November 4, 2003
After one of the best Octobers in baseball history the calendar now reads "November," which means we are officially in free agent season. Players are filing for free agency, teams are getting their plans and budgets together, and agents are starting to make some phone calls. Over the next several months dozens of major league veterans will be finding new homes and signing big contracts.
There aren't any real #1, "ace" starters in this year's crop of free agent starting pitchers, but there are a few of what I would call #1A guys, as well as a bunch of solid middle-of-the-rotation options.
While the majority opinion seems to be that Bartolo Colon and Kevin Millwood are the two most desirable free agent pitchers this off-season, I would actually rank Andy Pettitte as my #1 target. And that is even without taking into account that Pettitte will likely command less in salary than either Colon or Millwood.
Take a look at what the three did this season...
IP ERA SO/9 BB/9 HR/9 Pettitte 208 4.02 7.78 2.16 0.91 Colon 242 3.87 6.43 2.49 1.16 Millwood 222 4.01 6.85 2.76 0.77
I am a big believer in strikeout-rates and walk-rates, and Pettitte is the best of the three in both of those areas. Of course, he is also the oldest of the three, which is always a big consideration with pitchers. Next year will be Pettitte's "age-32" season, while Colon will be 31 and Millwood will be 29.
That said, I wouldn't be interested in giving any of those three long-term contracts, so how well they are going to pitch five or six years down the road wouldn't really matter much to me. I think, at most, I would offer a four-year deal, and even that is debatable.
Andy Pettitte is an extreme ground ball pitcher and he plays for the New York Yankees, which means he has been getting killed by his infield defense. In my opinion (and in the opinion of many of the more advanced defensive metrics), Derek Jeter and Alfonso Soriano form one of the worst double-play combinations in all of baseball. In addition to just those two, New York's defense as a whole ranked 27th in Major League Baseball at turning balls in play into outs this year.
Not coincidentally, Pettitte yielded a hit on 32% of the balls that were put in play against him this year. That is a rate higher than any defense in baseball gave up.
What all of that says to me is that Andy Pettitte, with his extreme ground ball tendencies and solid strikeout, walk and home run numbers, is someone who could see his numbers improve dramatically if given a chance to pitch with a good or even average defense behind him.
The difference between having a good middle infield behind him and the combo he has had of late could easily mean 20+ fewer hits allowed over the course of a season, and that is the sort of thing that could drop someone's ERA from 4.02 into the mid-3.00s.
Pettitte has been a work-horse throughout his career, pitching 200+ innings in six of the last eight seasons. His strikeout rates over the last three years are significantly improved over his early-career numbers, and his control is dramatically better than it was years ago. I would love to sign him up to a three-year deal, stick him on a team with a solid defense and watch him rack up those ground ball outs. I could see him providing a team with 600+ innings with a 3.50-3.75 ERA over the next three years, and I think he will prove to be a bargain when compared to Colon and Millwood.
Of course, that's not to say that Colon and Millwood aren't desirable free agents either. I just think that their price-tags are going to be a lot higher than they should be. Colon and Millwood both had very nice years in 2002, finishing with ERAs of 2.93 and 3.24, respectively. If you ignore what they did in 2002 however, the picture changes quite a bit.
Consider the following numbers...
ERAs 2003 2001 2000 Career* Colon 3.87 4.09 3.88 4.04 Millwood 4.01 4.31 4.66 3.90
Those aren't exactly the numbers of pitchers I want to be giving big, multi-year contracts to. Of course, ignoring what they did in 2002 is pretty pointless, and don't get me wrong, I'm not saying Colon and Millwood aren't good pitchers. They'll give you lots of innings and they'll be dominant at times, but the end result is likely going to be just slightly better than league-average and I just don't think that's worth paying big bucks to. Especially in a market without any really great starting pitchers, which will undoubtedly force up their price even more.
I think instead of throwing money at Colon or Millwood, a team would be best served to go after the more reasonably priced Pettitte, whom I think has a good chance of outperforming both of them over the next few seasons anyway. Even if Pettitte isn't a possibility, I think going after some of the "second-tier" starters would be a better idea than signing Colon or Millwood long-term, unless they are asking for much less than I am figuring, of course.
