Thursday, November 3, 2011

For Want Of A Pitcher, Part 5.

The final group of starting pitching targets consists of pitchers on the few major league teams that can reasonably consider themselves as having more quality starters than they need.

Team: Philadelphia Phillies
Projected Starters: Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Vance Worley, Joe Blanton
Likely available: Joe Blanton

I’m kind of cheating by listing the Phillies here, as obviously four of the five starters above are not available in any way, shape, or form. (I suppose Worley might be, but the cost would be prohibitive.)

Right now Joe Blanton is the Phillies’ #5 starter, so he’s not technically “excess”, but between the presence of Kyle Kendrick and the possibility they re-sign Roy Oswalt, I’d have to think he’s available. Blanton missed much of the 2011 season with an elbow problem, but was activated in September and pitched well in relief, striking out 11 batters without giving up a walk in seven innings.

Nonetheless, Blanton is not a particularly good starting pitcher; he hasn’t had an ERA under 4 since 2007. Prior to 2011, he was at least good for 30 starts a season, but obviously even that is a question mark at this point. He’s under contract for just one more season at $8.5 million, and the Phillies may well be willing to pick up a chunk of his salary and take a token prospect in return. In that case – and only in that case – I might give him some weak consideration. He’s a reliable strike-thrower whose tendency to give up home runs may be alleviated by Kauffman Stadium; he resembles Bronson Arroyo in that regard.

Blanton’s listed here for the sake of completeness; if he’s actually in a Royals uniform next April, something probably went wrong.

Team: Atlanta Braves
Projected Starters: Tim Hudson, Jair Jurrjens, Brandon Beachy, Tommy Hanson, Mike Minor, Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado, Arodys Vizcaino…
Likely available: Derek Lowe, Jurrjens, maybe Beachy or Minor

You know it’s going to come down to this, right? The Royals need a starting pitcher; the Braves have more starters than they know what to do with. Dayton Moore loves trading with his old organization. We might as well pencil “Ex-Brave starter to be determined later” into the rotation’s #3 spot.

The Braves blew off some of their excess pitching on Monday, getting the Indians to bite on one-third of Lowe’s $15 million contract for 2012 in exchange for token prospect Chris Jones, who might grow up to be a lefty specialist if he’s lucky. I was dismissive of the trade on Twitter, but on full reflection Lowe has a chance to be a decent innings-eater for Cleveland. He had a 5.05 ERA this season, but his xFIP was just 3.65 – I believe he had the biggest discrepancy between ERA and xFIP of any starter in the majors. He’s still a fantastic groundball pitcher (59% last season) who misses bats (6.6 Ks per 9 innings).

But while Lowe might have been better than he looked in 2011, I’m skeptical he’ll bounce back in a big way in 2012. He turns 39 in June, and he’s moving to the better league. Between Lowe, Justin Masterson, Fausto Carmona, and Ubaldo Jimenez, the Indians have put together one of the most extreme groundball-oriented rotations I’ve ever seen. It’s a fascinating strategy, only it seems to be missing the magic ingredient: a stellar infield defense. An infield of Matt LaPorta, Jason Kipnis, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Lonnie Chisenhall will create runs, but it’s a below-average unit defensively. Unless the Indians are planning to replace Grady Sizemore with a fifth infielder, I don’t get it.

Anyway, even after dumping Lowe, the Braves are in a position where they can move one of their other starters for a more useful package. Tim Hudson isn’t going anywhere. Tommy Hanson is probably the most desirable of the Braves’ starters; he has a career 3.28 ERA, sterling peripherals, is just 25 years old, and is under control for four more seasons. Of course, that makes him the most expensive of their pitchers, and given that he didn’t pitch after August 6th because of a strained shoulder, his risk profile probably doesn’t justify his cost.

That leaves a few other options. Let me dispense with one name first. If the Royals take nothing else from this entire five-part series, I hope they at least read the following sentence: DO NOT TRADE FOR JAIR JURRJENS.

Superficially, Jurrjens has been a fantastic pitcher for the Braves. In 115 career starts, he has a 3.40 ERA, and a 50-33 record. While he had a subpar 2010, with a 4.64 ERA, that season is sandwiched between a fantastic 2009 (2.60 ERA in 215 innings) and a pretty damn good 2011 (2.96 ERA in 152 innings). Jurrjens is one of only seven pitchers who have had an ERA under 3, with at least 125 innings pitched, in two of the last three seasons. Clayton Kershaw and Roy Halladay have done it each of the last three years; the other four pitchers are Adam Wainwright, Tim Lincecum, Felix Hernandez, and Matt Cain.

