November 14, 2012

Free agent pitching options: Middle-of-the-rotation starters

Twins starting pitchers combined for a 5.00 ERA during the past two seasons to rank dead last in the league and they head into the offseason with only Scott Diamond locked into a rotation spot. Terry Ryan has said he'd prefer to address the rotation via trades, which is no surprise for a team that's basically never pursued free agent pitching beyond bargain-bin shopping, but if they do decide to dive into the free agent pitching pool the water is reasonably deep.

In an effort to figure out the Twins' options I've separated the free agent pitching class into three categories: Top-of-the-rotation starters, middle-of-the-rotation starters, and back-of-the-rotation starters. Below are the middle-of-the-rotation starters, which I view as a No. 3 or No. 4 starter on a contending team and, for example, what Diamond seems likely to be long term if things go well and what new Cubs signee Scott Baker was before elbow surgery.

Shaun Marcum - RHP - 124 innings - 3.70 ERA - 4.21 xFIP - 109/41 K/BB

Marcum never threw hard, but has topped out in the high-80s since returning from Tommy John surgery in 2010. Despite that he has a 3.62 ERA and above-average strikeout rate in 520 innings during that time, thanks largely to a great changeup. After staying mostly healthy in back-to-back seasons Marcum again had elbow issues in 2012, but he pitched well in September. He's a prototypical Twins pitcher and the injuries could drop Marcum into their price range.

Brandon McCarthy - RHP - 111 innings - 3.24 ERA - 4.23 xFIP - 73/24 K/BB

A former top prospect repeatedly derailed by injuries, McCarthy finally got healthy and thrived for the A's before a second straight strong year was ruined by a line drive to the head on September 5 that led to brain surgery. Obviously his health is a serious question mark and McCarthy isn't as good as his numbers looked in pitcher-friendly Oakland, but he's a solid 28-year-old starter who fits the Twins' strike-throwing mold and is someone to root for on and off the field.

Joe Blanton - RHP - 191 innings - 4.71 ERA - 3.39 xFIP - 166/34 K/BB

Blanton missed most of 2011 with an elbow injury and on the surface his return was ugly with a 4.71 ERA and 29 homers in 191 innings, but his secondary numbers were far better. Not only were his 7.8 strikeouts per nine innings a career-high, Blanton had the NL's second-best strikeout-to-walk ratio and his 3.39 xFIP ranked 16th in MLB. At age 31 he's not really a breakout candidate, but Blanton is a strike-thrower with more upside than his ERA suggests.

Kyle Lohse - RHP - 211 innings - 2.86 ERA - 3.96 xFIP - 143/38 K/BB ratio

Lohse was his usual mediocre self for the first five years after the Twins traded him in 2006, posting a 4.66 ERA in 665 innings, but during the past two seasons he had a 3.11 ERA in 399 innings for the Cardinals while starting seven playoff games. At age 34 and with significantly less impressive secondary numbers Lohse is a good bet to be among the offseason's most overpaid free agents, but even if he were available cheaply a Twins reunion would never happen.

Francisco Liriano - LHP - 157 innings - 5.34 ERA - 4.14 xFIP - 167/87 K/BB

Speaking of unlikely reunions, Liriano is a free agent after the Twins traded him to Chicago for a pair of non-prospects in July. He was the same occasionally dominant but mostly frustrating guy in Chicago, tossing 57 innings with a 5.40 ERA and rates of 9.2 strikeouts and 5.1 walks per nine innings. For the Twins he had a 5.31 ERA, 9.8 strikeouts, and 5.0 walks. At age 29 and with all those strikeouts Liriano has more upside than most on this list, but ... who knows.

Brett Myers - RHP - 65 innings - 3.31 ERA - 3.92 xFIP - 41/15 K/BB

In both 2008 and this year Myers was shifted from the rotation to the bullpen and made a closer, with strong results, but he's also been a quality starter for most of his career. He has 247 starts with a 4.27 ERA and 7.2 strikeouts per nine innings, including a 3.79 ERA and 340/123 K/BB ratio in 440 innings between 2010 and 2011. As a fly-ball pitcher he struggles to limit homers, but Target Field would help that if the Twins are willing to bring in a not-so-wonderful person.