And who exactly is in the "second-tier" of starters this off-season? Well, strangely enough, one of the greatest pitchers in the history of baseball, Greg Maddux.
At 37 years old, Maddux had his worst season since 1987, when he went 6-14 as a 21-year old with the Cubs. Of course, when you're as good as Maddux has been, your "worst season since 1987" is still pretty good. He went 16-11 with a 3.96 ERA in 218.1 innings. Both his ERA and adjusted ERA+ were better than Millwood's. That said, unlike Millwood, Maddux is nearing 40 and the end of the line. The big question is whether or not he has a couple of good years left in him.
Maddux has always relied on incredible control, a deceptively good strikeout-rate and the ability to keep the ball in the ballpark. In the last couple years, his walk-rate has remained excellent, but his strikeouts have dropped significantly and he has started to serve up a few more homers. Maddux's K-rates of 5.33 and 5.11 over the last two years were his lowest since 1989, and just the second and third times his strikeouts have dropped below 6.0/9 IP since 1991. He also allowed 24 homers, the most in his entire career.
Are his days of being a dominant pitcher over? Most likely, yes. Is he just as likely to be a solid #2 or #3 starter over the next year or two as Colon or Millwood? Probably. I wouldn't hesitate for a moment to give Maddux a one-year deal and I might even consider a two-year pact if the money was right. I think he'd be perfect someplace like San Diego, where he can finish his career with a solid offense scoring runs for him and help mentor some good young pitchers.
I think the potential "sleeper" among this year's free agent starting pitchers is Kelvim Escobar. He has bounced around between the bullpen and the rotation over the years, but has generally been very good as a starter whenever he has been given the opportunity.
This year he went 12-8 with a 3.92 ERA in 26 starts, striking out 136 batters in 163 innings. Over the past three years combined he has started a total of 37 games and has a 3.70 ERA in 231 innings. Escobar has good "stuff," he has always posted good strikeout-rates and he does a very nice job limiting home runs. He struggles a bit with control at times, but his strikeout/walk ratio has been right around 2/1 for the last few seasons. Plus, at just 27 years old, Escobar is younger than just about every other decent free agent starter, aside from Sidney Ponson, who is the same age.
Speaking of Ponson, he is another guy who I think is going to end up getting a lot more money than he deserves. This is a guy who has a career ERA of 4.54 and whose 3.75 ERA this season was, by far, the best of his career. At 27, his strikeout-rate was just 5.58/9 IP, he has some injury-concerns, and he isn't exactly the best physical specimen. I don't doubt that Ponson could give a team 200+ innings with a league-average ERA over the next few years, but I don't think that's worth what he'll probably end up getting.
Oh, and speaking of physical specimens, the Yankees declined their 2004 option on David Wells yesterday, officially making Boomer a free agent. Wells is an interesting free agent. On one hand, he has a history of back problems and he turns 41 in May. On the other hand, he's likely to come pretty cheap and he has actually been a fairly dependable pitcher over the years.
Wells pitched just 100.2 innings for the White Sox in 2001. Other than that, he has thrown at least 200 innings every year since 1995. His strikeout-rate this year was pretty much non-existent, but he walked just 20 batters in 213 innings, which is absolutely amazing.
A lot of people would probably suggest that signing David Wells is a risky move, and in a way I would agree. But really, what is more risky, giving David Wells $2-3 million bucks for one season or giving someone like Bartolo Colon or Kevin Millwood or Sidney Ponson a four or five-year deal for two or three times that much per season?
Another aging lefty who I think would be worth signing for one year is Kenny Rogers, who went 13-8 with a 4.57 ERA for the Twins this season. Rogers turns 39 in a week, but I watched almost every one of his 31 starts this year and was fairly impressed with his pitching. He's not dominant in any sense of the word, but he works the corners, gets ground balls and generally stays out of big trouble.
His 4.57 ERA is nothing special, but it's a little more impressive when you consider he did it on turf and did it with The Keystone Chasm (Guzman and Rivas, for the uninitiated) playing behind him. The Twins signed him for $2 million last off-season, so I'm sure he'd be willing to work for similar wages this year. For a team with a good defensive infield, Rogers would be a nice, cheap one-year solution in the middle of the rotation.
