FIP was an excellent 3.06, and he was 7.3 wins above replacement-level in 2009. All of these solid statistics were posted while rumors as to his destination were swirling. The Blue Jays elected to hold their ace this time, but don't expect a change in the asking price this season. If the Twins are to make a move, they would need to be prepared to give up a package of prospects which may include Aaron Hicks, Ben Revere, Wilson Ramos, Angel Morales, among others. The Twins may kick the tires, but don't hold your breath in anticipation of a move.

Chien-Ming Wang: Two seasons ago, Wang looked to be the Yankees' ace. He posted 19 wins in consecutive seasons (2006-2007) and was off to a fine 8-2 start in 2008. A foot injury suffered while running the bases ended his 2008 season early, and a shoulder injury caused him to miss most of 2009. What action he did see in 2009 certainly wasn't pretty. Wang started nine games (and made three relief appearances) and posted a 1-6 mark with a downright scary 9.64 ERA in 42.0 innings. In those 42 innings, Wang allowed a staggering 66 hits and seven homers, and was shelved for good after his July 4 appearance. The World Champs are set at the top of their rotation with CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, and are likely to bring Andy Pettitte back in the mix. Phil Hughes is likely to return to the rotation, which would put Wang in the mix for the back of the rotation. He will be in is in his third year or arbitration eligibility in 2010 and made $5M last season, meaning he is still affordable. However, the Twins could just play the odds that Wang will hit the free agent market after a non-tender rather than giving up a player (or players) in return. Wang's trade value is at an all-time low, so one wouldn't expect a great package going to the Bronx in return.

Of this group, Cain, Sonnanstine, and perhaps Wang seem to make the most sense in that they are controllable beyond next season, while the others will be able to test the free agent market and are less likely to stay with the Twins. Putting together a package for pitchers like Halladay, and to a lesser extent Arroyo, Vazquez, and Harang, will be expensive for a short-term fix, which has not been the Twins' style in the past. Nor should it be their style now.

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