November 6, 2013

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

Dating back to the 2011 season Twins starting pitchers have posted a combined 5.08 ERA for the worst mark in baseball and the only other rotation with an ERA above 4.80 during that three-year span plays half its games at Coors Field. In those three seasons Twins starters ranked 26th, 29th, and 30th in ERA. They also ranked 28th, 30th, and 30th in strikeout rate, including a pathetic 4.9 strikeouts per nine innings this year while no other team was below 6.0.

To figure out their options for addressing the dreadful rotation via free agency I've grouped the available arms into three categories: Top-of-the-rotation starters, middle-of-the-rotation starters, and back-of-the-rotation starters. First up are the top-of-the-rotation starters, which I view as a No. 1 or No. 2 starter on a contending team. By definition there are only around 40 of those guys across baseball, but a decent number of them are hitting the open market at the same time.

2013 Chicago Cubs Photo DayMatt Garza - RHP - 155 innings - 3.82 ERA - 3.73 xFIP - 136/42 K/BB

There are less likely Twins reunions (Kyle Lohse, for instance), but not many. Garza was misguidedly traded away for Delmon Young as a 23-year-old in 2007 and has gone on to post a sub-4.00 ERA in every season since. He never quite developed into an ace, but has been a solid No. 2 starter with good strikeout rates and mediocre control. He bounced back fairly well from an injury wrecked 2012 campaign and at age 30 is likely in line for a huge payday.

2013 New York Yankees Photo Day

Hiroki Kuroda - RHP - 201 innings - 3.31 ERA - 3.60 xFIP - 150/43 K/BB

For the second straight offseason Kuroda is one of the elite free agent pitchers available and for the second straight offseason no one seems to think there's any chance he does anything but re-sign with the Yankees. Kuroda will be 39 years old before Opening Day, but showed zero signs of slowing down this year in terms of workload, raw stuff, or effectiveness and has posted a sub-3.50 ERA in each of the past four years. He'd cost the Twins a second-round draft pick to sign.

Pittsburgh Pirates Photo DayA.J. Burnett - RHP - 191 innings - 3.30 ERA - 2.92 xFIP - 209/67 K/BB

Burnett was written off as a bum thanks to three ugly seasons in New York, but the Pirates gladly let the Yankees pay them to take him for two seasons and got 393 innings of a 3.41 ERA. Among the 81 pitchers to qualify for the ERA title this year Burnett ranked fourth in strikeout rate, second in ground-ball rate, and eighth in xFIP, but at age 37 it's possible he'll retire and if not the Pirates seem confident he'll re-sign.

2013 Toronto Blue Jays Photo DayJosh Johnson - RHP - 81 innings - 6.20 ERA - 3.58 xFIP - 83/30 K/BB

Johnson has always struggled to stay healthy (150-plus innings four times in eight seasons) and always pitched like an ace when not hurt (3.40 career ERA), but this year he was injured and ineffective. However, his secondary numbers were vastly superior to his bloated 6.20 ERA, including more than a strikeout per inning, and his fastball averaged 93 miles per hour. At age 30 no free agent pitcher has more upside, but Johnson's injury history is impossible to ignore.

2013 Kansas City Royals Photo DayErvin Santana - RHP - 211 innings - 3.24 ERA - 3.69 xFIP - 161/51 K/BB

No free agent pitcher improved his stock more than Santana, who went from the Angels dumping his $13 million salary on the Royals to throwing 211 innings with a 3.24 ERA at age 30. It's perfect timing and his horrible 2012 now looks out of place next to sub-4.00 ERAs in 2010, 2011, and 2013, but Santana remains very homer-prone and hasn't topped 7.0 strikeouts per nine innings since 2008. And he'd cost the Twins a second-round draft pick to sign.

