Moving on to a list of more classic trade targets – established starting pitchers on teams who are (or should be) rebuilding:
Pitcher: Jeremy Guthrie, BAL
Contract Status: Final year of arbitration, eligible for free agency after 2012. Made $5.75 million in 2011
Likely cost (in terms of prospects): Low to moderate
Guthrie led the American League with 17 losses in 2009, and repeated his accomplishment this season. Those losses obscure the fact that he’s been a perfectly fine pitcher since joining the Orioles as a waiver-wire pickup in 2007. Over the last five years, Guthrie has averaged 31 starts and 196 innings a season, with a 4.12 ERA and a 106 ERA+, meaning his ERA, after adjusting for his home ballpark, has been about 6% better than the league average over that time. He’s a good pitcher toiling for a lousy team, in the toughest division in baseball.
He has shown no signs of decline. While his ERA last season was 4.33, his peripherals were virtually unchanged. Guthrie is a little homer-prone, but throws strikes and controls the running game well. He’s a better version of Bronson Arroyo, who I discussed last time – Guthrie gives up fewer homers and has proven himself against much tougher competition.
Guthrie’s only under contract for one more year, the Orioles aren’t going anywhere, and a move to the AL Central might do him some good. I can’t imagine that the price tag would be that high – he’s Jeremy Freaking Guthrie. As a low-cost, short-term solution, the Royals could do a lot worse.
Pitcher: Mike Pelfrey, NYM
Contract Status: Two years of arbitration remaining, eligible for free agency after 2013. Made $3.925 million in 2011
Likely cost: Moderate
Over the last four years, Mike Pelfrey has been a .500 pitcher – literally, with a 45-45 record and a respectable 4.27 ERA. That’s a hell of an accomplishment for a starter who throws essentially one pitch, and unlike his teammate R.A. Dickey, we’re not talking about a knuckleball.
Pelfrey throws a terrific sinking fastball, a pitch that won him acclaim going back to his high school days in Wichita, and made him a first-round pick out of Wichita State. The problem is, he can’t throw anything else. In 2008, his first full year in the Mets’ rotation, he threw his fastball 81% of the time. He got that down to 64% of the time last season, as he keeps trying to find secondary pitches. According to Fangraphs, he started throwing a splitter in 2010, and even dabbled with a cutter last year. But none of his secondary pitches grade out as even average. His sinker keeps the ball on the ground – his career groundball rate is 49%, and he has allowed 70 homers in 877 innings, an excellent ratio. But lacking an out pitch, he has averaged only 5.1 strikeouts per nine innings, and he has a lackluster 4.40 career ERA.
I haven’t heard his name mentioned as being on the market and I don’t get the sense that the Mets are actively shopping him. But he’ll be just 28 next season, and if a pitching coach can work with him to develop a good second pitch, there’s some real upside here. Given his local ties, he might appeal to the Royals more than most teams. He’s a long shot, but it’s worth exploring just how willing the Mets are to move him.
Pitcher: Ricky Nolasco, FLA
Contract Status: Signed for $9 million in 2012, $12.5 million in 2013
Likely cost: Moderate
Nolasco, like his 2011 teammate Javier Vazquez, is a pitcher who ought to be significantly better than he is. Since becoming a full-time starter in 2008, Nolasco has had exceptional strikeout-to-walk ratios for four years running. This season, he struck out 148 batters, and walked 36 batters unintentionally, a ratio of better than 4 to 1 – and that was his worst strikeout-to-walk ratio in the last four years.
And yet, over the last four seasons Nolasco has a below-average 4.41 ERA. This past season, he led the NL with 244 hits allowed, in just 206 innings.
I don’t know why that is. Nolasco has a career BABIP of .313, which is high, and his BABIP has actually been higher than his career mark in all but one season. If he’s just unlucky, he’s been unlucky over a long period of time. And for his career, he’s pitched much better out of the windup (.259/.295/.432 with no one on base) than from the stretch (.287/.338/.448). When you cluster your baserunners together, it leads to more runs allowed than you’d expect.