That’s pretty impressive company. Jurrjens belongs in their company the way Kim Kardashian belongs in a “Diamonds Are Forever” commercial.

I don’t know how Jurrjens does it. He doesn’t strike out a bunch of guys, and his control is good but not great. He’s not a groundball pitcher. It seems he owes his success more to luck than anything else, except you’d think that after four seasons his luck would have run out by now. It’s as if he had Brian Bannister’s rookie season four years in a row.

In 702 career innings, he’s struck out 480 batters, or 6.2 per nine innings; he’s never struck out 7 per 9 in a season, which these days is the baseline for most pitchers. He’s allowed 222 unintentional walks, or 2.8 per nine innings, which is good but not that good. When you strip out the intentionals, Jurrjens’ career strikeout-to-walk ratio is 2.16; by comparison, the NL average in 2011 was 2.60. Jurrjens has also given up just 57 homers in 702 innings, despite a groundball rate no higher than average.

Jurrjens’ career BABIP is just .280, which is unsustainably low. Just 7.4% of flyballs hit against him have cleared the fence, which is also unsustainably low (the league average is around 10-11%). For his career, batters have hit .254/.306/.400 with no one on base, but with runners in scoring position, they’ve hit just .234/.334/.355. The higher OBP is not surprising, since all of his intentional walks have been give out with runners in scoring position; it is surprising that batters have hit 20 points less and slugged 45 points less in situations where a hit will drive in a run.

In isolation, it’s possible – unlikely, but possible – that any of these three characteristics are for real. Some pitchers may be able to induce a lower batting average on balls in play. Some pitchers (or at least Matt Cain) might be able to keep flyballs in the ballpark. Some pitchers might be able to get consistently better results with runners in scoring position.

I refuse to believe that Jair Jurrjens has the ability to do all three. Betting on him to regress is the easiest money in baseball. It’s even easier when you consider that Jurrjens’ fastball, which was a pedestrian 91-92 mph at its best, dropped to an average of 89.1 mph last year, with a concomitant drop in his strikeout rate to 5.3 per 9. He missed the start of the 2010 season with shoulder problems, and he missed all of September this season with knee inflammation, so you can’t even rely on him to be durable: he’s made 43 starts in the last two seasons combined.

If someone can come up with a plausible reason why I should expect Jurrjens' success to continue - perhaps he's secretly a witch - I would love to hear about it. But all I see in his future is regression and pain.

Please, Dayton. Stay away.

(No joke: I was putting the finishing touches on this column, when this article at was posted. In fairness to the Royals, this article is written from the Braves’ perspective. The Braves have interest in a trade of Jair Jurrjens for Wil Myers? I’m sure they do. I’m sure they also have interest in trading Brooks Conrad for Eric Hosmer.

If the Royals traded Lorenzo Cain for Jurrjens, I could stomach that. I wouldn’t do it myself – trade six years of an average everyday player for two years of an average starting pitcher – but it wouldn’t be an egregious mistake. If Moore gave up Wil Myers and all he got back was Jurrjens…I’ve already written that article. I’d rather not go there again.)

Assuming that top prospects Randall Delgado, Arodys Vizcaino, and – especially – Julio Teheran are off the table (the Braves wouldn’t give them up, and the Royals want established major-league ready guys anyway), that leaves two options: Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor.

Beachy and Minor are polar opposites in many ways. Beachy is a right-hander who wasn’t drafted out of college; Minor is a left-hander taken with the #7 overall pick, which shocked an industry that thought he was a late-first-round talent. I like them both an awful lot.

When you think of a pitcher signed as an undrafted free agent who nonetheless makes it to the majors, you’re probably thinking of someone who relies on deception or a trick pitch – think Dan Quisenberry. Most of these guys are relievers; you might find the rare starting pitcher who doesn’t throw all that hard but throws strikes and changes speeds. Adam Bernero was signed by the Tigers as a NDFA in 1999 and was starting in the majors in 2000. Of course, Bernero finished his career with a 5.91 ERA and an 11-27 record (and, naturally, a brief stint with the Royals).