Cleveland Indians Photo DayUbaldo Jimenez - RHP - 183 innings - 3.30 ERA - 3.62 xFIP - 194/80 K/BB

Jimenez emerged as a young ace for the Rockies and was acquired by the Indians in a mid-2011 blockbuster, but his raw stuff steadily declined and he was a mess in 2012. He got back on track in a big way this year, throwing 183 innings with a 3.30 ERA and 194 strikeouts, but his average fastball velocity actually fell even further to a career-low 91.7 miles per hour and he's always been extremely wild. He'd cost the Twins a second-round draft pick to sign.

Atlanta Braves Photo DayTim Hudson - RHP - 131 innings - 3.97 ERA - 3.56 xFIP - 95/36 K/BB

One of the best, most underrated starters of this generation, Hudson was having another effective year at age 37 when a fractured ankle ended his season in July. Hudson is overlooked because he doesn't rack up tons of strikeouts, but among all pitchers with at least 1,000 innings as starters since his debut in 1999 he ranks fourth in ground-ball rate and fifth in homer rate. It seems doubtful that he'd want to finish his career on a non-contender, but Hudson is a helluva pitcher.

2013 Washington Nationals Photo DayDan Haren - RHP - 170 innings - 4.67 ERA - 3.67 xFIP - 151/31 K/BB

Haren's health status made him a big question mark last winter and he chose a one-year, $13 million deal with an eye on resurrecting his value and hitting the open market again. Things went horribly for him early on, but from July 1 through the end of the season he started 15 games with a 3.29 ERA and 84/18 K/BB ratio in 88 innings. Injuries and diminished raw stuff make Haren a risk at age 33, but his secondary numbers were much more impressive than his ERA.


For a lot more about the Twins' free agent pitching options, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

November 8, 2012

Free agent pitching options: Top-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. First up are the top-of-the-rotation starters, which I view as a No. 1 or No. 2 starter on a contending team. By definition there are only around 40 of those guys across baseball, but a half-dozen of them are hitting the open market at the same time.

Zack Greinke - RHP - 212 innings - 3.48 ERA - 3.22 xFIP - 200/54 K/BB

As a 29-year-old coming off an excellent season and the only true ace available Greinke should be way out of the Twins' price range even if perceived off-field issues cause some teams to shy away. Greinke won the Cy Young award in 2009 and in the three seasons since then he ranks among MLB's top 10 in strikeout rate and strikeout-to-walk ratio while placing fourth in xFIP behind only Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Adam Wainwright, and Felix Hernandez.

Anibal Sanchez - RHP - 196 innings - 3.86 ERA - 3.60 xFIP - 167/48 K/BB

Sanchez recovered from multiple arm surgeries early in his career to throw at least 195 innings in each of the past three seasons and he's still just 28 years old. While not overpowering, Sanchez's above-average raw stuff produced 8.1 strikeouts per nine innings from 2010-2012 and he fared well for the Tigers after leaving the NL for the first time. Among all MLB starters since 2010 he's 26th in xFIP and 35th in ERA, which is a strong No. 2 starter.

Dan Haren - RHP - 177 innings - 4.33 ERA - 4.00 xFIP - 142/38 K/BB

Haren has long been one of MLB's most underrated pitchers, posting a 3.48 ERA with fantastic strikeout-to-walk ratios from 2005-2011 and topping 200 innings every season. Back problems in 2012 limited him to 177 innings and a 4.33 ERA that's the worst of his career, with the Angels choosing a $3.5 million buyout instead of a $15.5 million option. If healthy Haren could be a major bargain and a fly-balling fit for Target Field, but at age 31 a long-term commitment is risky.

Edwin Jackson - RHP - 190 innings - 4.03 ERA - 3.79 xFIP - 168/58 K/BB

After failing to land a huge contract as a free agent last offseason Jackson opted for a one-year, $11 million deal from the Nationals and hits the open market again sans qualifying offer. His numbers were similar to 2011, so I'm curious to see if the demand is higher this time. Jackson's overall production and strikeout rates have never quite matched his raw stuff, but he's started at least 30 games in six straight seasons despite being just 29 and ranks 36th in xFIP since 2010.