Roy Oswalt - RHP - 59 innings - 5.80 ERA - 3.27 xFIP - 59/11 K/BB

Oswalt talked about retiring because of back problems, sat out the first two months before signing with the Rangers, and then got knocked around for a 5.80 ERA while being demoted to the bullpen. At age 35 he may simply be nearing the end of the line, but a 59-to-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 59 innings suggests Oswalt wasn't nearly as bad as his ERA. His velocity was the same as 2011, when he pitched well for the Phillies, and his track record is tough to beat.

Carlos Villanueva - RHP - 125 innings - 4.16 ERA - 4.09 xFIP - 122/46 K/BB

Villanueva had a lot of success as a starter in the minors, but has spent most of his big-league career as a long reliever and has been mediocre when called on to make spot starts. He started 16 times for Toronto in 2012, struggling to keep the ball in the ballpark while posting a 4.50 ERA, but also had an 86-to-25 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 92 innings. If given a chance to build up his arm strength as a full-time starter at age 29 he could provide nice value.

Erik Bedard - LHP - 126 innings - 5.01 ERA - 4.05 xFIP - 118/56 K/BB

He's basically never stayed healthy, has a reputation for being a pain in the ass, and posted a 5.01 ERA for the Pirates this year, but Bedard's superior secondary stats included 118 strikeouts in 126 innings. And during the previous five years his worst ERA was 3.76 and his worst strikeout rate was 7.8 per nine innings. I'd never invest big money or multiple years in Bedard, especially at age 34, but for the hope of 25 starts on a one-year deal he's got some bat-missing upside.

August 2, 2010

Twins Notes: Liriano, Slowey, Plouffe, Myers, Ramos, and Eight Years

Yesterday was the eighth anniversary of this blog and the Twins fittingly celebrated by winning their eighth straight game. When it comes to this blog I've been fortunate about many things, not the least of which is that the Twins have been a winning team for almost that entire time. I started blogging on August 1, 2002. Two months later they made the playoffs for the first time since 1991 and they've had just one losing season since then, going 703-591 (.543) overall.

I've been doing this since the summer after my freshman year of college and I sometimes think about how different my life could have been blogging about the Orioles or Pirates or Royals (or 1993-2000 Twins) during that time. Would losing teams have kept my interest for so long? And even if they did, would anyone have wanted to actually read about it? I've met great people and gotten great opportunities thanks to this blog, and timing and luck have played a big part.

I started because I wanted to be a writer and needed to find some kind of audience when the college newspaper wouldn't have me, so eight years, 1,515 posts, and 6.7 million visitors later I'm still amazed the thing lasted more than a month. Eight years is the limit for a presidency and the length of a $184 million contract, but I have no plans to stop any time soon. Whether you've been here since August 1, 2002 or just found the place today, thank you for reading.

And now the stuff you actually came here for ...

• In analyzing the rotation's struggles a couple weeks ago I noted that Francisco Liriano was suffering from some combination of bad luck and bad defense, because while his ERA was still plenty good his secondary numbers showed one of the elite pitching performances in baseball this season. At the time Liriano was coming off a start in which he failed to make it out of the second inning and so some readers found it hard to believe, but he's been unhittable since.

He shut out the Mariners for seven innings yesterday, making him 4-0 with a 33-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio and just two runs allowed in 29 innings spread over his last four starts. And even his current 3.18 ERA is worse than it should be because Liriano still has one of MLB's highest ball-in-play batting averages. Based on his 150-to-38 strikeout-to-walk ratio and two homers allowed in 136 innings, Liriano has been the best starter in baseball according to FIP and xFIP.

• Liriano wasn't alone in blanking Seattle's awful lineup, as Kevin Slowey threw eight shutout frames Friday. I avoid relying much on win-loss records to evaluate pitchers and Slowey being 10-5 with a 4.44 ERA when Liriano is 10-7 with a 3.18 ERA isn't fair. With that said, beating the Mariners improved Slowey's career record to 36-20, which is a .643 winning percentage that ranks as the second-highest in Twins history among pitchers with at least 75 starts:

                      W      L     WIN%
Johan Santana        93     44     .679
KEVIN SLOWEY         36     20     .643
Camilo Pascual       88     57     .607
Mudcat Grant         50     35     .588
Jim Perry           128     90     .587

To be clear, that definitely does not mean Slowey "knows how to win" or even that he's been particularly good while posting a 4.40 ERA in 437.1 career innings, but it is kind of interesting.