The final free agent pitcher who I would put into the "solid middle-of-the-rotation starter" category is Miguel Batista. At 32, Batista had his third-straight solid season for the Diamondbacks, pitching 193.1 innings with a 3.54 ERA. Since joining Arizona in 2001, Batista has a 3.76 ERA in 517.1 innings, while pitching in a hitter's ballpark.
Arizona gave him a $300,000 buy-out instead of picking up his 2004 option for $5 million, but have said they are interested in re-signing him for less money. Another team would be smart to swoop in and offer Batista a two-year deal for about $3 million a season. His strikeout-rate has been okay, his control is decent and he does a great job limiting homers. He'd make a very nice #3 starter on a lot of teams.
After Batista, we get to the huge group of pitchers who have a lot of question-marks attached to them. It's a very long list of names, so rather than use a few thousand words talking about all of them, I'm going to list them all and then try to pick out a few guys who I think are worth taking a chance on above the rest of the group.
- John Burkett
- Jeff Suppan
- Pat Hentgen
- Garrett Stephenson
- Brian Anderson
- Rick Reed
- Darren Oliver
- Pedro Astacio
- Wilson Alvarez
- Ismael Valdes
- Andy Ashby
- John Thomson
- Brett Tomko
- Kevin Appier
- Shane Reynolds
- Jose Lima
- Cory Lidle
- Sterling Hitchcock
- Shawn Estes
- Steve Sparks
- Rick Helling
What that group lacks in pitching ability, they certainly make up for in sheer numbers. There are plenty of teams out there right now who could vastly improve their pitching-staff if they could just find a way to get a couple of guys who could give them some bulk innings of somewhere around league-average pitching. Of the 21 guys on that above list, I'm guessing at least a half-dozen of them will be able to do that in 2004. The key, of course, is figuring out which ones they are.
The three guys who I would go after first from that list are Jeff Suppan, John Thomson and Cory Lidle. I don't think those guys will be pulling an Esteban Loaiza next year, but they're the three I think have the best shot at giving a team 180+ innings with an ERA around league-average.
Suppan is probably the biggest no-brainer on the list, just because he has thrown league-average innings in bulk in each of the last five years. His innings totals during that time: 208.2, 217, 218.1, 208 and 204. He's also been better than league-average in four of those five years, including this past season, when he went 13-11 with a 4.19 ERA between Pittsburgh and Boston.
John Thomson is another guy who pitched 200+ decent innings last year. He did so for the Rangers who, coincidentally enough, are one of the main teams who are in need of a couple of good bargains from this group of pitchers. Thomson went 13-14 with a 4.85 ERA in 217 innings this year. That 4.85 ERA certainly isn't pretty, but when you adjust for the league and ballpark, it comes out to about 2% better than league-average. Not great, but I believe that qualifies him for sainthood in Texas these days.
Thomson also had a solid year in 2002, pitching 181.2 innings with a 4.71 ERA between with the Rockies and Mets. He pitched for $1.1 mill in 2002 and $1.3 mill last year, and I would definitely give him similar money for 2004.
Cory Lidle has a little more upside than either Suppan or Thomson, but he didn't have nearly as good a year in 2003. After back-to-back good seasons in Oakland, Lidle went to Toronto, where he was supposed to be the #2 man behind Roy Halladay.
Lidle started poorly, posting a 5.75 ERA in six April starts. He turned it around in May, going 5-1 with a 2.98 ERA, but then fell apart. He had ERAs of 7.90, 7.90 and 8.44 over the next three months, before finishing the year with a respectable September (4.13 ERA in five starts).
A look at Lidle's rate stats shows a fairly similar pitcher to the one that had success with the A's in 2001 and 2002:
SO/9 BB/9 HR/9 2001/2002 5.42 2.04 0.95 2003 5.23 2.80 1.12
All three rates were slightly worse than they were with the A's, but certainly not enough to explain a 50% increase in ERA.
I think the thing that really hurt Lidle last year was his defense. In Oakland, he had one of the best defenses in the league at converting balls in play into outs playing behind him. In 2003, the Blue Jays finished 11th in the AL in "defensive efficiency" and Lidle allowed a hit on 30% of the balls put in play against him. I think he's a good bet to bounce back in 2004 and at least be a league-average pitcher.