Hiroki Kuroda - RHP - 220 innings - 3.32 ERA - 3.67 xFIP - 167/51 K/BB

Kuroda was billed as a mid-rotation starter when he came over from Japan in 2008, but he's pitched like an ace with a 3.48 ERA in 919 innings. That includes a 3.32 ERA and 167/51 K/BB ratio in 220 innings for the Yankees, transitioning smoothly from a pitcher-friendly NL ballpark to a hitter-friendly AL home at age 37. He likely has no interest in pitching for the Twins and after receiving a qualifying offer it's probably a moot point anyway.

Ryan Dempster - RHP - 173 innings - 3.38 ERA - 3.77 xFIP - 153/52 K/BB

It was odd to see so many people buy into the notion of Dempster as an elite starter around the trade deadline. He had a pretty 2.25 ERA, but it was only 16 starts from a 35-year-old with a 4.09 ERA in the previous three years. Dempster was traded from the Cubs to the Rangers and came back down to earth with a 5.09 ERA in 12 starts. He's often pitched like a borderline No. 2 starter, but his velocity is trending in the wrong direction to feel good about a multi-year deal.

July 26, 2010

Twins Notes: Delmon, Defense, Hudson, Haren, and Real Men

• I wrote about "the new and improved Delmon Young" a month ago, examining changes he'd made to finally start living up to his potential ... and since then he's hit .350 with five homers, 11 doubles, and a .564 slugging percentage in 30 games. The new-found patience he showed early this season has vanished, with Young drawing a grand total of one non-intentional walk in 123 plate appearances during that stretch, but hitting .350 makes that seem kind of trivial.

Hitting coach Joe Vavra had some interesting quotes about swing changes Young has made:

He doesn't have the head-shoulder drop any more. His head is not moving, he's [keeping] a firm front side. So he's kind of putting it all together, which is a good thing to see. He came into spring training on a mission. He had that weight drop, and he was on a mission to clean up some things that he needed to do, and he did.

We go out in that cage every day, and we try to solve issues and problems that come up. He listens real well, he tries different things, but he's his own guy. He gets out there and does what he thinks is going to help himself to be successful, and he takes what we do in the cage and it's all on him then.

Young is up to .322/.354/.528 with 13 homers and 28 doubles in 92 games overall this season, which is good for an .882 OPS that ranks as the highest from any Twins outfielder who played enough to qualify for the batting title since Kirby Puckett in 1995.

• Fans and media members love to talk about the importance of defense, but I'm realizing now that's mostly just lip service. Few people seemed to recognize the role defense played in Nick Blackburn's success in 2008 and 2009, just as few people seem to realize the negative impact defense--or more accurately, outfield defense--has had on the rotation this year. For instance, Francisco Liriano's batting average on balls in play is the highest in all of baseball at .357.

Liriano has a 133-to-36 strikeout-to-walk ratio and just two homers allowed in 122 frames, but because such a high percentage of balls in play have gone for hits his ERA is a half-run higher than it probably should be, his record is just 8-7, and he's not getting credit for an ace-caliber year. Blackburn, Scott Baker, and Kevin Slowey are also each among the league's 10 highest in-play batting averages, which isn't a coincidence and has played a big part in their struggles.

Denard Span in center field flanked by some combination of Young, Jason Kubel, and Michael Cuddyer in the corners simply isn't a good defensive outfield, which is reflected in the pitching and in the Twins' outfield ranking 24th in Ultimate Zone Rating. Baker and Slowey have often been lumped in with Blackburn, but as extreme fly-ball pitchers with xFIPs of 3.77 and 4.45 it's pretty easy to see they've been hurt by fly balls turning into extra-base hits instead of outs.

Orlando Hudson straining his oblique muscle Saturday is tough break for the Twins, because that injury tends to linger and he was hitting well recently after initially struggling in his return from wrist problems last month. Hudson has hit .285/.356/.387 in 80 games overall this year, including .293/.360/.393 in his last 25 games, which along with solid defense at second base makes him one of the most valuable players on the team.