Beachy doesn’t fit that profile at all. He wasn’t overlooked in the draft because he didn’t throw all that hard, but because he barely pitched at all; he played third base in college. A Braves scout saw him pitch a few innings in relief, and saw enough to take a flyer on him in 2008. He broke out in the minors in 2010 and made it to Atlanta in September, then surprised everyone by winning a rotation spot this spring training. He missed about six weeks in the middle of the season with a strained oblique muscle, but otherwise his rookie season couldn’t have gone better: in 142 innings he had a 3.68 ERA and struck out 169 batters. He had the highest strikeout rate of any pitcher in the majors with 100+ innings.

So forget that whole “non-drafted free agent” business. Anyone who can miss bats that often is a potentially elite starting pitcher.

Minor was also a nice bit of scouting by the Braves; most people thought he was a stretch at #7 overall because, while he was exceptionally polished and had terrific command in college, he topped out in the upper-80s. But Minor added velocity soon after he signed. I don’t know if the Braves identified him beforehand as someone who could add velocity, or if they just lucked out. But either way, Minor has an above-average fastball for a left-hander now, averaging 91.2 mph last season (Beachy averaged 92.0 mph, right around average for a RHP.)

The combination of pinpoint command and a little extra zip helped Minor breeze through the, uh, minors. In 235 career minor-league innings he walked just 73 and struck out 262. In 23 starts for the Braves over the past two years, he has a 4.74 ERA, but has 120 strikeouts against 36 walks in 123 innings. Like Beachy he’s a flyball pitcher, but Kauffman Stadium plays right into a flyball pitcher’s hands.

I’d rather have Beachy simply because strikeout rates in the double digits don’t grow on trees; on the other hand, you’d have Minor for six years, but Beachy for only five. Either pitcher would immediately be the Royals’ best starting pitcher on paper. Either one would of course require a substantial outlay in return. The Braves could use a long-term solution in left field – I’m assuming they’re not crazy enough to actually give up on Jason Heyward in right – and I’d like to think that Wil Myers would appeal to them. (Late edit: see above. He does.) It’s possible the Braves would trade Minor for Myers straight up, but I suspect the Royals would need to give up at least a little something extra, a second-tier prospect or one of their many relievers, in a deal for Minor or especially Beachy.

I’m certainly not eager to trade Myers, who’s raking in the AFL again after a disappointing season in Double-A. But you have to give up talent to get talent, and with a young and stable lineup in place, it makes logical sense that the Royals would trade a hitter for a pitcher. Myers for Beachy or Minor would be one of the biggest trades of this off-season, and it would make sense for both sides.

Team: Tampa Bay
Projected Starters: David Price, James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson, Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann, Matt Moore
Likely available: Shields, Davis, Niemann

The Tampa Bay Rays made the playoffs for the third time in four years thanks to their very young and very durable rotation. Young? For starting pitchers, Tropicana Field is the real-life Logan’s Run, where life ends at 30. The last time Tampa Bay started a pitcher who had already celebrated his 30th birthday, they were still the Devil Rays. That’s four consecutive seasons without ever starting a 30-year-old pitcher, a stretch that may be unprecedented in modern major-league history.

As for durable, the Rays have used only eight different starting pitchers in the last two years combined. The six pitchers listed above – and Moore made only one start, at least until Game One of the ALDS – along with Matt Garza, who was traded last winter, and Andy Sonnanstine. Of all the 2% edges that the Rays have built on the industry, keeping young pitchers healthy may be their most unsung.

James Shields turns 30 next month, so he’s in line to get traded (or vaporized) next. More to the point, he’s starting to get expensive. Like a lot of Rays players (COUGHlongoriaCOUGH), Shields signed a team-friendly contract extension a few years ago with plenty of team options. He’s in line to earn $7 million in 2012, $9 million in 2013, and $12 million in 2014 – but all three years are option years, so if he gets hurt or suddenly loses his effectiveness, he can be cut fairly painlessly.

Shields is coming off a career year, when he threw 249 innings with a 2.82 ERA. He had 11 complete games, the most by an pitcher in the 21st century. He was legitimately great. He also hasn’t missed a start in the last four years.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t some room for concern. As great as he was in 2011, he was lousy in 2010, with a 5.18 ERA; he led the league in hits allowed, runs allowed, and homers allowed. The difference is almost entirely attributable to luck. In 2010, his BABIP was .344; in 2011, it was .260.