Is any of this fixable? I don’t know. Even if he doesn’t improve, Nolasco has been fairly durable over the last four years, he’s only 29, and his contract won’t break the bank. It’s worth checking in with the Marlins, if only for the possibility that Nolasco might have lost favor with them. The Marlins have a proven track record of tossing talented ballplayers aside when they don’t believe in them; last year they traded then-23-year-old Cameron Maybin to San Diego for a couple of middle relievers, and Maybin had a very promising season as the Padres’ centerfielder.
Nolasco may be destined to forever remain a tease. But forgive me for being willing to be seduced; I’d be more than happy to see whether the Royals can unlock some of his potential.
Pitcher: Anibal Sanchez, FLA
Contract Status: 1 year of arbitration eligibility; free agent after 2012. Made $3.7 million in 2011
Likely cost: Moderate
The availability of Sanchez, like Nolasco, is entirely dependent on whether the Marlins consider themselves in a rebuilding mode. With the Phillies still at their 100-win peak and the Braves in good shape in the short-term, you might think the Marlins would be looking to the future – but the opening of their new ballpark next season complicates things significantly.
If they are willing to trade present value, Sanchez might make more sense than Nolasco. He’s only under contract for one more season, and he’s coming off back-to-back seasons with an ERA in the mid-3s and good peripherals. Last season he quietly struck out 202 batters in 196 innings; his strikeout rate of 9.26 per 9 innings was the fourth-highest of any starter in baseball, behind only Zack Greinke, Brandon Morrow, and Clayton Kershaw.
If the Marlins want to at least make a show about trying to contend in their first year in their new ballpark, then neither pitcher is likely to be available. But the Marlins definitely move to the beat of their own drummer. It’s worth a phone call to hear what music they’re playing this time around.
Pitcher: Charlie Morton, PIT
Contract Status: Eligible for arbitration for the first time in 2012; eligible for free agency after 2014
Likely cost: Moderate
Future generations of baseball fans will look at the Pirates’ 72-90 record in 2011 and have no idea what a weird season it was for them. The Pirates woke up on the morning of July 26th with a 53-47 record, tied for first place. That night they lost in excruciating fashion, 4-3 to the Braves in 19 innings after umpire Jerry Meals made a terrible call at home plate that cost them the game. From that point on, they went 19-43.
Even when they were playing well it looked like a mirage, and perhaps no Pirates’ success appeared more illusory than that of Morton’s. Morton famously overhauled his delivery before the season to emulate Roy Halladay’s mechanics as much as possible. On some level, this was a success; he finished with a 3.83 ERA in 29 starts. But his peripherals were lousy. He struck out a respectable 110 batters, but his control was lousy – he walked 77 batters – and he allowed 186 hits.
So how he did pitch so well? Because in 172 innings, he allowed just 6 home runs. That’s historic. Morton’s rate of 0.31 homers per nine innings is the lowest by any starting pitcher in the 21st century.
That kind of success simply isn’t sustainable. Consider that the next three pitchers behind him on that list were Chris Carpenter in 2009, Josh Johnson in 2010, and Pedro Martinez in 2003. All three led their league in ERA, and all three were legitimately great pitchers. Morton isn’t, and he’s not going to go an entire season and give up just six homers again.
On the other hand, his ability to prevent homers was very real. His new delivery imitated Halladay’s in one important respect – he had tremendous sink on his fastball. Prior to this season, Morton’s groundball rate was around 48%, which is very good. But in 2011, his ratio was 58.5%, which is exceptionally high. Only three pitchers this century have a career rate above even 56%: Brandon Webb, Derek Lowe, and Tim Hudson. Morton’s xFIP last season was 4.08, not that far off his actual ERA. If his revamped delivery is for real, his ability to keep the ball down could make him a reliable #3 starter going forward.
The Pirates don’t have a ton of incentive to trade him, as he’s under club control for three more seasons. But as they are well behind the Royals in their rebuilding process, they certainly ought to be amenable to trading some of their present talent. If the Royals think they can coax some improvement in Morton’s command, he becomes even more interesting. If not, there’s a far more available Pirates pitcher in…
Pitcher: Paul Maholm, PIT
Contract Status: Free agent after Pirates decline 2012 option
Likely cost: None
When I started this series a month ago, it was unclear whether Pittsburgh would pick up Maholm’s $9.75 million option for 2012. All news reports now indicate the Pirates do not intend to pick up that option, although I’m not sure if he’s officially a free agent or not.