While there aren't any top-of-the-line starting pitchers on the market this off-season, there are plenty of great relievers to be had. The best of the bunch is Keith Foulke, who had an awesome season as Oakland's closer.
Foulke went 9-1 with 43 saves and a 2.08 ERA in 86.2 innings pitched. He struck out 88, walked 20 and held opponents to a .184 batting average. Beyond his great 2003 season, Foulke has been one of the best relievers in baseball for quite a while. He posted ERAs of 2.22, 2.97, 2.33 and 2.90 with the White Sox from 1999-2002.
I read that the A's are interested in re-signing Foulke, but I am fairly confident he has priced himself out of their range. There are just too many teams shopping for an "established closer" and Foulke was not only dominant this season, he has that nice, shiny "43" under the "save" column to show potential employers who are into such things.
Foulke is certainly among the elite closers in baseball right now and if his deal ends up being close to what the rest of the members of that group are currently getting, he's looking at three or four years and at least $20-$25 million.
For those teams not able to spend that much on Foulke, there are plenty of cheaper alternatives. The guy I would recommend is Latroy Hawkins, who has turned himself into one of the league's best setup men, after spending the first part of his career as an absolutely horrible pitcher.
My nickname for Hawkins is "The Machine," because he simply pumps strike after strike at the hitter, daring them to hit his 95 MPH heat. Not many have been successful over the last two years. Hawkins is 15-3 with a 1.99 ERA during the last two seasons, including 9-3 with a 1.86 ERA in 77.1 innings this year.
Many people say that they don't they don't think he has the "mentality" to be a closer. I don't really know if that is true or not, although certainly Hawkins struggled when given the closer-job in 2001. But that may be just as well, because a great setup man can be used much more liberally than most closers, and because of that I think Hawkins was actually more valuable to the Twins in 2003 than Eddie Guardado was.
I think a smart team out there is going to sign Hawkins for two or three years at $3-4 million a season and get one of the best relievers in baseball out of the deal. I'm still hoping that team will be the Twins.
The man Hawkins setup during the last two years is almost certainly going to get a much bigger contract. Eddie Guardado has 86 saves over the last two seasons and, although Guardado hasn't been as good or as versatile as Hawkins has been, saves equal big money right now and Guardado will get just that.
Guardado has been very good for the Twins and he is certainly a pitcher who would help a lot of teams in the bullpen, but there are no fewer than a half-dozen other pitchers I would rather have when likely salaries are considered.
One of those pitchers is Arthur Rhodes who, like Hawkins, has been one of the best setup men in baseball. He had a down year this season, pitching just 54 innings with a 4.13 ERA, but between 2001 and 2002 he was 18-4 with a 2.03 ERA in 136.2 innings.
After striking out 10+ batters per nine innings from 1999-2002, Rhodes struck out "only" 8.00/9 this season. That is definitely a concern, especially considering Rhodes is 34 years old, but I think he will bounce back.
Even with the bloated ERA, opponents hit just .256/.316/.372 off Rhodes this year. Over the last three years he has held opponents to just .208/.254/.305 and has a strikeout/walk ratio of nearly 5/1. He has been death to lefties (.206/.243/.281) and almost as dominant against righties (.210/.266/.329). Like Hawkins, Rhodes is a guy who I think could do a great job as a closer, but is probably more valuable as a setup man.
The man Rhodes setup for much of the season in Seattle was Shigetoshi Hasegawa, who posted a 1.48 ERA in 73 innings and racked up 16 saves while replacing an injured Kazuhiro Sasaski. Hasegawa is my pick for Most Overpaid Free Agent Pitcher of 2004.
That's not meant to be a big knock against Hasegawa, who has certainly proven himself to be a solid reliever during his career. It's just that his 1.48 ERA this season strikes me as fairly fluky and I think at least one team out there is going to be willing to reward him with a pretty big contract.
Hasegawa had a great year and was one of the best relievers in baseball, but his strikeout rate doesn't suggest sustained success to me. Shiggy struck out just 3.95 batters per nine innings this year, a drop of 21% from last year and 40% from 2001.
Losing that many strikeouts is definitely not an encouraging sign for the future and the list of relievers who have remained dominant for multiple years while striking out less than four batters a game is a pretty short one. I think Hasegawa was helped by his defense and his home ballpark in 2003 and I also think he simply got a little lucky at times. That doesn't take away from what he accomplished at all, but it would definitely make me stay away from him as a free agent.