Here’s the crazy thing about the Rays: their BABIP as a team was .265 this year. Their defensive efficiency was .735, which is the highest mark by any team since the 2001 Mariners had an insane mark of .740. (That was the year the Mariners won 116 games.) The Rays were able to turn so many batted balls into outs for a couple of reasons. Offense was down around baseball, but on top of that they play in a very strong pitchers’ park. They have a legitimately excellent defense. And manager Joe Maddon is as aggressive as any manager in the game at putting on defensive shifts – putting his shortstop behind he second base bag, shading the outfielders this way and that based on the hitter’s spray chart. The results are undeniable; there is no team better at turning balls in play into outs.

So the good news is that Shields doesn’t owe much of his success in 2011 to good luck. The bad news is that he owes much of it to his ballpark, his teammates, and his manager, none of whom will be coming with him in a trade to Kansas City. The time to trade for Shields was last year, when he was legitimately unlucky.

That’s not to say I don’t want him – I do. I just fear that the price will be too steep. Last year the Rays traded Matt Garza – a comparable pitcher with a less favorable contract status – into a bonanza of prospects, headlined by Chris Archer and Hak-Ju Lee. The equivalent trade here would be for the Royals to give up Jake Odorizzi and Cheslor Cuthbert and some lower-upside guys like Clint Robinson and David Lough.

I wouldn’t trade two of the Royals’ top five prospects to get Shields. But I’d certainly want to know if that’s really what his price tag is.

Jeff Niemann would be cheaper, and he’s definitely a guy I would consider. Niemann finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting in 2009, with a 3.94 ERA in 181 innings, and impressively, he has improved his strikeout and his walk rates in each of the two seasons since. In 2011, he threw 135 innings, allowed 37 walks and struck out 105. He’ll turn 29 in spring training. He’s arbitration-eligible for the first time, and won’t be a free agent until after 2014.

I worry about Niemann because, like virtually every top pitching prospect out of Rice University, his arm was abused, and he had major shoulder surgery in 2005. He hasn’t had any major shoulder issues recently – in the last four years, he only went on the DL once with shoulder problems, in 2010, and only for three weeks. (He missed six weeks this season with a back strain.) The Rays have been very careful with him, and have succeeded in keeping him healthy. But shoulder injuries make me leery. Maybe in ten years Bartolo Colon Stem Cell Therapy will be as familiar to baseball fans as Tommy John Surgery is, but today, we just don’t know. It’s probably not a coincidence that Niemann, unlike Shields and Wade Davis, hasn’t been signed to a long-term deal.

Speaking of Davis, he’s guaranteed $9.3 million over the next three seasons, and then the Rays have three more option years at $7 million, $8 million, and $10 million. He’s very affordable; he’s just not very good. Pitching in a very favorable environment, he has a 4.22 career ERA, and a strikeout-to-walk ratio less than two. He’s just 26, so there might be room for improvement, but right now he’s a #4 starter who’s likely priced as a #2 or #3 starter because of his favorable contract. If the Royals are going to make a big trade for a pitcher, I’d rather it be for a guy who can start the first or second game of a playoff series.

Before I move on to the next team, I do want to point out that a trade with Tampa Bay opens up the possibility that the Royals trade Billy Butler in lieu of prospects. The Rays need a big bat, and they won in 2011 despite relatively little production at first base and DH. Their primary first baseman was Casey Kotchman, who had a good year, but 1) he still hit all of 10 homers all season and 2) he was picked up off the scrap heap before the season. Their primary DH was Johnny Damon.

Butler is a Florida native, and he’s signed for the next three years with an option, giving the Rays the financial certainty that they like. The Rays are so financially strapped that even $8 million a year is a big chunk of their budget, but if they believe Butler is going to hit for more power, he would be worth his contract and then some.

Billy Butler gets brought up a lot by Royals fans as a potential trade chit, but I have refrained from mentioning him much because as difficult as it would be for the Royals to part with him, it’s equally difficult to find a team that would value him as much as the Royals. Tampa Bay is one of the few teams that would, which opens up some additional trade possibilities with them.

