Thursday, November 19, 2009

Scouring the Free Agent Market for Starting Pitching

The Twins have holes in their starting rotation as they head into the off-season. In a previous entry, we looked at some potential trade targets for the Twins to explore in order to fill the gap behind holdovers Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, and Nick Blackburn. Today, we'll look at some free agents the Twins should consider pursuing.

Carl Pavano: Acquired from Cleveland in early August, Pavano provided the Twins with some solid pitching down the stretch. He made 12 starts, posted a 5-4 record in 73.2 innings, and sported a 4.64 ERA during his time with the Twins. It was exactly the bounceback season Pavano needed after his disastrous tenure in New York where he collected nearly $40M and won a total of nine games. The 2009 version of Pavano could only find a one-year, incentives-laden deal with the Indians in the off-season and he responded well. His final record was 14-12 in 33 starts spanning 199.1 innings. His ERA was high (5.10), but it was essentially wrecked by some ugly starts in April and May, and his FIP of 4.00 displayed he pitched far better than his traditional measure demonstrated. It was against the American League Central Division where Pavano made his mark in 2009. He made 18 starts within the division and posted a 10-6 mark with a 4.34 ERA in 118.2 innings. The Twins probably acquired him both out of necessity to stabilize a teetering rotation and for his ability to defeat the Detroit Tigers (4-1 in six starts vs. Detroit in 2009). At 34 years of age on opening day next year, Pavano is worthy of an offer from the Twins. The problem is that he has Type B free agent status, meaning teams would not put next year's first round draft pick at risk by signing Pavano. In a thin class behind John Lackey, Pavano will likely have a lot of suitors lining up, and his performance in 2009 - including his fine performance against the Yankees in Game 4 of the ALDS - will help his market value. The Twins had an initial meeting with Pavano's agent at the GM Meetings last week in Chicago and all indications are that Pavano enjoyed his time here. He would be a solid option for 2010 and 2011, but the Twins would have to be very, very, cautious beyond that point.  

Rich Harden: After the Twins apparently put in a waiver claim against Harden before last year's September 1 trade deadline, the Cubs pulled him back and the two sides were not able to make a deal. Still, the claim demonstrates the Twins' interest in the electric, but oft-injured right-hander. Coming off a short, yet somewhat spectacular 2008 season in which he went 10-2 with a 2.07 ERA in 25 starts in Oakland and the Cubs, Harden was solid in 2009. In 26 starts, he posted a 9-9 mark with a 4.09 ERA in 141.0 innings. He spent a month of the season on the DL in May and June with a back injury and shut his season down 10 days early due to arm fatigue, but Harden is an intriguing free agent. His strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) mark of 10.91 is outstanding, although his walks per nine innings (BB/9) are high (4.28). He is 27 years of age and has shows flashes of brilliance in his career. However, he just has not been able to stay healthy. Harden has never reached 200 innings in his career and has not approached his career-high marks of starts (31) and innings (189.2) since his first full season in the Major Leagues - 2004. He made $7M last season and has Type B free agent status this winter. Despite his health concerns, some team will likely give him at least a three-year deal. Don't look for the Twins to be one of those teams, but Harden is definitely worth the risk for something along the line of two years, $15M.

Erik Bedard: After two disappointing seasons in the Pacific Northwest, Bedard opted for free agency after his injured-plagued 2009 season. Although the Mariners will have exclusive negotiating rights until November 20, there are a lock to not sign him to another deal. Acquired in a blockbuster deal which sent George Sherrill, Adam Jones, and others to Baltimore, Bedard was thought to be a missing piece on a team which was expected to compete for the AL West title in 2008. The result was a disaster for Seattle. The Mariners lost 100 games and fired their manager and GM, while Sherrill made the All-Star team and Jones blossomed in Baltimore. Bedard started 2008 well, but was limited to only 15 starts and 81.0 innings before being shut down for the season. In 2009, Bedard was again limited to only 15 starts and 83.0 innings. He posted a 5-3 mark with a 2.82 ERA last season before undergoing left shoulder surgery in early August. In fact, he had surgery on the same shoulder one year prior, and any player undergoing two shoulder operations in successive seasons has a deflated market value. When healthy, Bedard is a prominent lefty. His K/9 marks in his two years in Seattle were 9.76 and 8.90, while his BB/9 marks were 3.69 and 3.58. He demonstrated his power stuff before the shoulder inflammation ruined his season. However, the 11-7 record and 3.24 ERA will be over-shadowed by the fact he made just 30 starts and threw just 164.0 innings during his two seasons in Seattle. The Twins may take a flier that he recovers from this shoulder operation, due to his youth (31) and Type B status, but for nothing more than a one-year, incentives-laden deal.

Jon Garland: After eight seasons with the Chicago White Sox and one with the Los Angeles Angels, the Arizona Diamondbacks signed Garland as a free agent to a one-year, $7.75M deal (plus $10M option for 2010) last winter. He did not pitch that well for a terrible Arizona team and was sent to the Los Angeles Dodgers late in the season. Predictably, he fared much better with a better team, posting a 3-2 mark in six starts in LA and notching a 2.72 ERA in 36.1 innings. Overall, he was 11-13 with a 4.01 ERA in 33 starts and 204.0 innings between Arizona and LA. The cash-strapped Dodgers declined his 2010 option, making Garland a free agent. Opinion is mixed on Garland at this stage in his career. This article from Fan Graphs' and USS Mariner's Dave Cameron suggests he's no more than a #5 starter. Excellent points are raised, but the fact remains that Garland is a durable innings-eater who has started at least 30 games eight seasons in a row and has gone over 200 innings five times. He may not win as many games as his stuff suggests, but he will pitch teams deep into games. With the Twins' bullpen expected to be solid again in 2010, a reliable innings-eater is a viable option. He may be expensive, given his youth (30) and Type B status, but he warrants at least a look.

