November 13, 2013

Free agent pitching options: Middle-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. Below are the middle-of-the-rotation starters, which I view as a No. 3 or No. 4 starter on a contending team, which means an average-or-better starter without the same type of upside as the front-line guys.

Miami Marlins Photo DayRicky Nolasco - RHP - 199 innings - 3.70 ERA - 3.58 xFIP - 165/46 K/BB

Nolasco was a No. 2 starter early in his career and pitched like one again this year, but from 2009-2012 he threw 740 innings with a 4.68 ERA despite calling a pitcher-friendly ballpark home. His secondary numbers were always much better than his ERAs during that time and it wouldn't be a huge stretch to include him in the top-of-the-rotation group, but he lacks the big-time velocity or strikeout rates to totally convince me he's better than a really good mid-rotation guy.

Cleveland Indians Photo DayScott Kazmir - LHP - 158 innings - 4.04 ERA - 3.36 xFIP - 162/47 K/BB

Kazmir was a dominant young starter with the Rays and then rapidly deteriorated to the point that he posted a 5.34 ERA in independent ball at age 28. He made an incredible comeback with the Indians, racking up strikeouts at the same rate that made him a star in the first place, and finished strong with a 43/4 K/BB ratio in September. Kazmir is a huge risk, but he's still just 29 and looked an awful lot like his old self this year. Based purely on upside, he's easily the best of this bunch.

Cincinnati Reds Photo DayBronson Arroyo - RHP - 202 innings - 3.79 ERA - 3.97 xFIP - 124/34 K/BB

Arroyo's average fastball has never cracked 90 miles per hour, but he's logged 200 innings per season for a decade thanks to a wide variety of off-speed pitches and good control. He also gives up a ton of homers, leading the league in two of the past three years, and at age 37 he's had to become an extreme strike-thrower to make up for diminished strikeout rates. Arroyo is a prototypical Twins pitcher in the good and bad ways, and it'd be shocking if they weren't targeting him.

Atlanta Braves Photo DayPaul Maholm - LHP - 153 innings - 4.41 ERA - 3.89 xFIP - 105/47 K/BB

Maholm was headed for his third straight season with a sub-4.00 ERA when arm problems tripped him up. He had a 6.00 ERA after July 1 and also spent a month on the disabled list during that time, but no serious injuries were found. At age 32 with a high-80s fastball he lacks upside, but Maholm has generally been a solid mid-rotation starter with average strikeout rates, acceptable control, and lots of ground balls. He's one of the few quality left-handers in a righty-heavy class.

2013 New York Yankees Photo DayPhil Hughes - RHP - 146 innings - 5.19 ERA - 4.39 xFIP - 121/42 K/BB

Considered baseball's best pitching prospect when the Twins tried to get him in the Johan Santana trade, Hughes is now 27 years old with a 4.54 career ERA. As an extreme fly-ball pitcher getting away from Yankee Stadium would help Hughes a lot, but it's also possible he's just mediocre. He had a 4.34 ERA on the road from 2011-2013, and his velocity and strikeout rates are good rather than great. He's better than his ERAs suggest, but the potential ace simply never developed.

2013 Oakland Athletics Photo DayBartolo Colon - RHP - 190 innings - 2.65 ERA - 3.95 xFIP - 117/29 K/BB

A flame-throwing top-of-the-rotation starter for a decade, Colon was wrecked by injuries after robbing Johan Santana of the Cy Young award in 2005. Out of MLB in 2010, he came back at age 38 as a strike-throwing machine and has a 3.32 ERA in 507 innings since. Now he's 40 and coming off a 2.65 ERA for the A's, but his secondary numbers are far less impressive. No longer a strikeout guy, he pumps low-90s fastballs for strikes and relies on good defense behind him.

2013 Philadelphia Phillies Photo DayRoy Halladay - RHP - 62 innings - 6.82 ERA - 5.10 xFIP - 51/36 K/BB

Halladay is one of this generation's best pitchers and a likely Hall of Famer, but it's tough to say if he has anything left in the tank at age 37. He was wobbly at times in 2012 and the wheels fell off this year, as he got battered for a 6.82 ERA in 13 starts and averaged just 88 miles per hour with his fastball. It was hard to watch Halladay pitch in his diminished state, but if healthy he certainly has the control and smarts to extend his career as a mid-rotation starter.