Maholm has been essentially a league-average starter since he debuted in 2005; he’s your prototypical finesse lefty who throws strikes and gets groundballs (career groundball rate of 52%) making up for an inability to miss bats. His season ended early in August due to a shoulder strain, which certainly complicates things.
Maholm has limited upside and his injury makes him a risk, but if he’s been added to an incredibly weak free agent pool, I have to mention him. Which is a far cry from saying I have interest in him.
Pitcher: Bud Norris, HOU
Contract Status: Not arbitration-eligible until 2013; a free agent after the 2015 season
Likely cost: Moderate to high
Norris kind of snuck up on everyone. He ranked as the Astros’ #2 prospect before the 2009 season – the #2 prospect in a terrible farm system, mind you – but even then his size (he’s 6’0”) and lack of a solid third pitch made a lot of observers think his future was in the bullpen.
But he was called up to be in the Astros’ rotation that August and has been there ever since, and he’s struck out roughly a batter per inning throughout his career. Last year, he cut his walk rate by 30%, and his ERA dropped to 3.77. He has a surprising amount in common with his old Astros’ teammate, Felipe Paulino.
But unlike Paulino, the Astros know what they have in Norris, and he’s under contract for four more seasons. I think he’s available, in that the Astros are more clearly in rebuilding mode than pretty much any other team in baseball. But that doesn’t mean he’s inexpensive. He’d cost the Royals two top 10 prospects, I’d imagine, and maybe a solid third guy. The Royals can meet that price, and if they think Norris has room to improve, maybe they should.
Pitcher: Matt Garza, CHC
Contract Status: 2 years of arbitration eligibility, free agent after 2013. Made $5.95 million in 2011
Likely cost: High
One year ago, the Cubs traded five young players, most notably prospects Chris Archer and Hak-Ju Lee, to Tampa Bay in exchange for Garza. It was a bad trade. It wasn’t necessarily bad because of the talent they gave up, although Lee emerged as one of the best shortstops in the minors this year (Archer regressed a little), and The Legend of Sam Fuld took hold in Tampa for a time.
It was a bad trade because GM Jim Hendry mistakenly thought the Cubs were close enough to contention to make a trade for Garza worthwhile. They clearly weren’t. They went 71-91 this year, the same record as the Royals had with more than three times the payroll. And Theo Epstein is now running the show in Chicago.
Garza himself pitched exactly as well as the Cubs could have expected, if not better. He had a career-best 3.32 ERA, struck out 197 batters in 198 innings, allowed 58 unintentional walks and 14 homers. He was an absolutely legitimate #2 starter.
He’s one year closer to free agency, and unless Epstein thinks he can turn the Cubs around by 2013, he’s better off trading Garza now. He’s unlikely to get as much talent coming as going, but Garza will still fetch a pretty penny. Given his track record, I’d expect Garza to be a little more expensive than Norris even though he’s under contract for only half as long.
If Dayton Moore wants to make a bold move for 2012 without tearing apart the farm system for an ace, Garza might be his best option. There are better pitchers out there, and there are more available pitchers out there. But there might not be another pitcher in baseball with a more formidable combination of ability and availability.
Pitcher: Chad Billingsley
Contract Status: Under contract for $9 million in 2012, $11 million in 2013, and $12 million in 2014, with a $14 million option/$3 million buyout in 2015
Likely cost: Moderate to high
My friend Soren Petro has been throwing Billingsley’s name out there as a potential trade target for the Royals for about as long as I’ve been doing the same with Carlos Zambrano. It’s not hard to see why: Billingsley has been a consistently above-average starter for the past five years, he’s only 27 years old, and he’s under contract for three more years. Also, he’s a Dodger, and the ongoing drama of the McCourt divorce and Frank McCourt’s money issues make the Dodgers more willing to divest themselves of Billingsley’s contract obligations than they otherwise would be.