Joel Pineiro: A ten-year MLB veteran at the tender age of 30, Pineiro enjoyed a bit of a renaissance year in St. Louis in 2009. After 25 largely lackluster starts with the Redbirds in 2008, Pineiro righted the ship in his second full National League season, making 32 starts, pitching 214.0 innings, posting a fine 15-12 record, and sporting a 3.49 ERA. His FIP mark of 3.27 was slightly better. It was a classic contract year season, and Pineiro pitched himself into a better market position. A guy who has made a career of pitching to contact suddenly became a pitcher who went from inducing less than 50% of balls in play being ground balls to a 60.5% ground ball percentage. As Fan Graphs' Dave Allen points out, this, along with his improved BB/9 ratio, was quite a shift. He made $7.5M last season and will be a Type B free agent this winter, and will generate a lot of interest. The downward spiral which signaled his end in Seattle, followed by a disastrous tenure in the Boston bullpen in 2007, has largely been erased by his somewhat steady performance in St. Louis. He'll likely generate a lot of interest given his age, but would likely benefit from Rick Anderson's tutelage, especially if he proves that his BB/9 ratio of 2009 was no fluke.

Jarrod Washburn: There was a lot of chatter last season about the Twins making a pitch for the veteran lefty Washburn, who was toiling in Seattle and finishing up a four-year, $37.5M contract. The conversations were not unexpected, given the Twins' starting rotation instability and the fact that Washburn is from Webster, WI. Instead, the Detroit Tigers swung a deal for Washburn and left the Twins hanging. The Twins addressed their rotation problem a week later by acquiring Pavano, but the thought was that the Tigers has scored a bit of a coup. However, things did not work out well for Washburn in Detroit. He made eight starts and pitched a total of 43.0 innings. His record was 1-3 with a scary 7.33 ERA. He ended up having a sore knee which shut his season down early and he was of no help to Detroit down the stretch. His time in Detroit ruined an otherwise fine season. At the time of the deal, Washburn was 8-6 with a 2.64 ERA through 20 starts spanning 133.0 innings. Overall, he ended up 9-9 with a 3.78 ERA in 28 starts. His FIP of 4.58 suggests he didn't pitch as well as his overall numbers suggest. Washburn is never going to be a 200-innings guy at this stage of his career (he's now 35), but he will start 25-30 games a year, barring injury. He's also represented by Scott Boras (as is former and maybe future Twin Joe Crede), but it's hard to see anyone really clamoring for his services at this point. The Twins may take a look at him for a one-year spin.

Jason Marquis: An interesting free agent case is Marquis. He's been a serviceable starter for the past six seasons, posting double-digit victories in each campaign. He's gone over 200 innings in three of those years. He won 15 games and posted a 4.04 ERA for a team which played half of its games at hitter-friendly Coors Field. Still, he has been erratic over his career. He is a total of only 9.6 wins over replacement since 2002, doesn't miss a lot of bats (a career 5.25 K/9 for his career), and was run out of town by the Cubs after two erratic seasons there after signing a three-year, $21M contract (another nice move, Cubs!) before landing in Colorado. Marquis' career FIP is a lackluster 4.82. He is rather young (31) and is a ground ball pitcher (55.6% last season with the Rockies), which would definitely be welcome on the Twins' staff. He also has Type B status, which would be attractive to the Twins. He would probably be a good fit for the #4 start, and would seem to be a younger version of Pavano. However, Marquis is a National League-type pitcher who would probably had adjustment problems to the new league. He is also one of the NL's best-hitting pitchers (.202 career average, although his offensive numbers have nose-dived over the past few seasons) who is a native of Staten Island, NY, and has hinted that the Mets would be a perfect fit for his services. If the Twins are to get into a bidding war with Omar Minaya over someone, let it be someone other than Jason Marquis.

Ben Sheets: Here's another interesting case. Sheets missed all of last season recovering from arm surgery and hasn't thrown a Major League pitch since late 2008. Before getting hurt, Sheets was enjoying one of his finest seasons, going 13-9 in 31 starts spanning 198.1 innings. His ERA of 3.09 was excellent, as was his FIP of 3.38. For his career, he has a FIP of 3.56, and has excellent K/9 (7.60) and BB/9 (1.97) ratios. The issue with Sheets has always been durability, and at age 31, questions about his long-term stamina are legitimate. His recovery from flexor tendon surgery in his right elbow is apparently going as scheduled and his agent believes Sheets will be ready for spring training 2010. There are no guarantees and it's unlikely the Twins would offer anything more than a one-year deal. Texas sniffed around his way last season and they are expected to do so again this winter. With the absence of free agent starting pitching talent outside of Lackey, Sheets is certain to get a deal from someone willing to take a flier.

Don't Even Get Excited: The Twins aren't going to be able to sign the high-priced guys like John Lackey, Cliff Lee (next year's prize free agent, given that Philadelphia picked up his 2010 option), so I didn't even include them in this analysis. Of course, there may be a few stretches already on this list, but these Type A pitchers are no-brainers - that the Twins will not pursue, that is.

Of this list, the following options seem to make the most sense:
  1. Pavano
  2. Garland
  3. Pineiro
  4. Sheets
  5. Marquis
We'll see what GM Billy Smith has up his sleeve.

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