Team: Oakland
Projected Starters: Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, Brandon McCarthy, Brett Anderson, Guillermo Moscoso, Dallas Braden, maybe Josh Outman
Likely available: Cahill and Gonzalez

I imagine all of Oakland’s starters are available – Billy Beane likes to deal, after all. Realistically, McCarthy had a great season but missed all of 2010 with shoulder issues, Moscoso came out of nowhere, Braden had shoulder surgery this April, and Outman is still working his way back after Tommy John surgery. That leaves the other three.

Anderson is the best of the A’s starters, sort of a high school version of Mike Minor only better – he was an extremely polished kid who went in the second round because his velocity was only so-so, only he added velocity after signing and voila! – instant ace. But Anderson had Tommy John surgery himself this July, so he won’t be back until mid-season.

That leaves Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez. Cahill was an All-Star in 2010, finishing 18-8 with a 2.97 ERA and getting Tim Hudson comps, which hid the fact that he was the beneficiary of some massive BABIP luck – his BABIP was .237, the lowest in baseball. In 2011, his BABIP regressed all the way to .306, and he finished with a 4.16 ERA.

In some ways he was actually better this season, though; his strikeout rate jumped a full point, to 6.4 Ks per 9 innings. That’s still a little below average, but it’s plenty good given that Cahill is such an extreme groundball pitcher – he’s had a groundball rate of 56% the last two years. His xFIP was a tick better in 2011 (3.90) than in 2010 (3.99). Basically, he’s the opposite of James Shields – he’s coming off a superficially bad year that masks some real improvement. Cahill also doesn’t turn 24 until March, and he’s under contract for three more seasons.

I’m certain that Beane knows everything I just wrote about Cahill and more, which is why he won’t come cheap – I imagine Cahill’s price tag is comparable to Shields. It’s a tough call who I’d rather have; Shields is the safer bet, but if Cahill’s strikeout rate keeps climbing, he could be that most valuable of commodities – the extreme groundball pitcher who also misses bats. Think Kevin Brown, or Brandon Webb. I’d pay a pretty penny for a pitcher with that kind of upside.

The other option is Gio Gonzalez, who is Cahill’s opposite in many ways: he’s left-handed, and instead of relying on groundballs, he misses bats with a big-breaking curveball. Like Cahill, he could stand to throw more strikes – he led the AL with 91 walks in 202 innings – but it’s worth putting up with his command issues because the rest of the package is so good.

Gonzalez has a few weeks’ less service time than Cahill, so you’d get his services for four years instead of three. His fastball velocity has actually increased each year he’s been in the majors, averaging 92.5 mph this season. I’d happily take whichever one can be had for the smaller package of prospects.

If the Royals want a #2 starter, between Shields, Cahill, and Gonzalez, they can get one. The question is, do you want to pay the price? I imagine it will take a three-player package headlined by a four-star prospect for sure, someone like Myers or Mike Montgomery, followed by a three-star prospect like Yordano Ventura, and then a solid third player, either a reliever (Louis Coleman or Kelvin Herrera) or a teenaged lottery ticket like Jorge Bonifacio. That doesn’t gut the farm system, but the Royals will certainly feel the loss. If you think you can contend in 2012, you make the deal. I’m not sure the Royals think they can.

Which brings up the final, and boldest option: trade for an elite ace. I’m thinking of one specific ace, actually: Felix Hernandez.

I’ll wait here while you finish laughing. No, really, I’m fine. Take your time.

Felix Hernandez is, unquestionably, the most accomplished young pitcher since Dwight Gooden. I remember hearing whispers about this 17-year-old kid down in the Northwest League; one guy whose opinion I greatly respect brought up his name during a discussion of the best pitching prospect in baseball. He was right. Hernandez was called up to Seattle in mid-2005, at the age of 19, posted a 2.67 ERA in 12 starts and earned the nickname “King Felix”. After a disappointing sophomore season, he steadily improved until 2009, when he finished second behind Zack Greinke in the Cy Young vote, then won the award in 2010.

Hernandez had a 2.49 ERA in 2009, and a 2.27 ERA in 2010. Since they redefined the strike zone in 1969, only one other AL pitcher has had a sub-2.50 ERA in back-to-back seasons. (That was Pedro Martinez, who – naturally – did it twice.) After a disappointing 2011 – if you can count a 3.47 ERA and 222 Ks in 234 innings “disappointing” – Hernandez has 1388 career innings, 1264 strikeouts, and 85 wins. He’s still just 25; no pitcher since Gooden can match Hernandez in any of those three categories through age 25.