There are some red flags here. Billingsley’s strikeout rate has steadily dropped since 2008, and last year he struck out just 152 batters in 188 innings – 7.3 Ks per 9, which is right around the NL average. His walk rate also was a career high, with 80 walks in 188 innings, and he’s never had great control.
Also, Dodger Stadium and playing in the NL West is so favorable to pitchers that it has propped up Billingsley’s performance. He has a 3.94 ERA the last three years, which sounds great, but it’s actually 2% worse than league-average after you factor in the ballpark.
Billingsley made it to the majors fairly young, and a decade or two ago I’d be worried that he was simply overworked in his formative years. But Billingsley has never throw more than 201 innings in a season, and he’s never thrown more than 125 pitches in a game in his career. The Dodgers have slowly increased his pitch limit over the years; back in 2007 he threw 114 pitches on his 23rd birthday, and that was a career-high to that point. He’s very solidly built at 6’1”, 240 pounds. His average fastball velocity this year was 91.5 mph, the same as it was in 2008.
I don’t see any reason to think that he’s losing his stuff, and at his age, he’s a reasonable bounce-back candidate. The third guaranteed year on his contract gives you pause, but it’s mitigated some by the fact that there’s an option for a fourth year if he takes a step forward. I wouldn’t pay Garza-level prices for him, but I’d be willing to give up a fair amount of talent for him.
Pitcher: Gavin Floyd, CHW
Contract Status: Signed for $7 million for 2012, with club option of $9.5 million for 2013
Likely cost: Moderate to high
I have avoided any AL Central pitchers up until now, because of the added difficulty in trading in-division. But the White Sox are in a very awkward position right now, perhaps the worst position for a team to be in – they’re not good enough to contend right now, but have too many financial obligations to rebuild. If you can guess which way Kenny Williams is going to go, you’re a smarter man than I.
But if Williams finally decides it’s time to throw in the towel and rebuild, Floyd would be a person of interest. Floyd’s curveball got him picked #4 overall out of high school in 2001, but he had so little success with it that the Phillies tossed him into a deal for Freddy Garcia five years later. Don Cooper worked his pitching coach magic with Floyd for a year, and since 2008 Floyd has been an above-average starter.
His ERA this season was the highest it’s been in the past four years – a still respectable 4.37 – but even that’s misleading, as his peripherals were as good as ever. He set a career best with just 1.99 walks per nine innings while maintaining a strikeout rate right around 7 per 9. He has also allowed exactly one homer per nine innings the last four seasons despite being based at U.S. Cellular Field, one of the best home run parks in the game.
I think Floyd is still a little underrated as a pitcher; his contract is certainly a little underpriced. The Royals like pitchers with impressive curveballs, so I have to think they’d have interest. I don’t think Williams is ready to burn things down on the south side just yet, and frankly as Royals fans we’re probably better off if he keeps operating in denial. But if and when Williams is willing to deal, Dayton Moore needs to make it clear that he’ll accept all charges on the phone call.
Pitcher: Carl Pavano, MIN
Contract Status: Under contract for $8.5 million in 2012, with some minor performance bonuses
Likely cost: Low
While Kenny Williams may not be ready to rebuild, Bill Smith almost certainly is thinking about retrenching, at least in the short term, after the most disastrous season in Minnesota since the bottom fell out of the organization in the mid-90s. Pavano, who’s only under contract for one more season, should be fairly easy to pry away from them.
Pavano joined the Twins as a free agent two years ago, but you’d be forgiven for thinking they developed him in their minors, because he’s the quintessential Twins starter: average stuff at best, exceptional control. Since escaping from Yankees hell – I’m not sure who escaped who – in 2009, Pavano has been remarkably healthy and consistent. Over the last three years he’s averaged 33 starts, 214 innings, and just 38 walks a season. He doesn’t strike out anyone – just 122 strikeouts a year – but when you throw that many strikes, you can survive giving up a lot of hits. Pavano led the AL with 262 hits allowed last year, and still had a respectable 4.30 ERA.