Alexi Casilla will apparently be the primary fill-in at second base after returning from an elbow injury of his own last week. Casilla has played well in limited action this season, but is a career .246/.306/.315 hitter and not as good as Hudson defensively. Plus, because Ron Gardenhire equates defensive position to place in the batting order that means Casilla and his .306 career on-base percentage will likely be hitting second in the lineup for however long Hudson is out.

Justin Morneau felt good enough to work out over the weekend, but various reports make it clear that he's not close to coming off the disabled list. He hasn't played since taking a knee to the helmet while breaking up a double play on July 7 and Cuddyer has started all 15 games at first base in his absence, with Kubel in right field and Jim Thome as the regular designated hitter. Along with last year's back injury, Morneau has missed 42 of the past 123 games.

• You can cross Dan Haren's name off the Twins' trade deadline wishlist, as the Diamondbacks traded him to the Angels yesterday for Joe Saunders and three prospects. I'm underwhelmed by the package Arizona received, because Saunders is more or less a left-handed Slowey and none of the prospects are considered elite, but regardless of that Haren in Minnesota may not have been possible. He's a California native and reportedly had the Twins on his no-trade list.

Carl Pavano has four complete games in his last seven starts and now ranks third in the AL with 143.2 innings, which is just two fewer innings than he threw combined during four years with the Yankees. Pavano has basically spent one full season in the Twins' rotation since being acquired from the Indians last August for mid-level pitching prospect Yohan Pino, starting 32 games with a 17-10 record, 3.73 ERA, and 140-to-35 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 217.1 innings.

Since the trade Roy Halladay, Felix Hernandez, Adam Wainwright, and CC Sabathia are the only pitchers with more innings than Pavano, which is amazing given his history. Seth Stohs wrote recently that "the front office and advanced scouts who told the Twins' brass Pavano should be targeted deserve a ton of credit" and I agree, but numbers told the same story. At the time of the trade he had a 3.94 xFIP. Since the trade, he has a 3.95 xFIP and 3.73 ERA.

• Forgotten man Clay Condrey will miss the rest of the season with an elbow injury after not throwing a pitch for the Twins, which means they wasted $900,000 on a 34-year-old middle reliever they never really needed in the first place. For now he's hoping to avoid surgery while instead undergoing platelet rich plasma injections and the Twins opened up a 40-man roster spot for Anthony Slama by transferring Condrey to the 60-day disabled list.

• Speaking of season-ending elbow injuries, Joe Nathan played catch last Monday for the first time since going under the knife in March. Starting to throw again from flat ground is merely the first big step on the long road back from Tommy John surgery and Nathan is still not a sure thing to be ready for Opening Day next season, but so far so good. Mel Antonen of USA Today wrote a lengthy article about Nathan rehabbing away from the team in Tennessee.

• One of my pet peeves with the method stats are recorded is that pickoffs are not counted in stolen base totals. For instance, Span is officially 18-of-19 stealing bases this season, which is great, but he's been picked off an MLB-high five times. He was also picked off an MLB-high 10 times last season while officially going 23-of-33 on steals. He should stay tethered to the base at this point, but beyond that it's more evidence of the value of steals being vastly overrated.

• When the Twins struggled mightily with the bases loaded early on this season many people misguidedly tried to attach all sorts of "explanations" for the lack of production, when in reality extreme outcomes simply come with the territory when the sample size is merely a few dozen at-bats. Sure enough, FOX9 sports producer Seth Kaplan pointed out that since starting the season 7-for-47 (.149) with the bases loaded the Twins are 24-for-60 (.400) in those spots.

Kubel's grand slam yesterday was the seventh of his career and he's now hitting .400 with an .833 slugging percentage in 73 plate appearances with the bases loaded.

• Slama, on being called up from Triple-A to join a clubhouse full of equally mustachioed men:

I've been grooming this thing since April. I didn't know all this was happening up here, the mustache extravaganza. It's good to see some real men in here.

Indeed.

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.