Los Angeles Dodgers Photo DayChris Capuano - LHP - 106 innings - 4.26 ERA - 3.67 xFIP - 81/24 K/BB

Los Angeles' rotation depth and a groin injury limited Capuano to 20 starts this year, but he posted a 3.91 ERA and 52/10 K/BB ratio in 13 starts after June 1. He also tossed 198 innings with a 3.72 ERA in 2012 and has always managed above-average strikeout rates to go with being impossible to run on, so even at age 35 he looks far from washed up. There's no upside to be found, but he's a perfectly capable mid-rotation guy who likely won't require a multi-year commitment.

2013 Chicago Cubs Photo DayScott Feldman - RHP - 182 innings - 3.86 ERA - 3.96 xFIP - 132/56 K/BB

Placed in the back-of-the-rotation starter group last offseason because he hadn't topped 150 innings in three years, Feldman signed a one-year, $6 million deal and threw 182 innings with a 3.86 ERA. Not much about his underlying performance actually changed, he just stayed healthy and got away from Texas' hitter-friendly ballpark. He gets an average number of strikeouts with average control and was a ground-ball pitcher for the first time this year, although that may not stick.

2013 Tampa Bay Rays Photo DayRoberto Hernandez - RHP - 151 innings - 4.89 ERA - 3.60 xFIP - 113/38 K/BB

On one hand the Rays not being able to fix a pitcher makes me think he may not be fixable. On the other hand Hernandez's secondary stats improved dramatically, as he issued just 38 walks in 151 innings after years of awful control and managed a decent number of strikeouts while maintaining a strong ground-ball rate. He's not the same pitcher he was back when his name was Fausto Carmona, but there's still reason to be intrigued if the price is right.


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November 21, 2012

Free agent pitching options: Back-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 back-of-the-rotation starters, which I view as a No. 4 or No. 5 starter on a contending team and a group the Twins hopefully won't be looking to overspend on in the name of simply adding veterans regardless of upside.

Joe Saunders - LHP - 175 innings - 4.07 ERA - 4.25 xFIP - 112/39 K/BB

Kansas City saved the Twins from Jeremy Guthrie, but Saunders is a similar mix of durable mediocrity and lots of pitching to contact. Toss in the fact that he avoided getting knocked around in a pair of playoff starts and he's a name to watch as a potential overspend. Saunders would be a perfectly decent one-year pickup, but among the 113 starters with 500-plus innings since 2008 he's 104th in strikeout rate and 100th in xFIP, one spot ahead of Nick Blackburn.

Scott Feldman - RHP - 124 innings - 5.09 ERA - 3.87 xFIP - 96/32 K/BB

Run support and luck allowed Feldman to win 17 games in 2009 despite a 4.08 ERA, but in three seasons since then he's been ineffective and injured with a 5.15 ERA in 297 innings. His secondary numbers this year were actually pretty good, but for a 6-foot-6 guy with above-average velocity he's never generated many strikeouts. And while he's done half his pitching in Texas' hitter-friendly ballpark Feldman's numbers on the road haven't been any better.

Roberto Hernandez - RHP - 14 innings - 7.53 ERA - 5.39 xFIP - 2/3 K/BB

Formerly known as "Fausto Carmona" before getting busted for a false identity last winter, Hernandez missed the first four months and was then shut down after three starts with an ankle injury. Once upon a time Hernandez was a very promising young pitcher, but it turns out he was never actually all that young and since 2008 his ERA is 5.06. His ability to induce ground balls is intriguing, but Hernandez doesn't miss many bats and has always had awful control.

Jeff Francis - LHP - 113 innings - 5.58 ERA - 4.07 xFIP - 76/22 K/BB

Francis broke into the big leagues throwing in the high-80s and the No. 9 overall pick in the 2002 draft had plenty of early success, but shoulder problems have left him working in the mid-80s and the results haven't been pretty. He's adapted by becoming an extreme strike-thrower, trailing only Cliff Lee for the best walk rate among left-handed starters since 2010, but there's very little upside attached to Francis at this point.