Pavano has sort of become this generation’s Rick Mahler. Mahler led the NL in hits allowed four times in five seasons from 1985 to 1989, but threw enough strikes that he was still a viable starting pitcher. He signed with the Reds as a free agent in 1989, when he was 35, and was effective enough to hang around into 1990, when the Reds won the World Series. (They were smart enough not to start him in the playoffs; he threw a total of 1.2 innings in the postseason.)
I’m more than a little leery of Pavano, whose strikeout rate, modest as it is, keeps dropping – he struck out just 4.1 batters per nine innings last year, and he’s approaching the point of unsustainability no matter how few walks he surrenders. But he’s under contract for just one more year, at a reasonable salary, and the Twins are not going to get an elite prospect for him from anyone. He’s a backup plan, and he wouldn’t even be my choice as a backup plan, but if Moore acquired him for a token prospect or two I’d understand.
Pitcher: Francisco Liriano, MIN
Contract Status: 1 year of arbitration eligibility; free agent after 2012. Made $4.3 million in 2011
Likely cost: Who knows?
Liriano is Pavano’s opposite in every meaningful way. Pavano is a finesse right-hander; Liriano is a power lefty. Pavano will be 36 years old; Liriano is 28. Pavano is very consistent and very boring; with Liriano, you have absolutely no idea what you’re going to get. And that’s part of the appeal.
As a 22-year-old rookie in 2006, Liriano was a sensation. He started the year in middle relief and dominated; he moved into the rotation in mid-May, and in 16 starts, he went 11-3 with a 1.92 ERA. In 99 innings as a starter, he allowed 62 hits and 28 walks, and struck out 112.
On September 13th, he returned to the rotation after missing a month with elbow soreness, and felt something pop. Hello, Tommy John. He missed all of 2007.
He returned in 2008, but after three terrible starts he was optioned to Triple-A, and for some reason the Twins left him there for over three months even after he started to dominate, because God forbid they should pull Livan Hernandez from the rotation. Liriano returned in early August, and in 11 starts had a 2.74 ERA. The Twins lost the AL Central to the White Sox in a tiebreaker game, but hey, Livan Hernandez throws strikes.
In 2009, everyone expected a fully healthy Liriano to dominate, but instead he sucked pretty much all year: 5.80 ERA, 147 hits and 65 walks in just 137 innings. His fastball velocity had never fully come back after Tommy John – he averaged 94.7 mph in 2006, but he was down to 91.7 mph in 2009. After the season, reports came back from winter ball that his fastball had suddenly regained its zip. In 2010, his fastball averaged 93.7 mph on the gun, and it showed in his performance. He made 31 starts, struck out 201 batters in 192 innings, and had a 3.62 ERA.
This spring, he was hampered early in spring training with shoulder inflammation. For the season, his velocity dropped back down to 91.7, and his ERA rose back to 5.09. Twice he went on the DL for a few weeks with soreness in his shoulder.
The Twins, understandably, are a little fed up with his lack of reliability. When he’s on, he looks like the second coming of Johan Santana, but he’s rarely on. The Twins emphasize throwing strikes with their starters above all, and Liriano is sort of hit-or-miss with his command as well. He’s also a free agent at the end of the season, so the Twins might be inclined to cash him in now while they can.
Liriano is a big risk, but he might have the highest upside of any pitcher the Royals could acquire without giving up a big haul of prospects. He might be damaged goods, but he also might be the ace of the Royals’ staff. Put it this way: getting the press release that the Royals had acquired Liriano – before I could click on it to find out who the Royals gave up in return – would probably excite me more than that of any other pitcher on this list.
Ranking the pitchers above in terms of value (factoring in both performance and contract status), I’d go like this:
When you factor in the price the Royals would have to pay in terms of prospects – which, granted, is purely a guess on my part – Liriano strikes me as a potential bargain. But every one of these pitchers, at the right price, is worth acquiring, and yet I could see every one of them slapped with a price tag from their current team that wasn’t worth paying.
The Royals won’t know which way each pitcher is leaning until they try, so we can only hope that they put a lot of lines in the water. Moore has a history of striking early in the off-season; given his options here, I hope he takes the time to do his due diligence first.
Next time, I’ll finish up with a look at starting pitchers on those rare pitching-rich teams – including one that Moore is intimately familiar with – that might part with one of their prized starters for the right price.