Trevor Plouffe was recalled from Rochester to replace Nick Punto, whose hamstring strain requires a stint on the disabled list. Plouffe started six games at shortstop when he was called up to replace J.J. Hardy in mid-May, but seems unlikely to play much this time around with Ron Gardenhire committed to Alexi Casilla as the starting second baseman and No. 2 hitter while Orlando Hudson is out.

Plouffe played just 20 of his 770 games at second base in the minors, but like most shortstops should be able to handle the position just fine and in theory could compete with Casilla for the starting job there in 2011 if Hudson isn't re-signed. Plouffe has shown good power at Triple-A with a career-high 15 homers and .462 slugging percentage, but he's hitting just .259 with a .318 on-base percentage and 71-to-26 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his third season at Rochester.

• You wouldn't know it by his going 24-for-58 (.414) with 12 extra-base hits in 14 games since the All-Star break, but Joe Mauer has been diagnosed with tendinitis in his right shoulder and received a cortisone shot after going 3-for-4 in Saturday's game. According to Gardenhire an MRI exam revealed no structural damage, but because the soreness "just won't go away" the Twins decided to "put this in there, give it a couple days without throwing, and go from there."

Justin Morneau was initially scheduled to take batting practice before yesterday's game, but opted against it at the last minute in part because it was "family day" and various Twins would be on the field with their kids. Gardenhire explained that Morneau "didn't want to be on center stage" and "wants to ease into it ... with less people around." He hasn't played since taking a knee to the helmet on July 7 and recovering from a concussion is notoriously unpredictable.

• After sending Wilson Ramos and Joe Testa to the Nationals for Matt Capps the Twins failed to make another move prior to Saturday's trade deadline, but they reportedly were close to acquiring Brett Myers from the Astros. Whether or not that would have been a sound move is impossible to say without knowing the players heading back to Houston, but Myers was listed among my preferred starting pitcher targets when examining potential fits two weeks ago.

Despite owning the fourth-worst record in baseball and going into full-scale rebuilding mode by trading Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman, the Astros chose not to deal the 30-year-old Myers and instead signed him to a two-year, $21 million contract extension with a $10 million option or $3 million buyout for 2013. That seems like a questionable decision for a team years from contention and certainly suggests the Astros' asking price for Myers in trade was substantial.

• To make room on the 25-man roster for Capps' arrival the Twins sent Nick Blackburn and his $14 million contract to Triple-A. I've made my objection to Blackburn's extension clear since the day it was signed in March, but at this point demoting him to Rochester certainly makes sense. Whether or not Blackburn has the ability to get back on track is up for debate, but obviously it wasn't going to happen while pitching sporadically as a mop-up man in Minnesota.

• Washington assigned Ramos to Triple-A following the trade, but general manager Mike Rizzo said he'll be "at least" a September call-up because "we feel like he's major-league ready." For now the Nationals have Ivan Rodriguez as their starting catcher and the future Hall of Famer is actually signed through 2011, but he's hitting just .264/.291/.345 at age 38 and moving into more of a backup/mentor role next year seems likely if they truly think Ramos is MLB-ready.

• Capps uses "Final Countdown" as his entrance music, which will always remind me of this.

July 19, 2010

Life after Cliff Lee

All the Cliff Lee trade speculation went for naught, as the Twins reportedly balked at making Aaron Hicks part of a package for the impending free agent and the Mariners ended up with several offers beyond what the Twins should have been willing to give up for him anyway. At the last moment the Mariners pulled out of a nearly agreed-upon deal with the Yankees for a package headlined by Jesus Montero to accept a Justin Smoak-led offer from the Rangers.

Prior to the season Baseball America ranked Hicks as the No. 19 prospect in baseball, but the same list had Smoak at No. 13 and Montero at No. 4. At midseason Baseball America published a rankings update that had Montero at No. 5 and Hicks at No. 9, with Smoak no longer eligible for "prospect" status after playing regularly in the majors. I'm sure plenty of people view Hicks as a better prospect than Montero or Smoak, but in general he's not seen at quite that level.

New York's offer reportedly included Montero and two or three other mid-level prospects, while Texas' package for Lee included Smoak, Blake Beavan, Josh Lueke, and Matthew Lawson. In terms of trying to match those offers up to the Twins' farm system, it would likely be something along the lines of Hicks plus David Bromberg, Alex Burnett, and Luke Hughes. Or perhaps, as was rumored at one point, Hicks plus Wilson Ramos. Either way, far too much for my liking.

