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November 4, 2010

Checking the Numbers

Minor-league Contract Candidates: Pitchers

by Eric Seidman

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Yesterday we took a look at several batters who may be forced to sign a minor-league contract this winter to have a chance at playing in the major leagues next season. The minor-league contract is a safeguard from a financial standpoint for the teams, as they can stash away players that might contribute in the future without using a spot on the 40-man roster. Additionally, teams do not have to commit to the much higher salaries players in the major leagues receive. Should one of these signees make the team, he would of course be paid at the higher rate, but because of the level of uncertainty surrounding the player’s health or talent, minor-league deals have become quite prevalent over the last several years.

The focus today shifts to starting pitchers, who are inked to these deals due to injury concerns more often than not. Mark Prior signs one every year now, for instance, because the cost of keeping him in the organization is relatively minuscule compared to what he would be worth in the off chance he regains his form. Minor-league deals can also be given to starting pitchers who are approaching the end of their careers, or the ends of their effectiveness. Josh Fogg would be an example of this category, as he does not bring much to the table anymore, but if someone in a rotation goes down with an injury, the team might find his veteran-ness attractive and more worthy of a spot start than a prospect.

So which starting pitchers might be in line for minor-league deals this offseason?

Braden Looper
2010 Team/Salary: N/A, Last Played in 2009 w/Milwaukee Brewers
Once a successful reliever, Looper converted to the starting rotation in 2007 with the Cardinals. In 97 starts from 2007-09, he produced 2.5 WARP and a 4.76 ERA. Those are not solid numbers, but he did prove durable, pitching 175, 199, and 194 2/3 innings. The Brewers declined his option for the 2010 season and though his name was mentioned quite a bit over the summer, nobody ultimately bit, and Looper did not pitch at all. He is not going to get a guaranteed spot in a rotation, but a younger team looking for some stability at the back end of a rotation should see if he has anything left.

Noah Lowry
2010 Team/Salary: N/A, Last Played in 2007 w/San Francisco Giants
Remember Lowry? Back before Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, and Madison Bumgarner, the Giants had Lowry, a southpaw with solid peripherals at the front of their rotation. From 2004-07, Lowry made 100 starts and put up a 4.07 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, and 1.7 K/BB. As injuries began to take their toll, his ability to miss bats eroded and, as evident by the fact that he has not thrown a major-league pitch in three seasons, he has not been able to shake himself free of health woes. It seemed that Lowry might have been ready to pitch again this past season, but alas was not. He will be 30 years old next season and there will likely be plenty of interested parties, but with his injury history, even the minor-league deal might be incentive-laden.

Nate Robertson
2010 Team/Salary: Florida Marlins/St. Louis Cardinals/Philadelphia Phillies, $10 million
No, none of those three teams paid Robertson that chunk of change. The Tigers owed him for the third year of a three-year deal signed before the 2008 season, and his trio of new teams were only on the hook for the prorated portion of the $400,000 minimum, or the minor-league stipend. The results were ugly. He made 18 starts for the Marlins and was lit up to the tune of a 5.47 ERA in 100 1/3 innings. The Cardinals never used him in the majors, and his stint in Philly did not last long. Overall, Robertson’s season produced -0.7 WARP and a 5.95 ERA. But he is a veteran and a lefty, so even if he doesn’t make a team as a starter, someone will bite on a minor-league deal with the hope that he can provide some utility in the bullpen.

Josh Towers
2010 Team/Salary: N/A, Last Played in 2009 w/New York Yankees
The subheading might be a bit misleading, as Towers made all of two appearances with the Yankees in 2009, after missing the entire 2008 campaign. Prior to that point, his career was all over the place, ranging from solid numbers and durability to terrible numbers and health similar to Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Unbreakable. The Dodgers took a flier on him last season by agreeing to a minor-league deal that would pay $700,000 should Towers make the majors. The experiment didn’t last long, as he was released toward the end of May. Towers did not resurface anywhere, but he is exactly the type of pitcher that signs these deals. There is a chance his experience could be attractive to a team, even if it confuses being healthy with having talent left.

Claudio Vargas
2010 Team/Salary: Los Angeles Dodgers/Milwaukee Brewers, $0.9 million
The Dodgers and Brewers can’t make their minds up over Vargas. In 2009, the Dodgers signed him to an incentive-laden deal, and traded him to the Brewers midway through the year. Last season, the Brewers released Vargas in June and the Dodgers rostered him until August. It is easy to see where the interest came from, as he put up a 1.74 ERA as a reliever in 2009, but the success was short-lived as the same rate ballooned to 7.32 this year. Relievers are fickle by nature, but Vargas’s ability to serve as a spot starter or swingman should earn him a minor-league deal somewhere.

Todd Wellemeyer
2010 Team/Salary: San Francisco Giants, $1 million
Wellemeyer had a decent 2008 season with the Cardinals, and that is about it, but don’t think for two seconds that teams will look past his one solid season. Even though the rest of his career is a lot like a horror film of performance, Wellemeyer will probably hook up with a team somewhere next season, sometime down the road, as farm depth or an insurance policy if a starter gets hurt. But buyer beware, he doesn’t offer anything other than a name you might recognize.

Micah Owings
2010 Team/Salary: Cincinnati Reds, $0.44 million
Owings is entering his age-28 season, but there is not much hope that he will ever be a successful major-league pitcher. He has swing-and-miss stuff, but has always struggled with his control. Last season the Reds used him sparingly and in a relief role, but the results did not turn out like the team hoped, and his flaws were magnified. He can hit well, but he can’t pitch, though I expect some team might attempt to use him in a Brooks Kieschnick capacity as a dual pitcher and pinch-hitter.

Others?

Fogg, Jason Jennings, Jamie Moyer, Shawn Chacon, and even Orlando Hernandez would be other possibilities. Anyone else you can think of that might ink a minor-league deal?

Eric Seidman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Eric's other articles. You can contact Eric by clicking here

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