And yet I still think he’s attainable. Expensive as all get out, yes. But attainable.

Hernandez is signed for three more seasons, at $58 million. The Mariners have lost 196 games the last two years, in the same division as the back-to-back AL champion Texas Rangers, and they can’t harbor realistic fantasies of contention until the final year of Hernandez’s contract, if that. And while Hernandez is one of the best starters in the game, his salary reflects that. Between the prospects that he would fetch and the money a trade would free up, the Mariners would have to seriously consider a serious offer.

What do I mean by a serious offer? Use the Greinke trade as a standard. The Royals got Alcides Escobar (disappointing rookie season, but Top-20 prospect one year prior), Jake Odorizzi (Top-100 prospect), Jeremy Jeffress (borderline Top-100 prospect), and Lorenzo Cain (rookie eligibility exhausted; not a Top-100 guy but not that far off the list). Greinke was only under contract for two more years, but also was only getting paid $27 million – King Felix has one additional year at $31 million. The Mariners have more leverage, as it doesn’t appear Hernandez is forcing his way out of town.

So I think the Royals would have to give up three of their top five prospects – by way of example, Wil Myers, Mike Montgomery, and Cheslor Cuthbert. They might be able to substitute two lesser guys for one of the three – say, Myers, Montgomery, Ventura, and Jason Adam. Maybe you can replace Adam with Greg Holland if the Mariners have a reliever fetish. It would gut the farm system.

But you’d have one of the best pitchers in baseball under contract for three more seasons. You’d be a better team for certain in 2012 and 2013, and probably in 2014. By the time the bill comes due in 2015, guys like Hosmer and Moustakas will be in their primes, and they’ll have been joined by Bubba Starling and next year’s #5 overall pick and the Latin American talent the Royals have amassed down in the low minors.

Would I make the deal? I’d certainly give it a lot of thought. I don’t think I’d trade all three guys that I mentioned above. But if I could get away with trading just two of Myers/Montgomery/Cuthbert/Odorizzi/John Lamb, and flesh out the deal with some B-prospects, I think I would. I would miss having an elite farm system. But not nearly as much as I’d enjoy a team that could go into Opening Day – next year! – as legitimate contenders in the AL Central.

(I was going to suggest that the Royals make an even stronger play for Clayton Kershaw, who is even younger than Hernandez, and owing to his elite strikeout capabilities would be even more desirable. Kershaw is basically what Randy Johnson would have been if he had learned to throw strikes at the age of 23 instead of at the age of 30 – he’s scary good. But with the recent news that Frank McCourt has finally thrown in the towel and is willing to sell the Dodgers, it looks like the Dodgers’ financial crisis may soon be over, and they may be able to weather the storm without having to make any panic moves. But anything I’d be willing to offer for Hernandez, I’d do the same for Kershaw in a heartbeat. And hey, Ned Colletti is still the GM in Los Angeles, so who knows?)


After five articles and 15,000-plus words, I’ve listed dozens of options for the Royals to consider, but haven’t really thrown my support behind any of them, and you might be confused as to what I really think the Royals should do.

First off, I think the Royals should do something. There is a strain of thought that says the Royals are still a year from contending, and that next year’s free agent class will be better (although next year’s class always looks better until some of those guys start signing extensions before they get to market), and that they’re better off waiting rather than mortgaging their future by trading away top prospects.

I disagree, but I want to make it clear that I don’t disagree with the philosophy so much as I disagree with the assumption that is implicit there: the assumption that the Royals can not realistically contend in 2012. I think they can, and I realize that many of you think I am crazy to think that.

I’ll save a detailed explanation of why I feel that way until next spring – hopefully for Grantland, so that I can expose a national audience to my delusions – but for now, I’ll make this simple point:

The Royals won 71 games this season, and the Tigers won 95. But based purely on their run differentials – which have been shown time and time again to better predict a team’s win total the following year – the Royals should have won 78 games this season, and the Tigers 89. What looks like a 24-game difference in the standings shrinks to just 11 games with just one tiny tweak.