Now that Lee is off the table Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com speculates that Cubs lefty Ted Lilly would be a "logical target" for the Twins. Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune went even further, listing the Twins and Mets as the front-runners for Lilly. It passes the smell test, as the Cubs are clearly sellers, Lilly has long been a solid mid-rotation starter, and as an impending free agent he'd be much easier to acquire from a payroll standpoint than, say, Roy Oswalt.

In fact, recent reports suggest that no teams are even willing to absorb the remaining money on Oswalt's contract, let alone do that and give up prospects. Lilly is owed about $5 million for the rest of the season, which the Cubs may be willing to cover in the right deal. On the other hand, because he projects as a Type A free agent the Cubs could just let Lilly walk and collect a pair of compensatory draft picks, so any trade offered would likely need to beat that value.

Lilly has a 3.76 ERA, .235 opponents' batting average, and 584-to-180 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 693 innings since signing a four-year, $40 million deal with the Cubs, including a 4.07 ERA, .236 opponents' batting average, and 75-to-25 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 104 innings this year. He has a 4.22 xFIP during that four-year span, which would basically put him neck and neck with Scott Baker as the Twins' third-best starter behind Francisco Liriano and Carl Pavano.

Among the starters rumored to be available Dan Haren strikes me as the most intriguing. He's one of the youngest of the bunch at 29 years old and has generally been underrated, with his value perhaps at a low point because of a bad-looking 4.60 ERA through 20 starts this season. His secondary numbers are far better, with a 133-to-24 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 135 innings, and he's had a sub-4.00 xFIP in six straight years to go with a 3.72 ERA in 207 career starts.

Haren is one of the top dozen or so starters in baseball despite remaining fairly anonymous in Arizona and he's also signed through 2013 at about $13 million a year, so if the Diamondbacks are looking to sell low on him the Twins should be willing to pounce. However, it doesn't sound like that's necessarily the case, with reports that they're smartly asking for a lot in return, and it's tough to imagine the Twins giving up top prospects and absorbing that much salary.

Ricky Nolasco is another interesting name rumored to be available thanks to his 4.90 ERA in 50 starts since going 15-8 with a 3.52 ERA in 2008. His secondary numbers are significantly better than his ERA, with a 3.73 xFIP this season and a 3.85 xFIP for his career, and Nolasco is even younger than Haren while still being arbitration eligible next season. If you look past the recent ERAs he's a 27-year-old mid-rotation starter who misses bats and throws strikes.

I've gotten e-mails and comments asking about Fausto Carmona since the Indians are clearly sellers and he was their representative in the All-Star game. Carmona has seemingly bounced back from a horrendous 2009 with a 3.65 ERA in 19 starts, but a 64-to-49 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 123 innings suggests not that much has changed. He has electric raw stuff and induces tons of ground balls, but Carmona remains a big question mark because of shaky command.

Oakland will likely make Ben Sheets available, because he's signed to a one-year, $10 million deal and the A's are struggling just to stay around .500. Sheets got off to a terrible start after missing last year following elbow surgery, but has a 3.72 ERA and 66-to-25 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his last 82 innings. Similarly the Astros will likely look to deal Brett Myers, although his one-year, $3.1 million contract also includes an $8 million mutual option for next season.

Myers has a 3.35 ERA and 93-to-39 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 129 innings this year and an xFIP of 3.91 in over 1,300 career innings.  While not really a fly-ball pitcher he struggles at times to keep the ball in the ballpark, serving up an average of 31 homers per 200 innings during eight seasons with the Phillies. Myers has kept the long balls in check so far this season and Target Field would help mask any homer-related issues with the Twins.

Guys like Kevin Millwood, Jake Westbrook, and Jeremy Guthrie are also said to be available, but aside from making a change just for the sake of making a change none represent any kind of real upgrade over Baker or Kevin Slowey (and nearly anyone represents an upgrade over Nick Blackburn at this point). Sticking with in-house options is a much better idea than giving up value to scrape the bottom of the veteran barrel.

Haren and Oswalt are legit No. 1 starters, Lilly, Nolasco, and Myers are all strong mid-rotation starters, Sheets is a riskier mid-rotation option, and after that it dries up in a hurry. Between those six starters there are definitely opportunities for the Twins to upgrade the rotation, but with Baker and Blackburn both signed to long-term deals and Slowey still 26 years old with a career 4.53 ERA despite recent struggles the situation is a lot trickier than just picking a name.