Jason Marquis - RHP - 128 innings - 5.22 ERA - 4.03 xFIP - 91/42 K/BB

Marquis signed a one-year, $3 million deal with the Twins last offseason and was as bad as a pitcher can be, posting an 8.47 ERA with more walks than strikeouts. They released him after seven starts and Marquis quickly landed in San Diego, where he was the guy the Twins thought they were signing with a 4.05 ERA and 79/28 K/BB ratio in 94 innings before breaking his hand. I wasn't very enthused by the Marquis acquisition back then and suffice it to say a sequel is unlikely.

Kevin Millwood - RHP - 161 innings - 4.25 ERA - 4.42 xFIP - 107/56 K/BB

Millwood is exactly the type of veteran, low-upside free agent pitcher the Twins have pursued in offseasons past. He looked finished after a terrible 2010, but has thrown 215 innings with a 4.18 ERA since then and at age 37 his strikeout rate remained reasonably close to his career norms. If he were one of the Twins' primary additions it would be a disastrous offseason, but as a cheap one-year stop gap at the back of the rotation Millwood wouldn't be the worst idea.

Kevin Correia - RHP - 171 innings - 4.21 ERA - 4.34 xFIP - 89/46 K/BB

Correia was an All-Star in 2011, which is pretty funny considering he finished that season with a 4.79 ERA and has a 4.54 career mark. That includes a 4.49 ERA for the Pirates during the past two seasons and Correia's once-decent strikeout rate plummeted to 4.6 per nine innings over that span for the lowest rate in baseball among right-handed starters. He doesn't miss bats, doesn't induce a ton of ground balls, and doesn't have great control.

Freddy Garcia - RHP - 107 innings - 5.20 ERA - 4.06 xFIP - 89/35 K/BB

After an excellent start to his career Garcia looked finished at age 31, but he's stuck around into his mid-30s by re-inventing himself as a slop-thrower. His fastball has averaged just 87 miles per hour during the past three seasons, yet over that span Garcia has a 4.42 ERA in 411 innings and his 7.5 strikeouts per nine innings this year was his highest rate since 2007. Much like Millwood he has zero upside, but as cheap stop-gap options go he'd fit as a fifth starter.

Chris Young - RHP - 115 innings - 4.15 ERA - 5.36 xFIP - 80/36 K/BB

Young has basically never been healthy, topping 175 innings once in nine years, but after missing most of 2009-2011 he came back to make 20 decent starts for the Mets. His average fastball clocked in at 85 miles per hour, which doesn't fit his 6-foot-10 frame, but even at his peak Young worked in the high-80s. Despite all the injuries Young has a 3.79 career ERA and more upside than Millwood or Garcia, but that isn't really saying much and a fragile fifth starter isn't ideal.

Carl Pavano - RHP - 63 innings - 6.00 ERA - 4.48 xFIP - 33/8 K/BB

Pavano tried to pitch through a shoulder injury with disastrous results, spent the final four months on the disabled list, and took some veiled shots at the Twins' medical staff on his way out the door. That doesn't necessarily rule out a return to Minnesota, but Pavano's velocity and strikeout rates were worrisome even before the arm problems derailed him and at age 36 he looks like a potential stop gap fifth starter at best.

Carlos Zambrano - RHP - 132 innings - 4.49 ERA - 4.84 xFIP - 95/75 K/BB

It's hard to imagine Zambrano being worth the trouble at this point. He's still just 31 years old, but heavy workloads from early in his career mean it's an old 31 and Zambrano's velocity and strikeout rate are free falling. He issued a career-high 5.1 walks per nine innings and while that wildness may have helped him remain relatively tough to hit Zambrano had a 7.62 ERA with more walks (38) than strikeouts (27) in his final nine starts before a demotion to the bullpen.

Derek Lowe - RHP - 143 innings - 5.11 ERA - 4.59 xFIP - 55/51 K/BB

Lowe has always been a pitch-to-contact, ground-ball guy, but his strikeout rate reached comically low levels at age 39. He was traded by the Braves, released by the Indians, and relegated to bullpen duties by the Yankees, so he's clearly running on fumes. However, he did still manage the second-highest ground-ball rate in all of baseball at 59 percent and that alone makes Lowe a potentially useful fifth starter if he's not totally washed up.