It’s rare for a team that finished 24 games out of first place to finish in first place the very next year. It happens – the Diamondbacks were 27 games behind the Giants in 2010, and won the NL West this season by 8 games – but it’s rare. An 11-game gap? That’s cake. The Tigers finished 13 games behind Minnesota last year, the Brewers finished 14 games behind the Reds. It would be the rare season when some team didn’t win the division after finishing 11 or more games back the year before.

With an 11-game gap to make up, a starter that’s even 2 or 3 wins above replacement might increase the Royals’ playoff odds by 15 or 20%. That’s worth trading some prospects for. So yes, I think the Royals should be aggressive in looking to add a starting pitcher – or two – this winter.

So here’s my Royals Starting Pitcher Checklist for this winter:

1) Have serious organizational discussion regarding whether they should make a competitive offer for Felix Hernandez and/or Clayton Kershaw. If the price is right, pounce. Go all in for 2012.

2) Offer Edwin Jackson a pre-emptive 4-year, $50 million contract. Like, this week.

3) Find out what the price is on James Shields, Gio Gonzalez, and Trevor Cahill. If any of them can be had without surrendering more than one Grade A* and one Grade B** prospect, do it. (Lesser prospects and/or relievers can be seasoned to taste.)

*: By Grade A, I mean one of the Royals’ top six prospects, in no particular order: Myers, Montgomery, Lamb, Odorizzi, Starling, and Cuthbert.

**: By Grade B, I mean one of the prospects in the second tier: Colon, Dwyer, Ventura, Adam, Eibner, Herrera, Bonifacio.

4) Offer Roy Oswalt a 2-year, $22 million contract with a vesting option for a third year if he throws 350 innings in Years 1 and 2. Try to coax Javier Vazquez out of retiring with the same offer.

5) Offer Wil Myers to the Braves for either Brandon Beachy or Mike Minor. Politely decline when they offer Jair Jurrjens. Stay firm when they offer Jurrjens again. Raise your voice when they offer him a third time. Tell Frank Wren FOR THE LOVE OF GOD I DON’T WANT JAIR JURRJENS. But tell him you might be willing to toss in a minor prospect with Myers to get Beachy.

6) Get in on the Yu Darvish sweepstakes. Offer $40 million for the posting fee, and if you win the auction, offer the same amount to Darvish for a six-year deal. That’s 80% of Matsuzaka’s contract, for a better pitcher.

7) Move on to the next level of trade targets: Jeff Niemann, Matt Garza, and Bud Norris. Offer a Grade A prospect (other than Myers or Cuthbert) and a couple Grade C’s (any prospect not listed above), or two Grade B’s.

8) Next targets: Chad Billingsley and Gavin Floyd. A Grade A prospect straight-up, or a Grade B and a couple of Grade C’s.

9) Ricky Nolasco, Anibal Sanchez, Ryan Dempster, Wandy Rodriguez, Francisco Liriano. A Grade B and some window dressing, or their choice of three prospects from Column C.

10) “’Sup, Bruce. Was just wondering if you’d be willing to come back for another year at the same terms. You’ve got a two-year offer on the table? C’mon Chen, you know we can’t match that!”

10) Find out if Eric Bedard and/or Rich Harden might be willing to sign a one-year deal with incentives.

11) See if the Dodgers will pick up a small portion of Ted Lilly’s contract and accept a Grade B prospect in return.

12) Find out if the Cubs will pick up half of the money Carlos Zambrano is owed, or if the Yankees will pick up more than half of A.J. Burnett’s contract. Offer a couple of Grade C prospects.

13) Make it clear to Aaron Crow and Everett Teaford that they need to show up to camp prepared to be starters this season.

14) Call Frank Wren back just to vent. “Seriously, Frank. JAIR JURRJENS?! After all we’ve been through together?”

There you go. Rany’s Foolproof And Unnecessarily Wordy Plan For Acquiring A Starting Pitcher.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to start working on my I-Can’t-Believe-Dayton-Traded-Wil-Myers-For-Jair-Freaking-Jurrjens screed.

Monday, October 31, 2011

For Want Of A Pitcher, Part 4.

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:

1) Garza
2) Norris
3t) Billingsley
3t) Floyd
5) Nolasco
6) Sanchez
7) Liriano
(big gap)
8) Pelfrey
9) Morton
10) Guthrie
11) Pavano
12) Maholm

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.