Another guy who is likely to cash-in pretty well this off-season is Ugueth Urbina. Urbina had a shaky first-half with the Rangers, going 0-4 with a 4.19 ERA. He was traded to the Marlins in mid-July and was lights-out in the second-half of the year. Urbina went 3-0 with a 1.41 ERA in 38.1 innings for Florida, finishing the year with a 2.81 combined ERA in 77 total innings. He also pitched pretty well in the playoffs, pitching 13 innings with a 3.46 ERA, while saving four games.
Like Guardado, Urbina is another guy who will be helped by being a "proven closer." There are better pitchers available and cheaper pitchers available, but lots of teams want a guy who has proven he can close games, and Urbina has certainly done that, saving 72 games over the past two years and a total of 206 during his career.
On the flip-side of things, Tim Worrell helped to disprove that whole "proven closer" thing at least a little bit this season. After Robb Nen went down with a season-ending injury, Worrell stepped in as San Francisco's closer and, despite having saved a total of seven games during the first 10 years of his career, racked up 38 saves in 2003.
Worrell wasn't really any better or worse than he had been as one of San Francisco's setup men in 2001 and 2002, but he pitched the ninth inning in 2003, instead of the seventh and eighth innings, and that means quite a bit to lots of people. The funny thing about it is that if Worrell hadn't served as a closer this year, I would probably be talking about him as a good guy to pick up for next year. Instead, he's probably looking at an extra $2-3 million bucks a year and he's no longer someone I would go after.
I was hoping the Twins would sign Tom Gordon last off-season and they apparently tried to, but he ended up in Chicago instead. Gordon had a great year for the White Sox, going 7-6 with a 3.16 ERA in 74 innings. His strikeout-rate (11.0/9) was once again incredible, his fourth straight year of striking out 10+ per game. The only real downside to Gordon is his health, which has been a major factor at various points during the last 3-4 years. He's definitely a guy I would go after.
Armando Benitez is very hard to get a handle on. He can be one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball at times and his numbers have almost always been great, but he has never been regarded as one of the top closers in baseball. He spent 2003 between three teams, pitching a grand-total of 9.1 innings (with a 1.93 ERA) for New York before the Yankees gave up on him. He is coming off a four-year deal for $23 million, which is way too much, but if most teams shy away and he can be had for cheap, he's certainly a great pickup.
Mike Timlin was one of the lone consistently dependable relievers in Boston's pen this year, going 6-4 with a 3.55 ERA in 83.2 innings. Timlin is pretty old, but he's been a real workhorse out of the pen over the last few years. Another guy who is a great pickup if he can be had cheaply.
Ricardo Rincon was the left-handed portion of Oakland's three-headed Foulke/Bradford/Rincon monster in the bullpen this year. He went 8-4 with a 3.25 ERA in 55.1 innings and was awesome against lefties, holding them to .200/.267/.275.
Steve Reed is the owner of some of the strangest year-to-year splits you'll ever see. Reed, a sidearming righty, is always dominant against right-handed hitters (.192/.253/.268 over the last three years). He's a little less consistent against lefties...
AVG OBP SLG 2001 .519 .620 .904 2002 .181 .258 .317 2003 .374 .456 .636
I love to show a player's splits on this blog and I really think they are an important part of analyzing baseball players, but looking at Reed's splits makes me want to reconsider that whole way of thinking.
Other quality relievers who are worth picking up for the right price (read: cheap)...
- Paul Quantrill
- Scott Sullivan
- Jeff Nelson
- Rick White
- Chad Fox
- Rod Beck
- Terry Adams
- Jason Grimsley
- Curtis Leskanic
- Mike DeJean
- Dave Veres
- Steve Kline
- Mark Guthrie
- Felix Heredia
- Dan Plesac
In discussing all of these free agent relievers, it seems to me that there are a ton of quality relievers available this off-season. Not only are there a whole bunch of upper-level closers and setup-men, there are also a couple dozen very good middle-of-the-bullpen guys. This year's class of free agent relievers is so deep that there isn't even any reason for teams to talk to guys like Jose Mesa, Mike Williams and Antonio Alfonseca, although you just know they still will.
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